Here is The Guardian’s list of The Best Classical Works of the 21st Century, published in September 2019. (Rankings in brackets). 12 of the 25 are opera/music theatre. Eight of the composers are women, 17 men.

2000: Heiner Goebbels Hashirigaki. Music theatre (9)
2000: Kaija Saariaho L’Amour de Loin. Opera (6)
2003: Jonathan Harvey String Quartet No 4. With live electronics(8)
2003: Olga Neuwirth Lost Highway. Opera (13)
2003: Jennifer Walsh XXX Live Nude Girls. Opera (25)
2004: Max Richter The Blue Notebooks. Song cycle (21)
2007: David Lang Little Match Girl Passion. Choral (15)
2008: Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur. Opera (3)
2008: Pascal Dusapin Passion. Opera (14)
2009: John Adams City Noir. Orchestral (24)
2009: Thomas Adès The Tempest. Opera (5)
2009: Louis Andriessen La Commedia. Opera (7)
2009: Unsuk Chin Cello Concerto. (12)
2011: Steve Reich WTC 9/11. String quartet, pre-recorded voices (17)
2012: Gerald Barry The Importance of Being Earnest. Opera. (11)
2012: George Benjamin Written on Skin. Opera (2)
2013: Hans Abrahamsen: Let Me Tell You. Orchestral song cycle (1)
2013: John Luther Adams Become Ocean. Orchestral (10)
2013: Caroline Shaw Partita. Vocal octet (20)
2014: Linda Catlin Smith Piano Quintet. Chamber (22)
2015: Cassandra Miller Duet for cello and orchestra. Concerto (19)
2016: James MacMillan Stabat Mater. Choral (23)
2016: Rebecca Saunders Skin. Soprano and 13 instruments (16)
2017: Brett Dean Hamlet. Opera (18)
2018: György Kurtág Fin de Partie. Opera. (4)

Fifty Modern Classics list can be seen here:


On Twitter, I’ve been charting 101 British string quartets composed between 1918 and 2018 – not really a “best of” list (which is impossible), but more to showcase the incredible diversity of composers still willing to add to the imposing existing repertoire of works, using a wide range of styles and techniques. I’m also not saying that British quartets are better than those from other geographies – it’s simply that I’ve studied the music of Britain in more depth, and have a little more chance of identifying the landmark works. So here is the (slightly revised and expanded) list in full, complete with comments and also direct links to recordings where available – surprisingly, the vast majority of them have been recorded. To see the original posts, go to Twitter and search for #BSQ and “string quartet”.

1. Edward Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, op 83 (1918).
One of the three chamber pieces of this period that were to be Elgar’s last major works. It was premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May, 1919.

2. Charles Villiers Stanford: String Quartet No 8 (1919).
His final quartet, still in line with German chamber music tradition, in a minor key and generally introspective. It remained unpublished and unperformed until 1968.

3. York Bowen: String Quartet No 3 in G major, op 46(b) (1919)
Only two of Bowen’s very English-sounding quartets have survived, the first is lost. The third is the more lyrical, melancholic and elusive of the two survivors.

4. E J Moeran: String Quartet No 1 in A minor (1921).
Well received, then quickly forgotten. Energetic, melodic allegro; autumnal and quiet andante con moto; restless rondo, in turns nervous and reflective.

5. William Walton: String Quartet No 1 (1922).
Walton himself was dismissive of this early quartet – “full of undigested Bartók and Schoenberg” – but there’s no denying the power of the final fugue.

6. Bernard van Dieren: String Quartet No 4 (1923).
Scored for an unorthodox combination of two violins, viola and double bass. The unusually accessible (for van Dieren) final dance movement at 16.45 is the easiest starting point.

7. Rutland Boughton: String Quartet in A major (1923).
Boughton wrote two quartets in 1923. This one is subtitled On Greek Folk Songs, but folk sources are not specified. Uses classical form with rhapsodic passages.

8. Arnold Bax: String Quartet No 2 in A minor (1924-5). Composed at the same time as the 2nd Symphony. “Complex, brooding, as harmonically daring as Bax ever ventured”.

9. Rebecca Clarke: Two Movements for String Quartet (1924-6).
Comodo Amabile is a single movement from an intended full quartet, composed in 1924. It was followed two years later by Poem (aka Adagio). OUP published the two together in 2004.

10. Frank Bridge: String Quartet No 3 (1926-7).
Bridge’s Third Quartet “contains the best of me I do not doubt”. Anthony Payne called it “The first work to show Bridge’s late manner in full flight, all impurities filtered out”.

11. Imogen Holst: Phantasy Quartet (1928).
This student work, modal and pastoral in style, won the Cobbett Prize for an original chamber composition, and was first broadcast in 1929. Revived at the BBC Proms in 2013.

12. Charles Wood: String Quartet in F major.
Written during the war but only published (posthumously) in 1929, the quartet opens with a sombre, fugal poco adagio. Wood, an influential teacher, composed six quartets.

13. Gordon Jacob: String Quartet No 2.
It was first played at Conway Hall on 5 November 1931. “[Hubert] Foss and [Ralph] Greaves both tell me that the 2nd Quartet was the best thing in the programme” wrote Vaughan Williams.

14. Bernard van Dieren: String Quartet No 5 (1931).
The exact date may be earlier: Denis ApIvor (who called out the “beautiful Adagio” of No 5), says Peter Warlock saw the score before his death in Dec 1930.

15. John Foulds: String Quartet No 9. Quartetto Intimo (1932).
Championed for years by Malcolm Macdonald, whose work led to its first performance in 1980 by the Endellion Quartet, followed by this landmark recording.

