Jeremy Dale Roberts-Croquis (1979) String Trio
Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin. Morgan Goff-Viola, Neil Heyde-Cello
-this string trio, by one of the great living composers, has been a key work for me ever since I was introduced to it a decade ago. Written in 1979-80, it lay unaccountably neglected, for decades after it’s premiere. It took a while for us to get ready for our first performances, running up to the recording which we made in 2009. There’s a good reason for that. This piece is huge. Not only is it 50 minutes long, but it is 50 minutes of extraordinary concentration, comprising 27 movements which each open onto intricate machineries, vast vistas, gestures of great drama and emotional refinement. I am going to introduce the piece, bit by bit.
Croquis (the title is ambiguous-it can me ‘sketch’ or ‘sketches’) is divided into three sketchbooks, ‘cahiers’, which of course, can also mean ‘exercise books’. These are designed to be player across a concert, with material inbetween-we have played the set with Hotteterre flute pieces as linking material. Jeremy is fascinated with the idea of framing, or staging a concert; when he came to write his great String Quintet for us, he designed it to bracket the interval of the concert.
1. Precipitoso – as fast as possible
This ‘A-B-‘A” movement functions like the ‘overture’ in a baroque suite. The outer sections introduce the tumultous extremes of virtuosity, counterpoint verging on chaos, the extremes of volume, the ‘ardua-ad-astra’ which croquis will explore. The middle section offers a first glimpse of the composer’s fascination with a glowing chordal sonority, changing impalpably, like the move around the visible spectrum.
This is the first movement to divide the ensemble between duo and solo. The binary nature of this movement is between the angelic duo of violin and viola, hovering in similar register, and a concertante cello line of enormous difficulty and concentration. Working with Jeremy on this movement, he asked for the upper parts to be ‘glowing’ but ‘tight’ in sound. The ‘solo’ line of the cello, he asked to begin, in an extreme contrast , ‘monochrome’. It’s just impossible to avoid thinking of painting when working with the composer on such music. And while listening to this , I find that Michael Hersch’s music is in my mind. I won’t say anymore than to point in the direction of Hersch’s ‘In the snowy margins’. Here’s the premiere, and the first page, on my practice desk-I tend to do all my practice with a baroque bow (for reasons of praticality and silence)LINK
A feature of Jeremy’s music, is that time travels at different speeds, simultaneously. At first hearing, this movement appears to be an accompanied viola vocalise, followed by a coda of gently rippling pizzicato. However, closer listening reveals that the accompaniment (violin cello) are traversals of simulacra of the viola solo, at different speeds, but similar pitches, a heterophonic halo of prefiguring and trailing (fast and slow) the melody. The coda is, on second hearing, an earthbound, dissonant (though ‘ppp’) version of the same melodic material. And this, for me, is the first of the movements to call up the ghosts of other musics; the very first note-pizzicator and arco harmonics together, calling Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete to memory, both in sound and conception. Jeremy spoke of the solo viola here as ‘innocence’.
4. Croquis 1
Each of the three ‘cahiers’ that make up the whole of ‘Croquis’ contains its own ‘croquis’ movement. In years of talking to Jeremy it is clear that he loves the subtleties which emerge when languages, music and art intersect (most of the time!). There is clearly more than a little ambiguity in the titling and placing of these three movements. My reaction to them, is that one ‘meaning’ (a word that I am trying to use lightly) is that these are themselves gestures to the acts of sketching, be it painting, drawing or even sculpture. This one almost feels like a piece of sculpture, and reminds me of some Arp that I drew in San Francisco.
Much of this piece plays the ‘plate-spinning trick’, of keeping more than 3 voices ‘aloft’ at the same time. When Tchiakvosky wrote his ‘Souvenir de Florence’ in 1892, he was so amused by the prospect of six players trying to play the 8 lines of his four-part double fugue, that he fell off his chair laughing. he would have liked ‘Sextet’ written for tree players on six lines.
This movement, ‘rockets’, is really, a series of precisely framed silences-3″, 2″, 1″, 4″, 5″, with a glowing ‘a’ harmonic at the centre, passed around different ‘natural’ methods of producing it, by all three players. These are marked ‘dolce’ leading to the inevitable laughter-filled discussion as to whether you ‘can’ or are ‘allowed’ to play natural harmonics with vibrato. There are a lot of odd taboos on string instruments-some of which are best ignored!
