Edward Harper (1941–2009)
Three Folk Settings for string quartet
Each of Edward Harper’s Three Folk Settings places a familiar tune – one English, one Welsh, one Scottish – in the context of music for string quartet which enhances or in some way amplifies the folk-tune’s expressive content. ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ is based on a sad ballad sung by a girl who is disowned by her family for marrying a sailor. The sailor drowns at sea, and she is left alone. The rocking figuration of the opening suggests both the movement of waves and the girl’s love. The tune, when it comes, is heard in a condensed form in the middle of the texture, and repeated in stark block chords against which a chromatic rising line in viola and cello represents the girl’s anguish.
The second piece, ‘The Ash Grove’, is in a sense two settings in one. The fragmented textures of the opening gradually coalesce to introduce a falling pentatonic motif which sounds as if it could be the incipit of a folk-tune. But in fact this is an instrumental version of Harper’s setting of a poem by Edward Thomas, from his song-cycle Lights Out (1993; for soprano, recorder, cello and harpsichord). The folk melody of the same name arrives later, introduced as though in response to the words of the poem (‘… I heard a girl sing / The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed’). In the quartet version, of course, we do not hear the words sung, but the sense remains of the folksong quotation as separate, set apart from the prevailing texture in cello harmonics and muted high violin and viola. Ghostly transcription of what was already a ghostly moment in the song, this music is twice haunted.
‘Mairi’s Wedding’ is the brief, rousing conclusion to the set: ‘Step it gaily, off we go / Heel for heel and toe for toe.’