16. Granville Bantock: In a Chinese Mirror, (1933).
Genial and melodic work derived from his first set of Songs From the Chinese Poems (1918). In need of revival (last broadcast by the Lyric Quartet on 13 Oct 1996). Score and parts available.

17. Edric Cundell: String Quartet in C, op 27. (1933).
This “unflaggingly energetic” quartet won first prize in the Daily Telegraph chamber music competition. Cundell was Principal at the Guildhall School of Music from the late 1930s until the late 1950s.

18. Lennox Berkeley: String Quartet No 1, op 6 (1935).
More astringent than might be expected, but still classically poised in the familiar Berkeley manner and full of masterly counterpoint.

19. John Blackwood McEwen: Quartet No 15 (1936)
Subtitled A Little Quartet in modo scotico . Not really little. McEwan wrote an impressive cycle of 19 quartets (17 numbered) between 1893 and 1947.

20. Arnold Bax: String Quartet No 3 (1936).
Written for the legendary Griller Quartet. Third movement contest between “malicious” scherzo and “dreamy, romantic” trio (the scherzo wins).

21. Elizabeth Maconchy: String Quartet No 3 (1938).
Although brief (in a single movement) it was the first of her 13 quartets to really reveal her individual voice. It was played at the Proms in 2013.

22. Priaulx Rainier: String Quartet in C minor.
Nothing from a British-based composer like this had been heard before, it points towards the mature quartets of Britten and Tippett. She awaits revival.

23. Arthur Bliss: String Quartet No 1 in Bb (1940).
Like Britten’s first quartet (1941), this piece was written in America and first performed there. Bliss returned to the UK in 1941, leaving his family in California.

24. Lennox Berkeley: String Quartet No 2, op 15 (1941).
The slow movement in particular is classic, French-influence, lyrical and free-form Berkeley at his most beautiful, but surrounded by structured, energetic and idiomatic outer movements still surprising in their ferocity.

25. Michael Tippett: String Quartet No 2 in F# major (1942).
A brilliant quartet full of lyricism and dancing rhythms, with (from 6.31) an unsettling 2nd movement Fugue echoing Beethoven’s C# minor, op 131.

26. Egon Wellesz: String Quartet No 5, op 60 (1943).
Wellesz fled to England from Austria in 1938. The fifth quartet marked his return to composition after all the trauma had silenced him for several years.

27. Vaughan Williams: String Quartet No 2 in A minor (1942-4).
First performed by the Menges Quartet on 12 October 1944 (the composer’s 72nd birthday) at one of the wartime Myra Hess National Gallery lunchtime concerts.

28. Benjamin Britten: String Quartet No 2 in C major, op 36 (1945).
“A most original and beautiful composition, one of the compositions of the century” (Michael Kennedy). Final movement Chacony shows the influence of Purcell.

29. Imogen Holst: String Quartet No 1 (1946)
Imogen Holst found her personal voice in the 1940s in works such as this and the Serenade for flute, viola and bassoon, including a move away from modal harmony towards scales of her own devising, increasingly dissonant.

30. William Walton: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1947).
Closely related to his Symphony No 1. I first heard it in the vintage 1949 recording by the Hollywood String Quartet.

31. William Wordsworth: String Quartet No 3 (1948).
“One of the composer’s most powerful works” (Paul Conway). “Of dark and sombre beauty” (Michael Kennedy). First performed 1 July, 1948 at Cheltenham.

32. Peter Racine Fricker: String Quartet No 1, op 8.
A single movement work, influenced by Michael Tippett’s first three quartets, by his teacher Mátyás Seiber, and by Seiber’s enthusiasm for Bartok.

33. John Joubert: String Quartet No 1 in A Flat Major.
The composer’s opus one, and the first of his three quartets, clearly influenced by William Walton but full of its own vitality.

34. Matyas Seiber: String Quartet No 3, Quartetto Lirico (1951).
Dedicated to the Amadeus String Quartet and recorded by them. The calm of the final Lento is very characteristic of Seiber’s later works. This was his last quartet.

35. Elisabeth Lutyens: String Quartet No 6, Op.25 (1952)
In two movements. Shows her mature style, written over a single 12 hour sitting and dedicated to Francis Bacon – who could also work at great speed.

36. Robert Simpson: String Quartet No 2 (1953).
A single movement piece, perhaps the central movement of a trilogy (numbers 1, 2 and 3), bridging the cheerfulness of the first with the melancholy of the third.

37. Carlo Martelli: String Quartet No 2 (1954).
As a young composer, until the early 1960s, Martelli enjoyed more success than any of his generation (Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Richard Rodney Bennett). A BBC broadcast of this quartet is available.

38. Alan Rawsthorne: String Quartet No 2 (1954).
Rawsthorne’s own favourite and (said John McCabe) “one of the finest from any British composer”. The finale (theme and three variations) is particularly striking.

39. Roberto Gerhard: String Quartet No 1 (1956).
Showing off his personal combination of classical tonal form and serialism that became important in his later works.

40. Brian Boydell: String Quartet No 2, op 44 (1957).
With his second quarter, the Irish composer moved beyond “celtic twilight” to forge his own language, including use of the octatonic scale.

41. Wilfred Josephs: String Quartet No 2, op 17 (1957-8).
Josephs wrote four quartets between 1954 and 1981, along with much other chamber music. All his music is neglected these days, but especially the chamber music.

