Two top string quartets come together in Williams’ Fado-inspired Saudade.

Commissioned for Musica Viva by Linda Matthews and Robin Budden in honour of their mothers, my new string octet celebrates the role of a mother in the lives of us all, as protector, mentor, carer and friend.

It also offered a deeply personal opportunity for me to explore that relationship, especially in the context of having lost my own mother to cancer in 2006. The new work was to be scored for double string quartet, for a premiere performance by the combined forces of the Doric String Quartet (UK) and the Pavel Haas Quartet (Czech Republic).

As a title I chose the Portugese word “Saudade”, meaning: nostalgia, reminiscence of something, once loved, but now lost. Reflecting on this concept, the string octet aims to portray the various emotional states associated with the mother and child relationship, throughout the cycle of life.

The first movement, The Dance of Life, celebrates the role of the mother as a creator, bringing new life into the world, nurturing, growing, and shaping into a life of love and joy. Movement two, Memento, pays homage to the lullaby, a musical genre quintessentially linked to the bond between a mother and her child. The piece begins with two antiphonal violins exchanging melodic fragments in a timeless attempt to remember the past. From underneath these fragmented gestures a slow lullaby chorale emerges, develops and eventually fades away.

The third movement is a deep lament, a gentle exploration of the sadness of memory for a mother who now resides only in the past. The piece cycles around a four-measure chaconne melody and builds into a textural and dynamic climax, representing the swell of grief and memory, nostalgia and loss, and (ultimately) sadness and farewell. The final movement, Angelus, is a celebration of the mother figure and the heavens. As a play on words the title refers both to the concept of the mother dwelling in the heavens during an afterlife, and also to the Catholic prayer commemorating the Incarnation of Christ. The piece explores the higher ranges and colours of the ensemble to portray the mysticism
of the heavens, ending where it began with a celebration of the life passed on from mother to child.

Stylistically, the piece explores Portugese Fado – a folk song genre that tells stories of longing, lost love and of loved ones separated by distance and time. Fado uses minor-key melodies, double-time rhythmic patterns and frequent pauses at the ends of phrases for dramatic effect. These techniques appear throughout Saudade in a homage to the heartfelt themes of sadness and love portrayed by the title of the piece.

Work Saudade
Composer Natalie Williams
Scored for Double String Quartet
Commissioned for Musica Viva Australia
Premiere Sydney Conservatorium of Music, April 12
Performers The Doric String Quartet and the Pavel Haas Quartet