From the outside, this movement sounds very different to how it is notated. Like the previous, it makes use of very precisely notated silences-‘2, 4″, 2″, 6″‘. The notated material is marked ‘crochet=60′, but I have to emphasise that a rhythmic pulse of ’60’ (the universal resting tempo) is entirely different from seconds passing. There are four plaints-the first of 4 beats, followed by 10 seconds, the second of 6 beats followed by 3 seconds, the third of 2 beats followed by 13 seconds. The last of the outbursts, which Jeremy asked to be played ‘not completely over-harsh'(!), is of twelve beats, and Jeremy had us mark it ‘Tempo Giusto’. The result of all this, something very human, but overlayered with various rigours to preserve the steel core, the structure which is so vital to this expressive material.
8. Solo 1.-Pathétique
There is a theme of ‘triptyches’running across this cycle. One of these groupings is three ‘solos’. This one, for the violin, has three interjections from the viola and cello. Theses are not accompaniments, but rather, scraps of another conversation. When I was studying with Norbert Brainin, he pointed out how often, particularly in Beethoven, material appeared, which was best understood, like this, theatrically: “You must, you see, play as if you were having a conversation, whispering, over in the corner of the stage”. I love to think about this idea as being linked to the clusters of ‘people-like’ figures who gossip around the buildings in a Canatletto. They crowd into the margins of my notebooks too, more writing than drawing-something which Hogarth more than hinted at in his ‘Analysis of Beauty’. Jeremy insisted that the violin part here should be Brahmsian. which he meant, having the tenor of a virtuoso playing the Brahms concerto. I like to think of Jpseph Joachim playing this material.
9. Sommeil-pour les violes
There is a strong current of baroque/classical French art running through the whole of this piece. This ‘sleep-for viols’ seems to me, like the first nod in the direction of Watteau and Valenciennes and the highly layered symbolism of their ‘Fêtes galantes’. The cello and viola play this piece as a duo. They can pass for viols; the violin, never.
12. Croquis 2
14. Centering (dispersed at first; gradually ravelling together
15. Pas de Deux
19. Sapphic Fragment
I love the idea of the fragment, the ‘ostraka’. Something broken, thrown away, which can find a new meaning, as a vote, as shattered poetry. There are more fragments of Sappho than complete poems. Here’s one, which Herodian quotes in ‘On Anomalous Words’, one of the works he dedicated to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. “I do not expect to touch the sky (with my two arms)”. The cello has tuned the C String to B flat-setting up the the next movements. Re-tuning, ‘scordatura’ would become central to the large Quintet which Jeremy finished for us in 2012.
20. Minstrel–21. Solo 3- Mesto
Minstrel, is a duo for violin and cello-again, it seems, a character who has wondered out of Watteu, with a lute. A meandering viola solo ripples around their strumming, which is overtaken by a mourning cello soliloquy, taking advantage of the low tuning of the bottom string to find the darkest moments of the piece. The violin/minstrel still appears to be wondering around, pizzicatoing away with little regard for the tragedy which has overtaken the cello.
22. “From the Chinese”
This movement is in ‘ a-b-a-b form, in the top two parts, which move between crystalline bird song and a ‘col legno’ dance machine, fast and soft. The cello takes no notice, singing away from a distance ‘cantabile nel lontano-(without nuances)’. I asked the composer about the title. His answer was cryptic!: “…that is, in translation….”
This is the ultimate ‘every man for himself’. None of the material is orginal, all of it, ‘found’. Fragments, like the Sapphic remant, objects left by the side of the road, or the company that a composer keeps. All of them are in their original keys, but presented in ever more subtle and crazy ways-kculminating with the cello playing the violin part of the Debussy violin sonata in harmonics. You may hear-Britten-Stravinsky (various)- Berg-Beethoven-Debussy-Janacek-Elgar-Lutowslawski-Mozart-Bartok-Vivaldi-…but there are many more crowding into the 2 minutes!
24. Croquis III
The most ‘glowing’ movement of the lot-a masterclass in how to write for muted strings. The ‘Debussy gesture’ that ends the previous movement sets up a spiders web of resonance to enmesh this long line handed from cello, to violin, to viola, to violin an back to cello.
25. Etude a 3
This movement is really three ‘studies’, all at once. Th =e violin part is, no doubt, one of the most physically punishing passages in the repertoire, with more than a nod to the Hindemith ‘Kammermusik No. 6’
This ‘Trio’ is three musicians in the room at the same time, playing. There’s no dialogue, and each player explores material from earlier in their traversals of the piece. The viola insists on their material from movement 11 ‘Deciso’.
Nowhere is Jeremy Dale Roberts’ sensitivity to poetry more evident than here. This is a 14 bar musical sonnet, divided up into units of 4-4-2-2-2 bars.Section one is a ‘broken unison’, which is re-introduced, in the last two bar section. The composer was very insistent that we take the ‘morbidezza’ seriously at the beginning of ‘section 3’.