42. Arthur Benjamin: String Quartet No 2 (1959).
Australian-born Arthur Benjamin was a diverse and prolific composer who deserves to be remembered for more than just the Jamaican Rumba of 1938. His first quartet (Pastoral Fantasy) dates back to 1923.

43. Peter Maxwell Davies: String Quartet No 1 (1961).
Very early Max – Plainsong fragments, influences of Monteverdi, Bach, late Beethoven and Schoenberg, overshadowed these days by the Little Quartet series and the 10 Naxos Quartets.

44. Hugh Wood: String Quartet No 1 (1962).
The first of five. “A vivid essay in Schoenbergian tension, scampering expansions and sinister urgency.” (Rob Barnett).

45. Bernard Stevens: String Quartet No 2 (1962)
His chamber music masterpiece, full of fluid counterpoint and balancing his interests as a tonal composer with an exploration of serial techniques. His use of two 12-note rows divided into major and minor triads for contrast is an audible process.

46. Edmund Rubbra: String Quartet No 3 (1963).
In three, interlinked movements. “Lyrical song is the motivating force of the work” said the composer.

47. Benjamin Frankel: String Quartet No 5 (1965).
His greatest quartet and one of his finest works. In 1967 Stanley Sadie wrote: “a gentle, attractive piece, tonal (although 12 note) full of smooth sweet intervals [and] swaying, reiterated figures”.

48. David Wynne: String Quartet No 3 (1966).
Michael Tippett was a supporter of this Welsh composer of five quartets, and Bartok a significant influence. This piece is tough and uncompromising.

49. Graham Whettam: String Quartet No 1 (1960-67)
The first of four quartets. The string chamber music is as central to Whettam’s output as the symphonies and solo percussion works are.

50. Cyril Scott: String Quartet No 4 (1968).
Incredible that Scott (flourished circa 1900s) was still composing in the late 1960s when he was in his late 80s and his harmonic language was still evolving. Amazing also to have a recording.

51. Hans Gal: String Quartet No 3 in B minor, op 94 (1969). Hans Gal’s first two quartets were written before his exile to the UK. The last two are Edinburgh works. This one premiered by the Edinburgh Quartet in 1970.

(51A. I couldn’t miss out the String Quartet No 5 from fellow émigré composer Joseph Horovitz, first performed in 1969 at the V&A Museum. “His most profound work”: Daniel Snowman.)

52. Lennox Berkeley: String Quartet No 3, op 76 (1970).
Composed three decades after its predecessor, and just after his Third Symphony. “A beautiful product of Berkeley’s full maturity” (Hubert Culot).

53. Elizabeth Maconchy: String Quartet No 10
Premiered in Cheltenham, July 1972. In one movement. Everything derived from (and subsequently linked by) the opening viola solo.

54. Robert Simpson: String Quartet No 4 (1973)
Appeared two decades on from No 3, it was the first of three to come out in rapid succession, written as extended variations on the three Beethoven Rasumovsky Quartets.

55. Malcolm Arnold: String Quartet No 2 (1975).
“Disturbing, beautifully crafted, on a par with the greatest contemporary quartets of Britten, Simpson or Shostakovich” (Piers Burton-Page).

56. William Alwyn: String Quartet No 2 Spring Waters (1975).
“My careless years, my precious days, like the waters of springtime, have melted away” (Turgenev). Alwyn was 70 years old.

57. Benjamin Britten: String Quartet No 3, op 94 (1975).
Britten’s last completed major work and perhaps his most personal, especially the E Major passacaglia finale.

58. Alexander Goehr: String Quartet No 3, op 37 (1976).
“Involvingly knotty – a composer as released as much as trapped by tradition” (Tom Service). It’s “assured serial modality” (Grove) was surprising following on from his modal white note setting of Psalm iv.

59. Edmund Rubbra: String Quartet No 4, op 150 (1977).
Rubbra’s final quartet, in two concentrated movements with themes relating to his 11th Symphony. Dedicated to Robert Simpson, but also a memorial piece for a friend, ending peacefully.

60. Minna Keal: String Quartet, op 1 (1978).
Pressured in 1929 to give up composing, Minna Keaal was encouraged to resume after her retirement (aged 69) by Justin Connolly, this concentrated quartet was her first official new work.

61. Thomas Wilson: String Quartet No 4 (1978).
Commissioned by the Edinburgh String Quartet, it’s a single movement piece but with five distinct sections. Uncompromising, abstract. “Its ideas and cells are unfolded with economy and elegance.”

62. Andrzej Panufnik: String Quartet No 2 Messages (1980).
Abstract, yet highly personal work drawing on memories from the composer’s Polish childhood of sounds produced by telegraph wires vibrating in the wind.

63. Brian Ferneyhough: String Quartet No 2 (1980).
Ferneyhough’s six string quartets embody the definition (by Christopher Fox) of “The New Cmoplexity”. “Multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring simultaneously within every dimension”.

No 64. David Matthews: String Quartet No 4, op 27 (1981).
Matthews has written 13 quartets. He calls this one the closest he’s got “to the classical archetype”. The emotional centre is the third movement adagio sostenuto.

65. William Alwyn: String Quartet No 3 (1984).
His last major work. In two movements, the long and mostly elegiac second movement adagio includes a characteristic waltz at its centre.

66. Elizabeth Maconchy: String Quartet No 13 Quartetto Corto (1984).
Only eight minutes long and highly compressed, with three identifiable movements within, including an expressive central slow movement.

67. Julian Anderson: String Quartet No 1 Light Music (1985).
Perhaps the first example of “spatial music” from a British composer, but not performed until 2013 at the Aldeburgh Festival (by the Arditti String Quartet).

