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1 - The Struggle with Conviction: A Trio of String Quartets

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 August 2020

George Parsons
Affiliation:
London Seminary
Robert Sholl
Affiliation:
Royal Academy of Music, London
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Summary

In his 2015 interview with John Palmer, James MacMillan makes a distinction between ‘conviction composers’, and ‘others, like me’ who ‘sometimes struggle with conviction’. It is understandable that giving convincing musical expression to strong religious beliefs might be harder in textless concert works than in liturgical settings, and MacMillan seems to have relished the possible contrasts between concert works that are associated with religious topics and those where any engagement with extra-musical themes is less explicit. Two of the three numbered string quartets have titles, and the second has religious connotations that deal with the ‘drama’ of the Jewish Seder Night rituals. The first quartet can also be interpreted as dramatic, and it could well have been an impatience with this aspect that led MacMillan, in a reference to his third quartet, to declare that he was conscious of ‘leaving the extra-musical starting points behind’, writing music that ‘was just the notes and nothing but the notes’. My analysis of all three quartets explores the possibilities of narrative and characterisation in the light of stylistic and expressive qualities that seem to resist any aspirations to pure abstraction, even when direct connections with MacMillan’s more ‘mainstream’ texted compositions are less obvious.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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