English-born in September 1927, Graham Whettam had no formal education in his art, but became deeply involved with music during a period of youthful near-invalidity. He made his professional orchestral debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in October 1950, his music first appearing in the BBC Third Programme six months later, in the BBC's Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in 1953 and the Cheltenham International Music Festival in 1954, with foreign performances from 1952 onwards.
His output includes five Symphonies and four String Quartets, several Concertos and a wealth of other works. Conductors of his music have included, from his native land, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Edward Downes, Sir Eugne Goossens, Sir Charles Groves, Sir Charles Mackerras, Hugo Rignold, Sir Malcolm Sargent, besides such eminent oversees exponents as Okku Kamu, Willem van Otterloo and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Instrumental and solo-performers of Whettam's work have included Dennis Brain, Jack Brymer, Leon Goossens, John Ogdon, Yossi Zivoni, the Coull and Gabrieli String Quartets, as also the Gewandhaus and Vienna Wind Quintets and Netherlands Oboe Quartet.
Among Whettam works currently available on commercial CD are Sinfonia Intrepida (BBC Symphony, cond. Sir Charles Mackerras), Sinfonia Contra Timore (Leipzig Radio Symphony, cond. Günter Blumhagen) Concerto Drammatico (cello soloist Martin Rummel, cond. Ian Hobson). To Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow's composite Whettam Piano Music has recently been added the Carducci's first CD of Whettam's Quartets. The composer will celebrate his eightieth birthday in September 2007.
STRING QUARTET NO. 1
I CANTO Andante quasi lento - allegro energico
II SCHERZO Presto - andante III ADAGIETTO
Unusually, this work for strings was commissioned by a wind player. Jack Brymer, who with Dennis Brain had played in the first British performance of my early Wind Quintet, requested a short String Quartet to be placed between Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets in concerts at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre and Oxford early in 1960. The composer/conductor Eugne Goossens was a guest in my home at the time of the concerts, and the two-movement work was dedicated to him.
A year previously Coventry Cathedral had commissioned a setting of the Easter Hymn from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, permission having been personally granted by Mr. Eliot. I decided to base my Quartet on this same music. After various performances and broadcasts, in 1967 I extended the quartet to a three-movement form, adding a final Adagietto. String Quartet No. 1, now dedicated to Eugne Goossens' memory, was first heard in a BBC series of British String Quartets early in 1968. Various performances followed, and in 1973 the German premire was given at the Deutscher Staatsoper in Berlin. (It has yet to be heard in London!)
Opening with the original motet's vocal line played by cello, the first movement - Canto - is in tripartite form, with predominantly singing preludial and postludial sections encompassing the main allegro energico; this begins with a dancing pizzicato unison in changing irregular rhythms. The music at times makes abundant use of the so-called Scotch Snap, a typical Whettam rhythmic figure.
The ensuing Scherzo - presto - is full of vigorous energy except for its slow central section marked andante cantabile. Here the original motet reappears in solos firstly from the viola's lower strings and then high on the cello. After a passionate passage from the whole quartet, individual instruments bring back the scherzo in its full vigour.
The concluding Adagietto is linked to the opening movement, with predominantly solo lines or duo-playing from violin and cello. Viola and second violin later lead into a climactic pizzicato passage for the entire ensemble. Cello and leader then return to the fore until the latter plays solo for the last page of score, underpinned by dying phrases in unison harmonics from the other three instruments,
OBOE QUARTET No. 2
"The Bagpiper" ("der Dudelsackpfeifer")
I. Soliloquy & Dance II. Adagio
III. Rondo - Finale
My First Oboe Quartet had been written for Victor Swillens and his Netherlands Oboe Quartet in December 1960, and it was many performances and almost twelve years later that he asked me to write a second work for this ensemble, but involving the advanced playing techniques in vogue at the time. The oboe's range reaches up to a high A, and the part employs quarter tones, double harmonics et cetera.
It was at a Polish Embassy Reception at the 1972 Edinburgh Festival that I enjoyed a long conversation with the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski and the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson. At some point this touched upon the various differing bagpipes found across Europe, and eventually the Scottish Bagpipe-scale with its sharpened fourth and flattened seventh. Whilst Stevenson had Scottish interests at heart, for Lutoslawski this bagpipe scale had no place in contemporary music. Whilst my general opinion agreed with Witold's, nevertheless I felt that there could be exceptions, without having then thought further.