68: William Mathias: String Quartet No 3, op 97 (1986).
His last quartet (though another was in progress at his death). Shostakovich is an influence on the dark first movement, Britten in the dance-like finale.

69. Alan Ridout: String Quartet No 3 (1987).
Ridout’s quartets are tightly constructed, very individual and can be quirky and rugged, but also surprisingly lyrical. No 3 begins with an intriguing fugue.

70. James MacMillan: String Quartet No 1 Visions of a November Spring (1988, rev. 1991).
‘Sheer frenzy, craziness’ (MacMillan). Janus-like synthesis of contrasting old and new influences. First movement built around a sustained, single note.

71. John Tavener: String Quartet No 1 The Hidden Treasure (1989).
“I dreamed The Hidden Treasure in the form of twenty-five notes. […] as a Byzantine palindrome representing ‘Paradise'”. (John Tavener). The steps of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ are suggested throughout.

72. Berthold Goldschmidt: String Quartet No 3 (1988-9).
Reflects the 85 year-old composer’s renewed memory of anti-semitism, set off by a visit to Germany. (The 2nd Quartet of 1936 had first marked his “fearful joy” at escaping the Nazis).

73. Robert Simpson: String Quartet No 14 (1991).
First since No 6 (of 1975) to adopt a four-movement classical design. “One of the most beautifully transparent quartet slow movements this century. (Matthew Taylor).

74. Michael Tippett: String Quartet No 5 (1990-91).
Paired down textures and a renewed lyricism recalling his much earlier work. Soaring solo violin in the 2nd movement inspired by song of the nightingale.

75. Graham Fitkin: Servant for String Quartet (1992).
Starts with characteristic rhythmic unison, then opens out into two, three and four part polyphony. Fitkin has composed six quartets to date.

76. Daniel Jones: String Quartet No 8 (1993).
His very last composition. Giles Easterbrook and Malcolm Binney created a performing edition that was used for the Chandos recording.

77. Nicholas Maw: String Quartet No 3 (1994).
Set as a five movement in one structure that culminates (like Britten’s Third) with a concluding, expressive passacaglia.

78. Jonathan Harvey: String Quartet No 3 (1995).
Textures are highly fragmented but there is underlying structure. Influence of electronics. (The Fourth Quartet of 2003 was to explicitly add live electronics).

79. Adrian Jack: String Quartet No 3 (1996).
No less than the Arditti Quartet rescued Adrian Jack from total recorded music oblivion, with recordings of four of his six quartets, the third is his most traditional.

80. Leonard Salzedo: String Quartet No 10, op 140 (1997).
One movement, but defined sections: a characteristic perpetuum mobile presto, an andante with solo cello, a weird pizzicato scherzo, and a fugal allegro.

81. Nicola LeFanu: String Quartet No 2 (1997).
Carrying on the string quartet tradition of (and dedicated to) her mother Elizabeth Maconchy. Musical equivalent to a sonnet. “Points of unison act like rhymes.”

82. Sally Beamish: String Quartet No 2, Opus California (1999).
Reflection on Beethoven’s op 18 No 4. In the first, “Boardwalk”, tiny fragments come together into a sequence of sprung rhythms, approaching jazz.

83. Mervyn Burtch: String Quartet No 13 (2000).
Burtch wrote 17 quartets between 1985 and 2013, one of the most significant contributions to the genre to come out of Wales.

84. Stephen Dodgson: String Quartet No 6 (2001).
Five continuous neo-Baroque style movements. Dodgson wrote nine numbered quartets between 1984 and 2006, and four much earlier unnumbered ones between 1948 and 1959.

85. Peter Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartet No 1 (2002).
The first time a record company sponsored a cycle of compositions? Ten Naxos quartets commissioned, composed, recorded (2002-2007). “Like ten chapters of a novel” (PMD).

86. James Clarke: String Quartet No 1 (2003).
More “new complexity”, written for the Arditti Quartet and first performed at the Huddersfield Festival. Clarke has written four quartets, the latest in 2017.

87. Sadie Harrison: Geda’s Weavings (2004).
Three movements, draws together strands and threads on a Lithuanian theme. Harrison was born in Australia but moved to the UK in 1970 aged five years old.

88. Dave Flynn: String Quartet No 2, The Cranning (2004–2005).
Heavily influenced by the techniques of traditional Irish music. “Cranning” is ornamentation used by Uilleann Pipe players.

89. Michael Finnissy: String Quartet No 2 (2006-7).
Starting point is Haydn’s op 64 No 5 which sometimes emerges in blurred and distorted form. With no score, the parts are intended to drift slightly apart.

90. Matthew Taylor: String Quartet No 5, op 35 (2007).
“Adopts a pacifying process as a volatile Allegro unfolds into a spacious fugue before easing into a delicate lullaby”. Taylor has written eight quartets to date.

91. Edward Cowie: String Quartet No 5, Birdsong Bagatelles (2008).
Made up of a cycle of short pieces inspired by the voices and flight characteristics of 24 common British birds and evocations of their habitat.

92. Mark-Anthony Turnage: Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad (2008).
His second work for string quartet. Two of the three movements are reflections on music by Led Zeppelin, the middle movement a Funeral Blues.

93. Gordon Crosse: String Quartet No 2, Good to be Here (2010).
In contrast to new complexity, Crosse turned to simplicity after joining the Quakers in 2009. Now in his eighties, Crosse has written five quartets since 2010.

