Behind the Poetry: Sonata

I’m utterly thrilled that Guillemot Press has just published my new extended poem, Sonata: violare, col legno, in a book that is a wonderfully beautiful and tactile object, irrespective of its content! I’m never sure how much one should divulge of the makings and intention of a work such as this, but I thought I might share something of its genesis and process.

It began life in 2014 with the seed of an idea. Thanks to some generous and encouraging friends, I had just published a small collection of poems by subscription, Fulcrum. I had decided in 2011 to answer the need to create, having suppressed it for 15 years. Writing music was my deepest need, but I didn’t have the confidence or space to return to writing music (our first children — twins — arrived in spring 2011!), so I started with poetry. In 2014 I was just starting to write music, and I was thinking about poetry post-Fulcrum. With thoughts of both music and poetry in mind, I started thinking about the idea of combining musical forms with verbal music. On 8 July 2014 two ideas came to mind: the notion of a poetic symphony, bringing musical structures into a verbal work; and a more complex notion of a poetic string quartet, in which four voices give their own poetic lines, which work singly, but also combine in harmony to produce a single, collective music; sometimes as soli or in dialogue, sometimes in full concurrent conversation. I imagined it to be in a few movements with a prologue and epilogue, one movement set in the woods, playing upon the mode of playing stringed instruments ‘with the wood’ of the bow — in Italian, ‘col legno’. Another movement would speak of water, of rivers and rain, titled with an Italian term I knew from one of Kenneth Leighton’s string quartets, ‘Scorrevole’: flowing; gliding.

Ideas for ‘Quartet’ started to take to the page. The beginnings of a full conversational dialogue in four parts, with multiple possible readings, began to take shape. Then I started to write music, and my attention was diverted.

In July 2016, after completing my first large-scale musical work, the chamber oratorio, War Passion, I returned to the ‘Quartet’, and made various further notes. But it was slow work. Slower than my usual rate of writing, which is already very slow. The multiple voices and the various ways of reading made it rather an ambitious undertaking, to say the least! With us by then having three young children, I started to think that it was going to be something that I wouldn’t be able to work in earnest at until my retirement in some 40 years’ time — if ever one is able to retire.

In 2017 I was feeding my love of Nordic poetry by exploring for the first time the work of Finland-Swedish poet Tua Forsström. I became engrossed in her wonderful collection, ‘One evening in October I rowed out on the lake’, translated by David McDuff and published by Bloodaxe Books. I was particularly taken with how Forsström carried a few phrases, motifs, across the collection, recurring and developing in their different contexts. It made me think: why not turn the ideas had had for Quartet into a single poem in sonata form, in which such motifs equate to the musical themes/motifs that are explored and interrogated in that musical form. This would sort of steer the idea for the quartet towards that other idea of the symphony, in which some movements are traditionally in sonata form. I would retain some sense of the dialogue, but the poem would now take verbal motifs and subjects as its raw structure. Sonata was born.

The ideas and material that I had already been developing in Quartet were adapted and developed, and over the course of the next three years (which also saw the arrival of our fourth — and final — child!) Sonata slowly came to birth, until it was completed in spring 2020.

Although the origin of the poem lay in its formal considerations, I hope that the narrative trumps the framework in reading the poem; a narrative exploring the idea and pursuit of silence, the blights of crippling self-doubt, noise, tinnitus, and with its other subtexts and ideas that might be carved out in the reading — never mind whatever each reader brings to the poem themselves. Although demarcated into 15 sections, the poem is a single piece; a single narrative. I hope that you might be interested to read the poem, and that this brief history of its genesis and making won’t put you off. Do please take a look at Guillemot Press’s website, and buy a copy of Sonata. I was utterly delighted when they said that they would like to publish the poem, and I am hugely proud of both the poem and what Guillemot have done with it, with its beautiful and utterly fasincating cover artwork by Anna Hussey. Guillemot Press create books that are things of genuine beauty and a real pleasure to read, with some wonderful poetry, so do please explore their catalogue more widely.

Launch Event, 10 June!

If you are reading this post before 10 June 2021, then you would be very welcome to attend the free online launch event for the book, which you can book for on the events page of Guillemot’s website. I will be reading the whole poem at that event. If you are reading this after 10 June 2021, there is a chance that the reading might have made its way onto Guillemot’s YouTube channel.

I have created a ‘trailer’ for Sonata, including a reading of an extract from the poem. This video trailer took a turn towards a piece of sound art, and I am greatly tempted (should time and opportunity allow!) to create a full audio/video recording of the whole poem. For now, though, you can get a glimpse of the poem as it takes a turn towards darkness in this trailer:


Carol of the Passion Première

Quite amazingly, within the next five weeks, I have two musical works being premièred.  In my last blog-post, I wrote about one of these: the song cycle with violin, Fallen, which is being performed in Ludlow on 3 April (read more here).  However, before that, on 19 March, a short choral work will receive its first performance at St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London, at the hands of conductor Michael Bawtree, who will be directing the choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge.  Happily, it will also be the first of my short choral works to be performed — an Easter carol.

