MusicWeb International, October 2014
CD Review Robert Still: The Four Quartets
by John France
In the early 1970s I bought a copy of Robert Still’s Symphonies No.3 & 4 which had been released on LP by Lyrita Recorded Edition (SRCS 46). Since that time I have heard virtually nothing else by this composer. There have been a few recordings over the years including a retrospective of his chamber music on Ismeron JMSCD 8 (review). There is a file on the internet of a radio broadcast of the Concerto for String Orchestra, which is one of the finest examples of that genre. The present CD from Naxos is a timely release that promises to give Still’s music a much wider audience.
A few words about Robert Still will be of interest to potential listeners who may not be familiar with the man and his music. He was born in 1910 and after an education at Eton, he studied history and French at Trinity College, Oxford. Destined for the legal profession, he changed direction and was enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied with Frank Kitson and Gordon Jacob. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Artillery. Before the war he had taught music at Eton and the Royal Academy of Music, however after demob in 1946 he settled in Bucklebury in Berkshire to devote himself to composition and musicology. In the 1960s he had further study with Hans Keller. His other interests included psychoanalysis and the playing of sport. He was an Oxford Blue at real tennis. Still wrote a wide range of music including four symphonies, a piano concerto and a large quantity of chamber works for diverse instrumentation. There is an opera, Oedipus and a number of songs. Robert Still died in 1971.
The key to understanding Still’s music is to realise that there was a hiatus in his style. The catalyst for this was his ‘conversations’ with Hans Keller. Until the early 1960s his music had been largely tonal with nods to the pre-war pastoral school, folksong, Tudor music and neo-romanticism. Robert Still realised that he would be unable to make progress in the new musical climate dominated by Britten, Tippett and the post-war avant-garde composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. This trajectory was greatly encouraged by the BBC which was actively promoting ‘non-tonal music’. The change in Still’s musical aesthetic was neatly summed up by Keller himself who admitted that he was ‘too old to be taught a new musical language though he proved himself to be very adept at adopting new ways of writing music outside the tonal system.’ Edward Clark, in the liner-notes, points out that anyone wishing to examine this dichotomy of styles should compare the first two Quartets with the last two of the series. It is a great way to approach this music.
I do not want to allow the reader to run away with the idea that Robert Still had changed his style beyond recognition. He never became an avant-garde composer: he made increasing use of dissonance and allowed his music to push towards a more atonal sound.
Unfortunately Still was not assiduous in dating his compositions. The only certainty seems to be that Quartet No. 1 was written around 1948 when its premiere took place. It had been forgotten until the present revival. The Quartet No.2 was composed some time later, but before Keller’s injunction to ‘update’ his style took hold. The final two examples date from after he had absorbed the musicologist’s advice.
Listeners nowadays are fortunate in being able to accept a variety of musical styles from a composer. No longer do we regard early ‘tonal’ works as being merely precursors to a ‘mature’ achievement. It is also not necessary to decry music that was not composed in the Glock/Keller ‘approved’ style. I concede that some listeners will find the two early quartets immediately approachable and downright tuneful. Others may regard these as derivative and belonging to an era of music long past its sell-by date in the post-Second World War world. I tend to enjoy the later works more: I feel that there is greater profundity and a deeper introspection in this music. However, the two early quartets are full of delightful music, interest and the sheer joy of being alive. As a cycle they are more unified than the compositional history would suggest. Interestingly, the excellent Robert Still website hints that there may have been a String Quartet No.5.
The liner-notes by Edward Clark are informative and give the listener a good understanding of the ‘dislocation’ of styles in these works. It is prefaced with a short biographical note about the composer. The Villiers Quartet has made these four string quartets their own. I am conscious of a great sympathy in their playing of these works. Certainly, there is no sense of them being patronising in the earlier music: their interpretation of the later ‘atonal’ works is masterly.
So often one says this, but I reiterate: it is hard to believe that four string quartets of such skilful construction, quality and sheer attractiveness have remained hidden for over half a century. This CD is a must for all enthusiasts of British chamber music. I can only hope that much more of Robert Still’s music will be forthcoming.