94. Sally Beamish: String Quartet No 3, Reed Stanzas (2011)
Scottish traditional fiddle meets classical string quartet, reed beds at Aldeburgh and birds on the Isle of Harris.

95. John McCabe: String Quartet No 7, Summer Eves (2012).
Haydn was the key reference for McCabe’s 4th Quartet (1982), and again for the 7th, his last. The sonata form first movement is one of his most “classical”.

96. Christopher Fox: The Wedding at Cana (2013).
Inspired by Spanish old master painting The Marriage at Cana. Mash-up of modal dances on anachronistic pop tunes, mean-tone tunings. “Based on music played at weddings these days”.

97. Helen Grime: String Quartet (2014).
Three organically developed movements, continuous and overlapping. Opens with a fast duo for violin and viola. After a substantial middle movement (the longest), concludes with a virtuosic moto perpetuo.

98. Colin Matthews: String Quartet No 5.
“Shot through with silence”, mostly subdued and introverted for its 11 minutes, but “glides briefly into full hearing range before disappearing behind a closed door”.

99: Howard Skempton: Moving On (2016).
Skempton’s third piece for string quartet (after Catch, 2001 and Tendrilis, 2004). Diatonic themes, chromatic treatment, subtle changes in meter and tempo, ending in a waltz.

100. Rebecca Saunders: Unbreathed (2017).
Limited pitches, complex textures. With the composer’s epigraph – “Inside, withheld, unbreathed”- this piece is an uncomfortable, intense, Beckett-like experience.

101. Anthony Payne: String Quartet No 3 (2018).
Payne’s first quartet was composed in 1978. The second was commissioned by the Allegri Quartet in 2011. The Villiers Quartet is currently touring the third. Payne is steeped it the chamber music of Elgar, Bridge and Schoenberg.

Gla3.jpg I now own scores for all the Hans Gal 24 Preludes & Fugues. It wasn’t completely straightforward, but I’m slightly amazed that they are available at all. They are all late works. The 24 Preludes, all brief (none of them last over four minutes in performance) were written in 1960 when the composer was already 70 years old, and published five years later. He began composing them while in hospital “as a present to himself” according to Michael Freyhan’s notes to the Alada Racz premiere recording, issued in 2001. Gal himself called them “studies in piano sound, piano technique and concentrated miniature form”. They are also elegant and beautiful, ranging from the graceful late Brahms of No 24, the flowing 5/8 of No 19, and the surprising polytonality of No 21, which despite a right hand stave in C major (avoiding any accidentals) and left hand stave in F sharp major, still manages to sound (in Gal’s description for the whole set) “unconditionally tonal”.  I don’t think there’s a dud among them, but one of my favourites is Prelude No 7, “just” a study in using the thumb to cover seconds, but the end sounding to me like Ravel at his most luminous

Of course there’s a nod to Bach in the title, something made more apparent by the publication twenty years later (the composer now 90) of the 24 Fugues. I admit I’m still getting to know these rather more abstract and single-minded works, which can be formidable to listen to as a set. While the Preludes are varied and wide-ranging in their influences (from Chopin through Mussorgsky to Ravel, Poulenc and Shostakovich), the Fugues are all about purity of counterpoint. My feeling is that a pairing of the two works into a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues would provide the necessary counterbalances, but I haven’t actually tried this out yet. They weren’t written using the same tonal scheme – the Preludes come in four groups, where the six keys form an augmented triad, while the Fugues are move conventionally sequenced – so presumably weren’t intended to be matched. There are now three recordings of the complete Preludes (by Alda Racz, Martin Jones and Leon McCawley) and one of the complete Fugues (by McCawley).

vand       Bernard van Dieren is perhaps the archetypal neglected composer – hailed as a genius by a small group of followers during his lifetime, hardly a note of his has been heard in the concert hall since his death in 1936. But how neglected is he really? Below is a chronological list of (arguably) his major works. Those marked with a star  – 12 out of 22 – have been recorded in one form or another. On top of that, there are recordings of nearly 40 songs (out of a total of around 60 composed). Many other better known composers haven’t fared so well. It’s true that very few are commercially available (or if they were, long deleted), but there are a considerable number of broadcast performances or now unavailable recordings retrieved from the archives that can now be heard on You Tube (the majority of them posted by Alexander Hart – thank you).  And of course we await the first commercial release of the Chinese Symphony by Lyrita on November 18th.

Main works:  (* = recordings)

Elegy for cello and orchestra (1908) *
Symphonic Epilogue to “The Cenci”, op 3 (1910)
Belsazar for baritone and orchestra (1911)
Six Sketches for piano, op 4a (1911) *
Toccata for Piano (1912) *
String Quartet No 1 (1912) *
Chinese Symphony, op 6 (1914) *
Diaphony, for baritone and chamber orchestra (1916)
Overture to an imaginary comedy for sixteen instruments (1916)
String Quartet No 2, op 9 (1917)
String Quartet No 3, op 15 (1919)
String Quartet No 4, op 16 (1923) *
Serenade for chamber orchestra (1925)
Sonetto VII (Spenser), for tenor and 11 instruments (1925)
Three Studies for piano solo (1925) *
String Quartet No 6 (1927) *
Sonata for solo violin op 5 (1928) *
Tema con Variazione for piano (1928) *
Sonata for solo cello (1930)
The Tailor, opera (1917-30)
String Quartet No 5 (1931) *
Estemporales, harp solo (1931) *

conk  The extract below is from Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens, by Rhiannon Mathias (2012). In the front cover photo above Elizabeth Maconchy is on the left, Grace Williams is in the center and Elisabeth Lutyens on the right.

