I could find very little on the Internet about John Graham Ramsay.
There are references to his alter ego as a geologist, but virtually
nothing about his life as a composer and musician. The CD liner-notes
present a brief biography of the ‘musical’ Ramsay, from which
I will liberally quote.
John Ramsay was born in London on 17 June 1931. After the war
he studied cello with Timothy Toomey and had lessons in harmony
and counterpoint. During National Service, he was fortunate
to be assigned to the orchestra of the band of the Corps of
Royal Engineers. He played principal cello and was the tenor
drummer. He continued study with the cellist Margit Hegedus.
After his military service he was appointed Professor at Imperial
College, the University of Leeds and at the University of Zurich.
He organised the University of London Orchestra and was deputy
leader of the Fairfax Orchestra based in London. After his retirement
he was involved with developing chamber music courses at Cratoule
Little is said about his compositions in these notes; however
he has written a variety of works for chamber and orchestral
groups. One would like to know exactly what. Typically, his
musical style is tonal, although he has made use of serial techniques.
Interestingly these notes do not refer to his work as a geologist.
Contrariwise, the Wikipedia article, which is the only major
online source of his life says precious little about his music.
Certainly, these liner notes imply that his academic appointments
were musical – in fact, they were geological! I think.
The String Quartet No.1 in D minor nods toward Bartók, especially
in the first and third movements. These are characterised by
energy and excitement. A balance is brought to the work by the
use of a traditional Gaelic folksong as the basis for a set
of variations. This is moving music. The final ‘rondo’ begins
with a dark ‘lento’ before a ‘cheerful’ theme changes the mood.
It is a little unbalanced as a movement but it brings the Quartet
to a good conclusion. I worry that there is a little stylistic
mismatch between some of the parts of this quartet. However,
on the whole it is an impressive work that never allows the
listener’s interest to flag.
The Second Quartet was composed in remembrance of Robert Milner
Shackleton who was a personal friend of the composer and was
distantly related to the Antarctic explorer. Once again the
quartet is in four movements. Do not be put off by the liner
notes’ description of the first movement as being a ‘dirge’.
It may be formally but there is a beauty and interest to this
music that defies any popular definition of that word. This
is followed by another slow movement, an adagio which makes
use of harmonics, Arabic scales and ‘grumpy’ chords reflecting
one aspect of his friend’s personality. Yet another slow movement
follows: this time it is a thoughtful funeral march that proceeds
in slow step. It is profound and poignant. The mood changes
for the final movement. We are off to sunny Spain, where Shackleton
worked. Exciting Flamenco rhythms and drive are finally pushed
aside by funereal music. To my ear this is the best of the quartets.
Certainly it is the most moving and personal.
The String Quartet No.3 is the longest and possibly the most
involved of the works on these two CDs. It is a harmonically
complex, chromatic quartet that explores a variety of moods
and nuances of tone. The opening movement is a ‘jagged’ homage
to Mozart. The second is an adagio which seems to be a skilful
counterpoint of Martinu and baroque music. The Scherzo is also
complex: in fact there are three separate scherzos subsumed
into the movement. These are rhythmically elaborate and sometimes
deliberately grotesque and ‘out of tune’. Once again, intricate
harmonies inform the slow movement. This time it involves the
use of complex dissonances and music spiced with polytonality.
It is probably the most ‘advanced’ movement on this CD. I liked
it. The last movement is a mathematician’s delight: based on
the Fibonacci Series of numbers and Golden Sections. This is
not, however, dry as dust – it is not a case of mere intellectual
games. The effect is impressive and brings this diverse work
to a satisfactory conclusion.
The raison d’être of the programmatic final Quartet leaves me
utterly cold and largely uninterested. The work was commissioned
by the organisers of the Cambridge Darwin Festival in 2009.
It celebrated the 200th anniversary of the scientist’s
birth. The quartet is built on a ‘program of Darwin’s career
as geologist and evolutionist’. The work is in a single movement
and is largely tonal in its harmonic language. Reading the analytical
notes reminds me of the sort of programme that accompanies Richard
Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. For example, ‘clouds appear,
at first small Cumulus (3:49) which build and threaten for …
a storm (4:42). Lightning and thunder is heard (5:04) and the
first heavy raindrops arrive (5:41). So it goes on (and on).
Man arrives on the scene and then develops his religious beliefs
– Hebrew, Christian and Muslim. All have their little musical
references. A ‘War Fugue’, complete with machine gun-fire, heavy
gun-fire and no doubt ‘trench foot’ are all noted. Nothing could
be more calculated to put me off a piece of music than this
gobbledygook. However, the strange and sad thing is that the
music is actually excellent. It is a great pity to spoil it
with all these cross-references. It does little for the genius
of Darwin and nothing for the integrity of Ramsay’s music. Listeners
- and composer - please dump the programme!
The sound quality, which is good, occasionally has just a little
bit of a hard edge to it. However, the playing is excellent
and enthusiastic. The CD is well-presented with an attractive
cover depicting a ‘micro-photograph of
rock crystal in polarized light’ which was taken by the composer.
I am guessing that the comprehensive analytical notes were written
by Ramsay himself; however, no credit is given in the notes.
Although the two CDs appear a bit short, the set is priced as
for one disc. So good value all round.
The bottom line is that all four of John Ramsay’s String Quartets
are worthy examples of the genre and undoubtedly deserve a place
in the repertoire. Each work is approachable and is written
in a style that is stylistically ‘conservative’ without being
anodyne. They form an impressive cycle.