Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
— Juvenal, Satire VI (c. AD100)
I completed my first string quartet in 1997. That work — influenced by Bartok’s 5th String Quartet and Berg’s Lyric Suite — was intended to be a work wholly without a programme, to be music about music. This second String Quartet is a different piece in many ways, most obviously because I have used extra-musical elements and ideas.
I first started to think about composing this piece soon after I was trapped on an train underground in London for several hours as a result of the 7th July bombings in the city; I later learned that my train was directly behind one of the trains that had been attacked. One month later, I was randomly stopped and searched under the new anti-terrorism legislation, which requires no reason of police officers to stop, search, and detain without charge anyone at all.
The juxtaposition of these events — the atrocities, authoritarian legislation, and the unwarranted personal search — led to a certain amount of strong feeling within me, which I chose to put into this work, specifically into Part I.
At this time I also read about John Locke, who had also been a student at Christ Church, and whose portrait stared down at me at dinner in the college’s dining hall. My reading led me to John Locke’s epitaph, which he wrote himself, in Latin. I decided to set this text, for soprano with the string quartet, as Part II of the piece, which I then planned as a large, two-part work.
Whether or not the background to the composition of the piece can allow the music to express anything in particular other than itself remains unlikely. I doubt that any listener would be able to say “this piece is clearly about bombs” or “about John Locke” — even given a translation of the sung text — without the benefit of prior knowledge. The extra-musical elements are therefore more of a starting point for the composer than a literal narrative for the music.
Siste viator, Hic juxta situs est Joannes Locke. Si qualis fuerit rogas, mediocritate sua contentum se vixisse respondet.
Literis innutritus, eousque profecit, ut veritati unice litaret.
Hoc ex scriptis illius disce; quæ, quod de eo reliquum est, majori fi de tibi exhibebunt, quam epitaphii suspecta elogia.
Virtutes si quas habuit, minores sane quam sibi laudi, tibi in exemplum proponeret. Vitia una sepeliantur. Morum exemplum si quæras, in evangelio habes; vitiorum utinam nusquam: mortalitatis, certe, quod prosit, hic et ubique.
Natum An. Dni. 1632, Aug. 29.
Mortuum 1704, Oct. 28.
Memorat hac tabula
Brevi et ipsa peritura.
Stay, passerby. Near here is placed JOHN LOCKE. If you ask what kind of man he was, he answers that he lived content with moderate means.
Nourished in letters, he made so great progress that to truth his service was unparallelled.
What else there is about him, learn from his writings which will set this forth in a manner more worthy of your belief than the suspect eulogies of an epitaph.
If he had virtues in a lesser degree indeed than what he would set before himself to praise, and before you for an example, let these be buried together with his faults. If you seek for an example of character you have it in the Gospel. For an example of faults, would that nowhere (such is our wish) in humanity could such be found here or anywhere.
That he was born in the year of Our Lord 1632 on August 29, and that he died in the year of Our Lord 1704 on October 28, is recorded by this tablet, which itself is soon to perish.
(tr. Rev A H Franklin)
12th May 2006, at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, performed by the Holywell String Quartet (Kathryn Riley, Gemma Sharples, Amantha Wijesekera, Verity Evanson) and the soprano Emily Eisen.
string quartet, soprano
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