Maconchy’s cycle of 13 string quartets, the first composed in 1933 (when she was 26) and the last in 1979 are inevitably influenced by Bartok but they have their own individual voice – and they have all been recorded. There’s been a recent revival of interest in the work of Grace Williams, resulting in some major works such as the Violin Concerto, Second Symphony and her last major work, Fairest of Stars for soprano and orchestra (1973) receiving modern performances. Lutyens perhaps remains the best known from a historical perspective, though here music is only occasionally played these days. Mathias draws attention to the ambition set of Music for Orchestra pieces written between 1953 and 1981, lush and lyrical in the manner of Alban Berg. According to Anthony Payne (cited by Mathias), these four pieces “occupy a place in her work similar to that of symphonies in other composers”. Music for Orchestra 1V received its broadcast premiere on 15 December 1983 with the City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox conducting. Lutyens had died died nine month earlier, on 15 April 1983).

The Arts Theatre Club mentioned in the extract is not the current club with that name in Frith St, but what is now called the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. It had opened two years before Bartok’s visit.



machine Due out on October 8th, John Seabrook’s new book The Song Machine is an expansion of a New Yorker article from 2012. It describes the modern method of putting together hit songs deployed by producers such as Max Martin – who has scored 56 top ten hits since 1996 – more than Madonna (38), Elvis (36) and The Beatles (34). In brief, producers work on a backing track of chord progressions, drum track and synth sounds and pass this on to “top  line” writers that might either be session singers, who come into the studio and improvise until they find some hooks, or star singers themselves such as Beyoncé, who do the top line work themselves. Lyrics are often derived from collections of common phrases culled from magazines and television. There must be multiple hooks, not just one, if the song is to become a hit.

Seabrook highlights a case where one producer, Ryan Tedder, inadvertently sent out the same backing track to both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson in 2009. Few people noticed, Seabrook points out, and both became hits – “Halo” for Beyoncé in April and “Already Gone” for Kelly Clarkson in August.

Hound From 1917, the Carnegie Trust in the UK began a scheme to encourage the publication of large scale British musical works by asking composers to submit manuscripts. An anonymous panel chose up to six works per year for an award – publication at the expense of the Trust, in conjunction with Stainer and Bell. Unfortunately the war delayed things for the earliest prizewinners. The first to be published (in 1918) was the Piano Quartet in A minor by Herbert Howells. (It caught the attention of the young William Walton, who successfully submitted his own Piano Quartet six years later). By the end of 1920 some 13 works were available. 30 were out by the end of 1922, and when the scheme finally closed in 1928 some 60 substantial works that might not otherwise have seen the light of day had been issued under the Carnegie Collection of British Music imprint.

Today these scores with their distinctive covers aren’t all that easy to find – and they haven’t aged well. I recently bought a copy of Cyril Rootham’s Brown Earth on Ebay – this was once a very popular choral piece. Probably the most commercially successful of all the Carnegie works was Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, but it’s the hidden gems and almost forgotten composers that provide the fascination. Recently there’s been a successful revival of the W H Harris choral work Hound of Heaven, which might be followed up with a recording.

Finding out about this collection of scores isn’t easy today. A 2014 dissertation from the University of Iowa includes some very useful research, and a collection of most (over 50) or the scores is held at the Maughan Library (part of Kings College, London, on the Strand). I couldn’t find an accessible list anywhere on the Internet, so below is an alphabetical list of the holdings at Maughan Library.

Edgar Bainton (1880-1956). Concerto Fantasia: for piano and orchestra. Before Sunrise: a symphony for contralto solo, chorus, and orchestra. (1922)

Granville Bantock (1868-1946). Hebridean Symphony.

Herbert Bedford (1867-1945). Night Piece, The Shepherd: for voice (contralto or mezzo), flute, oboe, and piano.(1925)

Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960). Pastoral Fantasy: for string quartet (1924).

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960). The Immortal Hour: music-drama (1923).

York Bowen (1884-1961). String Quartet No 2 in D minor, op 41.

Ina Boyle (1889-1967). The Magic Harp: rhapsody for orchestra.

Sam Hartley Braithwaite (1883-1951). Elegy: for orchestra (1927). Snow Picture: for orchestra. (1924)

Frank Bridge (1879-1941). The Sea: suite for orchestra.

Alan Bush (1900-1995). String Quartet in A minor, op 4. (1925)

Lawrence A Collingwood (1887-1982). Poeme Symphonique: for orchestra.

Learmont Drysdale (1866-1909). Tam o’Shanter: concert overture.

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946). The Enchanted Garden: opera in one act, op 65. (1925)

George Dyson (1883-1964). Three Rhapsodies: for string quartet, op 7.

David Evans 1843-1913. Concerto for String Orchestra, op 7. (1928)

Harry Farjeon (1878-1948). Phantasy Concerto: for piano and chamber orchestra, op 64 (1926). St Dominic Mass: for choir, orchestra, solo soprano, tenor and solo violin, op 51 (1923).

Ernest Farrar (1885-1918). Three Spiritual Studies: for string orchestra, op 33. English Pastoral Impressions: suite for orchestra.(1925)

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). A Severn Rhapsody: for chamber orchestra. (1924)

Nicholas Gatty (1874-1946). Prince Ferelon, or, The Princess’s Suitors: a musical extravaganza in one act.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. The Blue Peter: a comic opera in one act. (1925)

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). The Western Playland: song-cycle for baritone voice, string quartet and piano (1926). Ludlow and Teme: song-cycle for tenor voice, string quartet and piano.

