John Blackwood McEwen
String Quartet No.6 in A Major "Biscay"
"McEwen's Sixth Quartet (1913) has warmth of color and a keen sense of surroundings. But in no sense is the Biscay Quartet program music. although there is apparent in every bar the sunny climate of the south of France, the chilly early morn of "The Dunes" and of the cheery souls who rake the oyster beds (Les Racleuse). The opening movement, Le Phare (the lighthouse), an Allegro, is a strong and exhilarating movement depicting the wild and windswept Biscay shore. The second movement, Les Dunes, Andante mesto begins with a plaintive tune. The music gives the impression of solitude amidst a vast expanse of sand and sea. The finale, Les Racluese, Vivace, begins with a quaint tune which recalls the free and easy life of the Biscay oyster gathers." ---Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music
John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) was born in the Scottish border town of Hawick. He studied at the University of Glasgow and the Royal Academy of Music. He later became a professor at the Academy and then its principal. He was a co-founder of the British Society of Composers (1905) and himself composed in most genres, with the string quartet being central to his oeuvre. He composed 19 of them. During his lifetime, he was considered one of Britain's leading composers and a pioneer in many aspects. The famous chamber music scholar Wilhelm Altmann, writing in his Handbook for String Quartet Players, praises McEwen as a very solid composer and recommends his string quartets. That McEwen's works did not become better known was in part due to the fact that he did very little to promote them. Many treasures await players and listeners alike.
The Biscay Quartet was one of his best known quartets and one of the few that received performances on the continent and in North America. There is no question but that it deserves revival. It will be of interest to both amateurs and professionals alike.