Robert Still: Notes from the Couch

Few creative artists of merit make the same piece twice, though even fewer undertake the kind of radical change of language that distinguishes the work of the English composer Robert Still. A new recording of his four string quartets, made by the excellent Villiers Quartet, presents the change in startling terms.

First performed in 1948, the First Quartet happens (?) to share its opening four-note motif with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, transposed down a tone to A minor. Roughly 15 years later – there’s no date on the score – the Fourth Quartet opens with an eight-note motif hovering somewhere very uneasily around F sharp minor. You could never call it a tone row, but the middle quartets of Bartok have clearly left a mark.

This isn't Robert Still.

This isn’t Robert Still.


What happened in the meanwhile? The booklet essay finds the cause to be the stewardship of the BBC’s Third Programme by William Glock, assisted by Hans Keller, both of whom promoted Continental modernism inevitably at the expense of local and more conservative strains of composition.  Still submitted to a brief period of coaching with Keller, though in what area isn’t clear. Keller’s polymathic expertise centred around the Viennese classics of chamber music, and I’d like to think that Still was too proud a musician to make his music more rebarbative for the sake of respect from his peers or radio airtime. Keller may instead have left an impression on the craft of Still’s third and fourth quartets, their voice-leading and the space of their journeys. Compare the foursquare, rustic dance of the First Quartet’s Scherzo – Haydn meets Vaughan Williams – with the corresponding movement of the Third. The harmony is spikier but the journey is quicker, smoother, more conversational. It’s a real quartet, not music scored for four instruments, and the Villiers Quartet negotiate this difference with persuasive subtlety.

The working out of music as an internal conversation clearly fascinated Still. His four symphonies appear to undergo the same kind of transformation as the quartets, until the one-movement Fourth is explicitly described as a psychological study. With a friend he had founded the Imago Society, in which members presented cultural-psychoanalytic papers at the home of the widow of Ernest Jones, disciple and disseminator of Freud. His last two works, concertos for piano and violin, lie unperformed. With their structural premise of opposition and synthesis built into the genre, the works bear an intriguing promise. Music as comparative literature? The appearance of a big, English tune two-thirds of the way through the Fourth Symphony only to be overwhelmed by dissonance would suggest that Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich have as much to tell us about Robert Still as Freud, but the final upbeat of the work’s abrupt and far-from-conclusive coda effectively suggests that this is music about more than itself.