North Country

for string quartet

Ian Stephens

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Composer Ian Stephens
Year of Composition 2021
Duration -
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Instrumentation 2 Violins, Viola, Violoncello
Categories (all composers) , ,
Catalogue ID ce-is1nc1

Notes

I           Lilting
II         Heartfelt
III        With abandon

I composed North Country in January 2021, in response to a commission from Paul Bryant, a retired orthopaedic surgeon who has made a number of stringed instruments – including a string quartet – in recent years. This commission came about through a mutual friend, Helen Dodd, who suggested that he should have a new piece of music to celebrate the completion of his quartet of instruments.

Helen put us in touch, and we agreed on a plan: a new piece of about 12 minutes duration in three movements, interwoven throughout with references to the northern English folk tune ‘The Oak and the Ash’. This tune is a great favourite of mine – I love its sudden changes of character – and it proved fertile inspiration for the three movements.

Here is the text of its first verse:

A North Country maid up to London had strayed,
Although with her nature it did not agree.
She wept and she sighed, and so bitterly she cried,
“How I wish once again in the North I could be!
Oh the oak and the ash, and the bonny ivy tree,
They flourish at home in my own country.”

The first movement, marked Lilting, has something of the character of a Scots slow air. It’s built around the melody of ‘The Oak and the Ash’, but transposed to a pentatonic scale, which gives it an open-air, folk-like quality.

The second movement, marked Heartfelt, grows from a rich reharmonisation of an 8-note segment of ‘The Oak and the Ash’. At the centre of the movement is a jaunty and irregular dance-like episode, this time based on an inverted version of the full tune. The movement closes with a return to an extended and more passionate version of its opening material.

The third movement, marked With abandon, draws on Latin-American rhythms, and is structured like a canon, with successive entries of the same material. After entries from first violin, second violin and viola, the full tune of ‘The Oak and the Ash’ appears in recognisable form. The tune gradually recedes, and though the movement appears to be fading into the distance, beware of a little sting in the tail.

Paul dedicates North Country to his wife Vicky.