John RamsAy (b.1931)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor (2001) String Quartet No.2 in E minor ‘Shackleton’ (2001?) String Quartet No.3 in C major (2004) String Quartet No.4 ‘Charles Darwin’ (2009)
The Fitzwilliam String Quartet
I could find very little on the Internet about John Graham Ramsay. There are references to his alter ego as a geologist, but virtually nothing about his life as a composer and musician. The CD liner notes presents a brief biography of the ‘musical’ Ramsay, from which I will liberally quote.
John Ramsay was born in London on 17 June 1931. After the war he studied ‘cello with Timothy Toomey and had lessons in harmony and counterpoint. During National Service, he was fortunate to be assigned to the orchestra of the band of the Corps of Royal Engineers. He played principal ‘cello and was the tenor drummer. He continued study with the cellist Margit Hegedus. After his military service he was appointed Professor at Imperial College, the University of Leeds and at the University of Zurich. He organised the University of London Orchestra and was deputy leader of the Fairfax Orchestra based in London. After his retirement he was involved with developing chamber music courses at Cratoule in France.
Little is said about his compositions in these notes; however he has written a variety of works for chamber and orchestral groups. One would like to know exactly what. Typically, his musical style is tonal, although he has made use of serial techniques.
Interestingly these notes do not refer to his work as a geologist. Contrariwise, the Wikipedia article, which is the only major online source of his life says precious little about his music. Certainly, these liner notes imply that his academic appointments were musical –in fact, they were geological! I think.
The String Quartet No.1 in D minor nods toward Bartok, especially in the first and third movements. These are characterised by energy and excitement. A balance is brought to the work by the use of a traditional Gaelic folksong as the basis of a set of variations. This is moving music. The final ‘rondo’ begins with a dark ‘lento’ before a ‘cheerful’ theme changes the mood. A little unbalanced as a movement, but it brings the Quartet to a good conclusion. I worry that there is a little stylistic mismatch between some of the parts of this quartet. However, on the whole it is an impressive work that never allows the listener’s interest to flag.
The Second Quartet was composed in remembrance of Robert Milner Shackleton who was a personal friend of the composer and was distantly related to the Antarctic explorer. Once again the quartet is in four movements. Do not be put off the liner notes description of the first movement as being a ‘dirge.’ It may be formally, but there is a beauty and interest to this music that defies any popular definition of that word. This is followed by another slow movement, an adagio which makes use of harmonics, Arabic scales and ‘grumpy’ chords reflecting one aspect of his friend’s personality. Yet another slow movement follows: this time it is a thoughtful funeral march that proceeds in slow step. It is profound and poignant. The mood changes for the final movement. We are off to sunny Spain, where Shackleton worked. However, exiting Flamenco rhythms and drive are finally pushed aside by the funereal music. To my ear this is the best of the quartets. Certainly it is the most moving and personal.
The String Quartet No.3 is the longest and possibly the most involved of works on these two CDs. It is a harmonically complex, chromatic quartet that explores a variety of moods and nuances of tone. The opening movement is a ‘jagged’ homage to Mozart. The second is an adagio which seems to be a skilful counterpoint of Martinu and baroque music. The Scherzo is also complex: in fact there are three separate scherzi subsumed into the movement. These are rhythmically elaborate and sometimes deliberately grotesque and ‘out of tune.’ Once again, intricate harmonies inform the slow movement. This time it is the use of complex dissonances and music spiced with polytonality. It is probably the most ‘advanced’ movement on this CD. I liked it. The last movement is a mathematician’s delight: based on the Fibonacci Series of numbers and Golden Sections. This is not, however, dry as dust – it is not intellectual games. The effect is impressive and brings this diverse work to a satisfactory conclusion.
The raison d’être of the programmatic final Quartet leaves me utterly cold and largely disinterested. The work was commissioned by the organisers of the Cambridge Darwin Festival in 2009. It celebrated the 200th anniversary of the scientist’s birth. The quartet is built on a ‘program of Darwin’s career as geologist and evolutionist’. The work is in a single movement and is largely tonal in its harmonic language. Reading the analytical notes reminds me of the sort of programme that accompanies Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. For example, ‘clouds appear, at first small Cumulus (03:49) which build and threaten for …a storm (04:42) Lightning and thunder is heard (05:04) and the first heavy raindrops arrive (05:41). And so it goes on (and on). Man arrives on the scene and then develops his religious beliefs – Hebrew, Christian and Muslim. All have their little musical references. A ‘War Fugue,’ complete with machine gun-fire, heavy gun-fire and no doubt ‘trench foot’ are all noted. Nothing could be more calculated to put me off a piece of music that this gobbledygook. However, the strange (and sad) thing is the music is actually excellent. It is a great pity to spoil it with all these cross-references. It does little for the genius of Darwin and nothing for the integrity of Ramsay’s music. Listeners (and composer) please dump the programme!
The sound quality has just a little bit of a hard edge to it. However, the playing is excellent and enthusiastic. The CD is well-presented with an attractive cover depicting a ‘micro-photograph of rock crystal in polarized light’ which was taken by the composer. I am guessing that the comprehensive analytical notes were written by Ramsay himself; however, no credit is given in the notes. Although the two CDs appear a bit short, the set is priced as for one disc. So good value all round.
The bottom line is that all four of John Ramsay’s String Quartets are worthy examples of the genre and undoubtedly deserve a place in the repertoire. Each work is approachable and is written in a style that is stylistically ‘conservative’ without ever being anodyne. They form an impressive cycle.