The Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb was written in 1916: this was in the middle of the First World War. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that this work was subtitled 'Threnody'. It is a song of lamentation.
This quartet is written in four movements with three of them being slow. The work opens with a very dark and lugubrious Lento. However there are some moments of warmth in this movement. With increasing complexity it builds up to a climax which resolves itself into a restatement of the opening theme.
This is a satisfying opening movement, showing the composer's genius to the full. The short second movement is full of string effects. The programme notes describe them as ‘late Elgarian arpeggios and motoric figures.’ All too soon we are in the ‘Allegro Molto. There is no doubt that this is the heart of the work. Here we have a stunning display of string writing. Tunes seem to be passed ‘to and fro’ across this movement. Suddenly a gorgeous phrase is taken up, used and then seemingly cast aside. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece of string writing. Not until Britten and Tippet do we reach such an understanding of how a string quartet works within British chamber music.
The last movement is a meditation the old Scottish Lament - Flowers of the Forest. This song was composed to remember the fallen at the battle of Flodden in 1513, and is a highly appropriate choice for a work written during the 'War to End all Wars.' Somehow McEwen manages to avoid any sense of the parochial or of pathos or sheer sentimentality. It is a beautiful and perfect ending to a splendid composition.
John Blackwood McEwen’ Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb can be heard on Chandos CHAN9926.