W H Harris (1883-1973). The Hound of Heaven, for baritone solo, chorus & orchestra.

Edward Norman Hay (1889-1943). String Quartet in A major.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947). Variations, Intermezzo, Scherzo & Finale: for orchestra. (1927)

Gustav Holst (1874-1934). The Hymn of Jesus: for two choruses, semi-chorus and full orchestra, op 37.

Howells, Herbert (1892-1983). Piano Quartet in A minor, op 21. Rhapsodic Quintet: clarinet quintet, op 31. (1921)

John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948). Solway Symphony.

Jeffrey Mark (1898-1965). Scottish Suite: for violins and piano. (1928)

Percy Hilder Miles (1878-1922). Sextet in G minor.

Robin Milford (1903-1959). Double Fugue for Orchestra, op 10. (1927)

Edward Mitchell. Fantasy Overture: for orchestra (with six horns).

R O Morris (1886-1948). Fantasy: for string quartet.

Cyril Rootham (1875-1938). Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, for soloists, chorus, semi chorus & orchestra. Brown Earth, for chorus, semi-chorus & orchestra. (1929)

Alec Rowley (1892-1958). The Princess Who Lost a Tune: ballet-mime. (1927)

Cyril Scott (1879-1970). Nativity Hymn: for chorus, soli and orchestra.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Symphony No 5 in D major L’Allegro ed il Pensieroso, op 56. The Travelling Companion: opera in four acts, op 146.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). A London Symphony.

Alfred M Wall (1875 – ????). Quartet for Piano & Strings in C minor.

William Walton (1902-1983). Piano Quartet in A minor. (1924)

Peter Warlock (1894-1930). The Curlew: song cycle for tenor solo, flute, English horn, and string quartet.(1924)

Felix Harold White (1884-1945). The Nymph’s Complaint: poem for oboe (or violin), viola & piano. (1922). Four Proverbs, for flute, oboe violin, viola and cello (1925).

W G Whittaker (1876-1944). A Lyke-Wake Dirge: for chorus and orchestra (1925). Among the Northumbrian Hills: free variations on an original theme for piano and string quartet.

Stanley Wilson (1899-1953). A Skye Symphony, op 38. (1928)

Leslie Woodgate (1902-1961). A Hymn to the Virgin: for baritone solo, men’s voices, strings, piano and organ.


With James MacMillan’s Symphony No 4 just performed at the Proms, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of representative British symphonies composed over the past decade. I’ve listed one symphony per year and made it a rule that no composer can have more than one entry. The dates used refer to the premiere performance where possible or to the date of composition where the premiere took place a long time after the work was composed (or where there hasn’t yet been a concert performance).

As with all these things, this inevitably leads to some compromises – 2006 and 2011 were “famine years” as far as the symphony was concerned, whereas 2007 was crowded with new works. Omissions from the list include works by Ronald Stevenson and Giles Swayne (both 2007), and by Ronald Corp (2009) – not to mention just as notable alternative symphonies from the listed composers and many others by perhaps lesser known names, such as the highly prolific Derek Bourgeois, who has now written over 100 symphonies.

Excluding Bourgeois, there are over 50 symphonies on my full list that were composed or premiered between 2005 and 2015 – and I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed. Astonishingly, recordings are available for all but two of the eleven symphonies listed.

James MacMillan: Symphony No 4 (premiere 3 August 2015, BBC Proms). The Proms premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990 made MacMillan internationally known. The first symphony “Vigil” came out in 1997, followed by No 2 (for chamber orchestra) in 1999 and No 3 “Silence” in 2002. (Listen again).

Michael Nyman: Symphony No 11 “Hillsborough” (premiere 5 July 2014, Liverpool). Nyman recently began to plan a series of 19 symphonies, some of them re-using themes and material from earlier works. The first of these (starting at numbers 5 and 6) received their premieres in 2013. Recording: MN Records

David Owen Norris: Symphony (premiere 27 May 2013, Dorchester). David Owen Norris is better known as a pianist and broadcaster, but studied composition with Eric Thiman and John Gardner. The London premiere of his Symphony is on October 1 2015 at St Paul’s Covent Garden, where the Piano Concerto in C and a new choral work, Turning Points, will also be performed.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No 9 (premiere 9 June 2012, Liverpool). The first of Maxwell Davies’ cycle was composed in 1976 and premiered two years later. Numbers 7 and 8 were both composed in 2000. No 10 was first performed at the Barbican in February 2014. Recording: Youtube

Christopher Gunning: Symphony No 7 (composed 2011). Gunning studied with Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett, but became best known as a composer of film and TV music (such as La Vie en Rose and Poirot). His first symphony was composed in 2002. Most of them have been recorded. Recording: Discovery

David Matthews: Symphony No 7 (premiere 24 April 2010, Manchester). Matthews has written eight symphonies (between 1978 and 2014) with a ninth in the works. The sixth, his biggest, was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2007. Dutton is working on recordings of the full cycle. Recording: Dutton

Richard Causton: Chamber Symphony (premiere 16 October 2009, Birmingham). Causton’s breakthrough work was The Persistence of Memory for chamber orchestra in 1995. His Chamber Symphony uses a combination of live and pre-recorded music. Twenty-Seven Heavens, for large orchestra, premiered in 2012. Recording: NMC

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No 2 (premiere 15 June 2008, Sydenham). Sawyers studied with Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. He has been particularly successful in the US. Symphony No 1 appeared in 2004. A third symphony has been commissioned by the English Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Nimbus

John McCabe: Symphony No 7 “Labyrinth” (premiere 14 September 2007, Liverpool): McCabe, who died in 2015, wrote thirteen symphonies before he was eleven, but there are seven numbered symphonies in the official catalogue, the first composed in 1965. Recording: Youtube

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony No 6, op 124 (composed 2006, premiere 2009, St Petersburg). As well as the seven numbered symphonies (1956-2012), Butterworth wrote symphonic studies, concertos, brass band pieces and around 40 chamber works. The final symphony (No 7) had its premiere on 28 February 2012 in Huddersfield). Butterworth died in 2014.