The opening soliloquy reveals the newer instrumental techniques integral to the whole work, the ensuing Dance being marked con asprezza - with asperity - the oboe being at times treated almost like a solo performer taking on the combined stringed instruments. A slower central section makes abundant use of oboe harmonics, with similarly abundant quarter-tones presaging the movement's close.
A central Adagio gives pre-eminence to the strings, the oboe, after holding an incredibly long note, coming to the fore in a central variation.
The finale is in Rondo form, beginning most vigorously, the oboe at first playing solo and then against the unison strings. But the vigour becomes more relaxed when the strings set up a dissonant drone-like sound, over which (the mischief getting into me) our oboe dances and sings in the Scottish bagpipe-scale, and with an plethora of Scotch Snaps. Indeed this oboe part can be played on a Scottish bagpipe chanter, though I have yet to hear it. This being a rondo, the various sections run their course and return until we reach a vigourous close.
Oboe Quartet No. 2 was written in the early part of 1973, the Netherlands Oboe Quartet bringing the work to Britain for concerts in March of that year, and again in 1974 for their visit to the Bromsgrove Festival in Worcestershire.
STRING QUARTET No. 4
I PRELUDIO Lento con ira passionato II SCHERZO
III PASACAGLIA & FUGA DANZANTE IV RONDO - FINALE
The origins of this work are shrouded in misty time. For it had been commissioned by the Sydney String Quartet for a 1987 concert in London's Wigmore Hall, but this had to be cancelled due to the ensemble's loss of two of its members. Although the Arts Council of Great Britain had voted a commissioning grant, this was not of inspiring size, and my work remained unfinished. It was only after completing the new version of my Hymnos Quartet for the Gabrieli Quartet to play in celebration of Dore Abbey's 850th Anniversary, when the concluding "Hymnos" movement had to be repeated as encore, that I had the urge to complete No. 4, as was done within a month.
Opening with a slow movement, String Quartet No. 4 curiously grew out of the Arts Council's initials - the notes A, C, G, B, with G sometimes sharpened and B sometimes flattened. The cello announces this motif, incidentally involving the Scotch snap, and is answered by dissonant semitone trills cut off by angry chords - impatience with pervasive philistinism, perhaps. Becoming calmer, the music has an overall cantabile quality, predominantly contrapuntal and eventually leading into the next movement.
This Scherzo - originally called Scherzo Impudente but the epithet seemed superfluous - turns the original motif into a boisterous fiddler's dance which is followed by a pizzicato variant. Later the cello turns the violin's dance upside down against staccato interjections from above and eventually yielding to viola. In the central part, however, the melody becomes more of a pitiful parody - the ghost of Schubert's organ grinder from die Winterreise, perhaps. The Scherzo returns until angry trills threaten to swamp the viola, which continues into the third movement.
This Pasacaglia is essentially a slow movement set against a seven-bar ground, and encompassing a central dancing fugue in lively five-bar phrases. The returning Pasacaglia is full of contrapuntal inversions, contrasting with the ensuing finale.
A Rondo full of vigour, though less of a peasant-dance than the Scherzo, the finale demands considerable brilliance from its players. Gradually the music becomes an overall assertive unison, slowing slightly into reminiscences of the opening movement - swinging from mystery to anger and back again. But the vigorous Rondo bursts in scurrying forwards until the leader, unaccompanied, rises through a passage of silvery harmonics to a high E which is held softly for some fifty bars over quiet interjections until nothing more can be said. Quartet No. 4 was first performed by the Carducci Quartet at my invitation. This was on 10th September 2001 on Merseyside.
Copyright 2007 Graham Whettam,
The Carducci String Quartet is recognised today as one of Europe's top young string quartets. Half Irish, half British, they have won prizes at no less than 7 International Chamber Music Competitions, including 1st prize at the 2004 Kuhmo International Chamber Music Competition in Finland and most recently the 2007 Concert Artist Guild Competition in the USA. The Carduccis were also winners of the special prize for “Communication & Culture” at the 2005 Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition and winners of the Jury prize at the 2006 London International String Quartet Competition.
"...the Carducci String Quartet were stunning...they are clearly musicians of high intelligence." The Times
"...technical rigour, penetrative musical insight and lively yet unified individualism...winning in every sense of the word." The Irish Times