Intellectual Magic: Tradition Infiltrated by Passion in the String Quartets of the English Composer Hugh Wood


  • Niall O'Loughlin



Hugh Wood, string quartet, modernism, traditionalism, musical motifs


Throughout the history of music there has often been a conflict between the old and the new. This applies very much to the music of the English composer, Hugh Wood (b.1932). Studying history, and later composition with Anthony Milner, Iain Hamilton and Mátyás Seiber, he respectively gained from them beauty of music, especially melody, and a mastery of counterpoint; the technique of twelve-note serialism; and a varied and undogmatic approach to composition. This has been reflected in almost universal praise for his music from the critics. Of his five numbered string quartets, the first, fourth and fifth are cast in separate movements, while the second and third play continuously in a large number of linked sections. Quartets Nos.1, 4 and 5 have short separate movements which ostensibly employ traditional forms, ternary, rondo, sonata, scherzo and trio, but in practice give little indication of this because of the vivid but terse ideas and the subtlety of motivic connections that arise from the use of extensive melodic fragments given at the very beginning of each work. The Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 are superficially different in technique, but here Wood groups his numerous sections (39 for No.2 and 24 for No.3) to suggest traditional forms. Again this is deceptive as there is dramatic argument at a detailed level which disguises any obvious connection with these traditional forms. The overall effect is one of drama, enhanced by a strong feeling for the progress of the music. The composer has retained some vestiges of traditional form and other techniques in his music, but at the same time has at all stages enlivened his thematic material with vividness, imagination and a strong sense of musical drama coupled with a strong motivic network. This is the intellectual magic that marks out these quartets as very special.


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How to Cite

O’Loughlin, N. (2007). Intellectual Magic: Tradition Infiltrated by Passion in the String Quartets of the English Composer Hugh Wood. Musicological Annual, 43(2), 139–152.