Matthew Taylor: Symphony No 3 (premiere 7 January 2005, St John’s Smith Square). Taylor studied at Cambridge under Robin Holloway, and later with Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold. His largest body of work is chamber music, but he has also written five concertos and three symphonies, the first in 1985. A fourth symphony has been commissioned for 2015/16 by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra. Recording: Dutton

lambertI only discovered the picture above a few days ago, in the Getty Images archive. Taken on Wednesday the 29th of July 1931, it shows composer Constant Lambert (aged 25) and his first wife, Florence Chuter (aged 18) just a few days before their wedding on August 5th at Kensington Registry Office. Flo, as she was known, was an actress working under the name Florence Kay. She had an oriental appearance and this must have been what attracted Lambert to her. His Eight Poems of Li Po, written five years earlier, had been dedicated to the (entirely unattainable) Chinese actress Anna-May-Wong.

It took me a while to work out the location of the photo, even though I should have recognized it immediately, as I worked for almost a decade just a few hundred yards away. It was taken in Greek Street, close to where the Pillars of Hercules pub straddles Manette Street, and looking towards Soho Square. The sign on the right hand side is a bit blurred, but it’s easy to make out that it belongs to a Chinese restaurant – and a bit of research reveals that in the 1930s the Shanghai Chinese restaurant was located just here, at 8 Greek Street. It was a popular haunt for literary types (just as the Pillars of Hercules is today).

Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant in Gerrard Street (still today filled with Chinese restaurants) is usually cited as the most likely real-life equivalent to Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the establishment that gives its name to Anthony Powell’s novel, part of the Dance to the Music of Time sequence. In that novel, the fictional composer Moreland is generally understood to be based on Lambert, who was friendly with Powell. But given that Casanova actually lived in Greek Street (in 1764, at No 47), and the evidence of this photo that Lambert favoured the Shanghai, perhaps there’s a case to be made for it as well?

The Eight Songs of Li Po are beautifully scored for a small chamber ensemble, influenced perhaps by the similarly scored songs by Arthur Bliss, The Women of Yueh (1923-24), also settings of Li Po. Most are less than two minutes long, and for me, two of the briefest are the best of all. “A Summer Day” begins with a limpid, mostly white note instrumental introduction in triple time that actually sounds at its best in the piano version. It reflects the poem’s depiction of easy-going drinking and relaxing in the cool mountains. “On the City Street”, once again using mostly white note harmonies, takes up just one page of manuscript, but not a note is wasted. Initially, the meter varies in response to the text, but then the vocal line starts to rise and flow for the words “There are ten thousand houses, among the drooping willow trees”. The accompaniment then gradually peters out with a series of quiet, falling figures, a very poignant effect.

MattA stirring performance of the St Matthew Passion on Saturday night in Winchester Cathedral (by the Waynflete Singers with guest conductor Sir Roger Norrington), reminded me just how great the opening chorus (“Kommt ihr Tochter”) is. It’s ridiculous to try to analyse such a towering masterpiece in a short blog entry – and I wouldn’t feel up to the task however many words I used. Instead I’ll just summarise the most obvious things I heard once again tonight that add up to so much.

First the orchestral introduction with its ominous, 12/8 tread over a persistent pedal point and grinding harmonies, ratcheting up the tension before the choir enters. In fact two choirs enter, spatially separated and singing different parts. They represent the crowds in Jerusalem (perhaps on either side of the road) questioning each other as Jesus walks slowly along bearing the cross. And there’s a third layer, choirboys singing a simple chorale melody (“innocent Lamb of God”), soaring above the complex texture in a bright G major, which contrasts with the choir’s somber E minor. Towards the end, when it seems like all the main material has been presented, the choir takes up something new, a more fragmented, quieter and harmonically uneasy sequential passage, as the crowd starts to acknowledge its own complicity and guilt. “Look. Look where? On our offence”. After that the two choirs come together as one for the first time: “Look – behold his love for us”. It’s breathtaking.

This is one of Bach’s longest single choral movements, usually lasting around eight minutes, but it never seems long enough to me – though that doesn’t mean it should be played too slowly. There’s an urgency in the music that pushes it along and that shouldn’t be resisted. For me the reason this movement is so compelling is its mixture of explicit drama, coming from the situation and the text, coupled with music that’s expertly paced in the way it ebbs and flows harmonically and rhythmically. On top of this are the spatial contrasts between the two choirs, the choirboys and the two orchestras. It’s as if the various forces have been blocked for positions, just as actors are in the theatre. This all intensifies the drama to an unimaginable height. Norrington (who is now 81 years old), sat down to conduct the performance, but his long arms expertly traced the contours of the piece to guide and inspire the performers. Chorus Master George Castle, who did a lot of the preparatory work behind the scenes, was also on hand to conduct the Winchester Cathedral Choristers.

For a very different production with the very minimum of forces that highlights the drama (perhaps a little at the expense of the music, but exhilarating none the less) an excerpt of Jonathan Miller’s theatrical staging can be seen here.