Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Healey Willan's Quest for a String Quartet

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Healey Willan's Quest for a String Quartet

Article excerpt

Healey Willan's activity as a composer of chamber music dates mainly from the earlier part of his career, an activity which culminated in the years 1915-16 (by which time the composer was living in Canada) with the appearance of his three greatest accomplishments in the realm of chamber music: the Piano Trio in B Minor, the Variations and Epilogue for two pianos, and the Sonata No. 1 in E Minor for Violin and Piano. After 1916 just a few small chamber pieces appeared (both original and arrangements) as well as that deliberate Baroque imitation, the Sonata No. 2 in E Major for Violin and Piano (1921). The composition of both the Piano Trio in B Minor and the Violin Sonata No. 1 had begun prior to 1913, while the composer was still living in England.

One might well wonder why, since the string quartet was still the most prestigious (as well as the most common) medium of chamber music at the time, Willan did not produce a string quartet himself. A glance at the list of his major chamber works cited above will show that they all involve the piano. Amongst Willan's many unfinished manuscripts dating from his pre-1913 England days there are fragments of a Piano Quartet in A Minor (titled "The Heroic"), a Piano Trio in D Minor and two more sonatas for violin and piano, all adding to the list of chamber works involving the piano. Was Willan, in fact, like Schumann and some other Romantic composers, more at home in composing for chamber ensembles which included the rich sonorities of the piano than for the more ascetic medium of the string quartet? This may well be true. A pertinent factor here might be Willan's acknowledged admiration for the music of Brahms at the time he was working on these pieces, and the fact that for a while he had studied piano with a noted authority on the piano music of Brahms, Evlyn Howard-Jones.

If Willan did not find the medium of the string quartet congenial to his musical idiom it was not for want of trying. An examination of the composer's unfinished manuscripts from the first decade of the century reveals that he may have attempted as many as four different string quartets during that time. Two of these attempts, thirty measures of an "Energico" movement in G minor and eight measures of an "Allegro energico" in D minor are of little importance, though the D minor opening starts promisingly enough:

The other two attemps involve a sizeable amount of music for several movements (unfortunately none of them completed) intended for string quartets in E minor and C minor.

In the Healey Willan Catalogue Giles Bryant (1972) lists four unfinished movements as constituting an unfinished String Quartet in E Minor (B.109): Allegro energico, Adagio, Lento e lugubre, and Finale (Rondo). He then states that it is "not certain" that the Lento e lugubre belongs to the quartet. I would go further and declare that neither the Lento nor the Finale belong, since they are both in C minor and it is highly unlikely that Willan at this stage of his career (1903-05) would have had the first two movements in E minor and the last two in C minor all in the same work! It is much more likely that the above movements were intended for two different quartets, and the following discussion of the music will proceed on this assumption.

There are no less than eight unfinished versions of the first movement, Allegro energico, of the String Quartet in E Minor: four for string quartet (one dated 1903), two for piano trio, one for organ and one for piano. Of the four versions for string quartet only one is near to completeness and is titled "Phantasy for Two Violins, Viola and Cello" rather than "String Quartet." It might well be the earliest version.1 Some 200 measures long, it seems to sketch the outline of the complete movement, but often the measures are filled only by a single melodic line (especially in the second half) and it is not really possible to achieve a full knowledge of the movement from this. …

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