Naxos Quartet No. 3

For string quartet


33 minutes



Dedication Eric Guest

Commissioned by Naxos





Violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello


1. March
2. In Nomine
3. Four Inventions and a Hymn
4. Fugue


Composer Notes

The intention with Naxos Quartet No. 3 was to create a work exploring the compositional potentialities of a magic square of Saturn (3 x 3) within one of Mars (5 x 5) within one of Venus (7 x 7) – all this alongside an independent square of the Moon (9 x 9), with the associated isometric disciplines, based upon the plainsong proper to the celebration of St. Cecilia on November 22nd, ‘Audi filia et vide’. In this way I set myself creative problems whose intricacy and complexity posed new and formidable challenges. This concentrated attempt at virtuoso composition owed much to a restudy of Bach’s two and three part keyboard inventions, and was intended, eventually, to be an honest contribution to musical literature honouring its patron Saint. However, during the course of composition, March and April 2003, external events affected the Quartet’s unfolding – the invasion of Iraq.

The first movement, ‘March’, starts with a short exposition (C minor), followed by a varied repeat: there is little hint thus far of any music suggestive of the title. The following development, however, gradually transforms the material into a military march of a fatuous and splintered nature, after which there is, in place of any expected recapitulation, a brief, slow meditation, then by way of a coda, a ghost of the march, in a very slow tempo, drained of all energy, forms a tonal resolution in the correct key: the bones of the march are now exposed as a strict mensural canon. The movement dismisses this with a brief ‘maestoso’.

The second movement, a slow ‘In Nomine’, doesn’t at first make use of the ‘Gloria Tibi Trinitas’ plainsong common to Renaissance In Nomines, but draws heavily on their polyphonic techniques, while exploring further ramifications of the plainsong with magic squares encountered in the first movement. When the music comes to a resolution on a low G major chord, the violins take up the argument left hanging in the air at the close of the first Naxos Quartet – there it evaporated into the highest ether and silence. Now, in the course of this material’s swift descent from upon high, we are prepared for the appearance of the ‘In Nomine’ melody in its original form, going back to John Taverner’s early sixteenth century ‘Gloria Tibi Trinitas’ Mass and the organ transcription in the contemporaneous ‘Mulliner Book’ which uses that section of the Mass setting the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” – blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord: – this ‘In Nomine’ is quietly distorted and dissonant – i.e. very much not ‘in Nomine.’

The third movement, ‘Four Inventions and a Hymn’ stands in for a Scherzo. It takes up the thread left from the first Naxos Quartet in the previous movement, borrowing more of the techniques of Bach’s Inventions, but the character is burlesque, becoming even grotesque towards the end, where the short Hymn is marked “stucchevole” – cloying, nauseating.

The finale, ‘Fugue’, begins with successive instrumental entries in period style, recalling the typical procedure of the form. This is soon interrupted and replaced by quicker, more dynamic music, suggesting the Italian ‘fuga’ (flight) rather than the form Bach perfected. The movement ends with a return to the initial slow tempo, with part only of a cumulative stretto – one has to imagine that the period-style fugue will, meantime, have (silently!) progressed thus far. This is another mensural canon, recalling the March’s ghost towards the end of the first movement, the ‘In nomine’ quoted at the close of the second and the Hymn which ends the third. Here, in unison with the ‘cello line, I imagine a baritone voice, quietly intoning Michaelangelo’s words:

“Mentre che’l danno e la vergogna dura;
Non veder, non sentir m’ gran ventura:
Per_ non mi destar, deh, parla basso.” (While damage and shame persist, it is my great fortune to neither see nor hear – so please do not disturb me, and speak quietly.)

The closing measures, however, show that it is just impossible to neither see, nor hear.

The Quartet is dedicated to my oldest school-friend, Eric Guest.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Roderic Dunnett


The Third in Max’s emerging series of ten Naxos Quartets is a galvanising work of abstract art in its own right. Yet almost by chance and from the outset, an agenda crept in, as the Middle East exploded with the allied invasion of Iraq – an event to which Max was, and remains, utterly (and vocally) opposed. The varied ways in which these events impact upon the piece, surfacing almost involuntarily in a deliberately ‘nasty’ little satirical Mahlerian march, in the intentionally ‘cloying, nauseating grotesquerie’ at the end of the scherzo and in a consciously malevolent treatment of John Taverner’s ‘In Nomine’ (‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’) – a bitter, twisted reference to both the ‘godlessness’ of war and the betrayal at the heart of Davies’ first opera – confirms that the provocative Davies of the 1960s has certainly not changed his spots. The fact that this slow movement is another of Max’s gorgeously lyrical, string-borne idylls only heightens the irony. Yet this quartet with its fugal finale remains, above all, a model of Davies’ sculpting art, with its unceasing deployment of overt and concealed technique, fine-honed tracery and (paradoxically, for a chamber work) cathedral-like proportioning: in short, a masterwork.


First Performance

Wigmore Hall, London

15 October 2003,

Maggini Quartet