"Our Common Wealth" | Villiers Quartet Concert

concert 2 updated 16 06

Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the
future   Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities


Tuesday 15 June 2021, 7pm-8pm




Livestreamed concert live from the JdP Music Building

The Villiers Quartet explores themes of British identity and history, starting with British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Five Fantasiestücke Op. 5. Movements from John Mayer’s String Quartet No. 2 ‘Nava Rasa’ showcase the work of the Calcutta-born violinist and composer. As part of their From Home Commissions, the Villiers give the premiere of Alex Ho’s “Our Common Wealth” which explores the breakup of voices and identities within a collective. The concert ends with the Third Quartet by Elizabeth Maconchy, who wrote 13 quartets overall and became the first female Chair of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain.

This event is part of the Diversity and British String Quartet Symposium. You can read more about the Diversity and the British String Quartet  HCP project here.



Samuel Coleridge -Taylor - Five Fantasiestücke for string quartet (1895)

John Mayer - Quartet No.2 ‘Nava Rasa’ (selected movements) (ca 1970)

Alex Ho - Our Common Wealth *From Home world premiere

Elizabeth Maconchy - String Quartet No. 3 (1938)

Villiers Quartet 

Katie Stillman, violin I

Tamaki Higashi, violin II

Carmen Flores, viola

Leo Melvin, cello


Programme Note:

coleridge taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - Five Fantasiestücke for string quartet (1895)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer, conductor and political activist who fought against race prejudice with his compositions. Born in Holborn in 1875 to an English mother and a father originally from Sierra Leone, he liked to be identified as Anglo-African. His name was given to him after the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, curiously, became a great source of inspiration during his career.

Conscious of his African descent, Taylor’s classical compositions were heavily influenced by traditional African music and this made him one of the most progressive writers of his time. He also became well-known for his use of poetry – particularly in his cantata trilogy, ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ which included the epic Hiawatha Overture and was based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 


john mayer

John Mayer – String Quartet No. 2 “Nava Rasa” (ca 1970)

John Mayer was born 28th October 1929 in Eden Hospital Calcutta, to an Anglo-Indian father and a Tamil mother. Mayer enjoyed great success with his education and early compositions, and gained membership as a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. However, this created problems with the management of the London Philharmonic, which was a conservative organisation and didn’t appreciate having a composer within the ranks of its performing musicians. Mayer was forced to leave his job at the LPO, but was hired by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham, who asked him to join. Mayer began a happy seven-year relationship with the RPO, in the process learning a huge amount about orchestration (as well as conducting) from some of the finest players in England. By 1965, when he left the RPO’s violin section, he was able to finally earn his living from his compositions and to quit full time orchestral playing. He was encouraged by his teacher, Matyas Seiber, to explore ideas of incorporating jazz and Indian influences into his classical compositions.


photo alex ho

Alex Ho – Our Common Wealth (2021)

From Home World Premiere

Alex Ho is a British-Chinese composer based in London. Winner of the George Butterworth Award 2020, Alex has had pieces performed/commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Radio 3, Royal Opera House, National Opera Studio, Music Theatre Wales, London Sinfonietta, and Roderick Williams. His works have featured at SoundState Festival (Southbank Centre, London), Sound Unbound (Barbican Centre, London), Hearing China (Shanghai Symphony Hall, Shanghai), Cheltenham Music Festival, Oxford Lieder Festival, and BBC Late Junction. Alex was joint-winner of the Philip Bates Composition Competition in 2016, one of Sound and Music's 'New Voices 2018', a Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund Artist in 2019, and one of the LSO's 'Soundhub' composers from 2018-2020.  He is the co-director of Tangram, an artist collective catalysing transnational imagination and celebrating the vitality of Chinese cultures. Alex is currently studying for a doctorate at the Royal College of Music with a full AHRC scholarship (LAHP studentship supported by RCM). Of “Our Common Wealth” he writes:

‘Our Common Wealth is a small piece of reckoning. It is the reckoning of a structure and an identity that is fragile and crumbling. A structure that is made up of forgotten stories. Forgotten stories about people and their communities. Communities that have wealth. And wealth that is common.’



Elizabeth Maconchy – String Quartet No. 3 (1938)

Elizabeth Maconchy was a composer of great versatility and unfailing integrity, amply deserving of a British critic’s description of her as ‘one of the most substantial composers these islands have yet produced’. She studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams, who remained a lifelong friend; but she was attracted less by English pastoralism than by the central European modernism of Bartók and Janáček, and she completed her studies with K.B. Jirák in Prague.

Maconchy’s 3rd string quartet is just one movement, and is made up of 5 broad sections. The first section is a Lento, slow and full of unspoken tension, expertly paced and drawn out to heighten the drama. This leads into a Presto - frenetic and passionate. There’s a brief respite with a seductive Andante, sweet and manipulative before moving into another anguished Presto. This is succeeded by a calmer Poco Largamente which brings the piece to a close.



Named after Villiers Street in London, the Villiers Quartet encompasses the grand and iconic spirit of the extraordinary music tradition in Britain and has been praised for “exquisite ensemble playing” (Seen & Heard International), and their absolute “commitment and virtuosity” (The Sunday Times). The Villiers Quartet is the Quartet-in-Residence at the Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University.


Hailed as “Champions of British Music” (The Observer), the Villiers Quartet has become one of the most recognised quartets in the UK for the performance of British music, releasing acclaimed recordings of works by Elgar, Delius, Peter Racine Fricker, William Sterndale Bennett, David Matthews, William Alwyn and Kuljit Bhamra, MBE. In 2020 they gave the world premiere of the complete 1888 Delius string quartet, featuring movements in their original versions uncovered by Professor Daniel Grimley from Oxford University.


In 2020 the Villiers Quartet initiated new digitally-based projects including VQ Discovery: Beethoven Discovery, an online course to study Beethoven’s quartets in-depth whilst in lockdown; #VQCreate, mentoring secondary school students online to compose new music for string quartet; and From Home: VQ Commissions, commissioning new works from diverse British composers to celebrate the VQ’s 10th Anniversary season for 2021. These works will be premiered at the Oxford Symposium led by Dr. Joanna Bullivant and Prof. Samantha Dieckmann, “Diversity and the British String Quartet”.

The Villiers Quartet has been broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the Leamington International Quartet Series, and on NPO Radio 4 live from the Concertgebouw. The VQ has been featured on BBC’s  In Tune and also BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show with pianist Alexis Ffrench and double bassist Leon Bosch. The VQ was the featured quartet on the score to the BBC film Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The VQ presented masterclasses in the UK and abroad at Oxford University, Duke University, Dartmouth College, University of Nottingham, Syracuse University, Cal State LA, Jacksonville University, and Indiana University South Bend. ambassadors for British chamber music, the VQ has given premieres and performances of music by British composers including Anthony Payne, Alexander Goehr, Martyn Harry, David Matthews, and Elizabeth Kelly

The broad curiosity of the Villiers Quartet and its passion for teaching and performing have made the VQ a valuable resource for students and audiences alike. Inspiration comes from the heart of the Villiers Quartet’s philosophy: to believe in the art of string quartet.


This project has been generously supported by the Oxford Humanities Cultural Programme, Arts Council England, the RVW Trust, The David Willets Fund for Teaching Innovation, and supporters of the Villiers Quartet’s From Home Commissions Fund.


Find out more about the full Diversity and the British String Quartet Symposium programme here.


photo credit: Charles Gervais