In March 2020 Q-Quartets (a collective of players from A.C.E. and other departments) will be giving the first performance of a short newly commissioned quartet by the Irish composer Seán Doherty, Parry’s Arctic Violin, along with Sibelius’ early B flat quartet (op.4) and Shostakovich 8.
The inspiration for Seán’s piece comes from the early 19th century Arctic voyages of Sir William Parry who, iced in and surrounded by darkness for 10 months in the North West Passage in 1819, entertained his sailors with comic plays and musicals and in the evenings he played with his ‘little band of violins and flutes’.
Parry’s account of the Arctic sound-world itself is atmospheric. In the frozen silence, it was, he wrote, a pleasure to hear a man singing to himself from more than a mile away. Sometimes, as the cold took hold of the two ships, their timbers would crack explosively. Parry also transcribed Eskimo songs, which he described as hovering around a small number of pitches (in one example, there are long stretches in which B flats are interspersed only with some Cs). We like to imagine him playing these transcriptions on his violin surrounded by the limitless, frozen seascape near Melville Island like a sort of precursor to Sibelius’ Tapiola.
All three of today’s pieces have an uneasy relationship with the Russian border. When Sibelius wrote his B flat quartet, he was living in a Finland which was still part of the Russian empire and in which there were already stirrings for independence and since then the border has shifted eastwards and part of the way back westwards again. On the other side, in the mid-twentieth century, Shostakovich wrote his eighth quartet in the then East German city of Dresden. Finland is now independent and the Wall has fallen, and the shifting boundary between East and West now reaches under the melting polar icecap where Parry’s violin (it is now in the National Maritime Museum) once sounded across the Arctic ice.