As an ‘emerging composer’ (for want of a better term), one is always on the lookout for opportunities.  There are a number of amazing performers and organisations who put out calls for scores; calls for new works to be submitted for consideration for them to bring to performance.  One of these is the John Armitage Memorial Trust.  For 20 years now, JAM (as it is known) has been promoting New Music, through commissions and calls for music.  In that 20 years, they have brought an incredible 130 new works to performance, at concerts in London (‘Music of Our Time’), and at their annual festival on the Kent coast, JAM on the Marsh. Crucially, as is evident in this year’s 20th anniversary launch concert, they give repeated performances of the commissions they make.  Getting a first performance for a work is far easier than getting a second or third, so supporting these further performances is so valuable to a composer.  This year, JAM commissions by Daniel Saleeb, Julian Philips and Paul Mealor receive repeat hearings, as does a previously successful submission to the call for music by Hannah Kendall — not to mention the four other works selected from this years call for music!  Something to look forward to.

I have submitted a work to them previously, but this year, much to my amazement, I was successful!  19 March, therefore, will see the première of a work I composed over the space of 6 weeks in the autumn, completed just a few weeks before their submission deadline: Carol of the Passion.

Carol of the Passion began life amongst the rolling book-stacks of a library basement. Amongst some music books that now too rarely see the light of day (since the closure of Exeter University’s music department), I found a 1935 volume of Early English Carols. I am of too gloomy a disposition to be much attracted to Christmas carols, but I was fascinated to see the various 14th-16th century carols for other seasons and occasions. Amongst them, in several versions, was a 15th century Carol of the Passion. Its refrain of ‘Nowel’—a word so closely associated with Christmas—was followed by 15 written repetitions of its final syllable, ‘el, el, el…’, from the outset relaying the urgency with which the singers are bringing news of the crucifixion to Mary. The music of the refrain suggested itself immediately, on the train home. After the urgency of the messengers, and Mary’s hastening to the Cross, the setting hopes to catch something of the love and concern of Mary, and of the peace of Christ on the Cross as he accepts his fate and binds mother and disciple together as mother and son. The carol ends with the haste turning to a near-triumphant celebration of the sacrifice and all that this bitter fate sought to achieve.

So, with huge and grateful thanks to JAM, in three weeks’ time it will be brought to life: a 4 minute carol for SSAATB — a combination of singers that I thought might make it practicable for choirs struggling to find tenors and basses, as many do.  It is not as easy as might be, being quite orchestral in its means, but even very good choirs capable of undertaking the piece can struggle to find singers.

Do please have a look at JAM’s website, and perhaps even support the concert, tickets for which are available here, along with fuller details of the concert.  I hope to see you there!

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Fallen in Ludlow

For a composer, one of the greatest privileges in life is having one of your works performed, having the piece brought to life.  We write these things, hearing them in our minds, and then they lie silent on the page.  Only in performance do they truly come to life, and only then can a composer know whether they have got the thing right — whatever that might mean.

This April, my song cycle for tenor and violin, Fallen, will be given its first performance, thanks to the generosity of Iain Burnside, who has programmed it in the opening recital of the Ludlow English Song Weekend, St. Laurence’s Church, 3 April, 7pm.  Toby Spence will sing, with Michael Trainor of the Piatti Quartet will be on the violin.  What a treat!

I completed Fallen exactly a year ago, on 12 January 2019, one of two projects involving collaborations with poets for which I ran a Crowdfunder campaign in January 2018.  The other project was the writing of a Canticle for soprano and piano to newly commissioned words by Euan Tait, Miriam’s Exile, a work that received its first performance last June.  With Fallen, I collaborated with poet John Greening, commissioning him to write a series of poems for a song cycle.

The ideas at the root of Fallen were several.  My original working title for the piece was ‘The Sighing Poplar’, and in it I hoped to provide a new counterpart to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s song cycle to words by Housman for high voice and violin, Along the Field.  Hoping to complete and bring the work to performance in 2018, I saw it as a personal tribute to RVW, marking the sixtieth anniversary of his death that year, but also to Housman, and to those other artists who found inspiration in his words, notably Ivor Gurney.  In the end, I was unable to start writing the piece until mid September 2018, a couple of weeks after that anniversary; but the intention still stands.

The initial premise was that Housman’s poplar has been cut down.  Who, or what, will now empathise and give voice to the sighing of the soul? The felling of the poplar is also redolent of the felling of the great man, the great maker, that was RVW, but it also speaks of more ecological matters, of which we have become increasingly aware in this time of climate crisis.  The cutting down of trees in the name of progress, and — as John so succinctly put it in one of the poems — to ‘save five minutes’ in an age when every milisecond of time needs to be accounted for and made more efficient.  Such is the case with new roads and rail projects (i.e., HS2).  What is wrong with taking time and space?  Why does everything have to be pushed to be that little bit faster, be it journeys, tasks, broadband speeds or otherwise?  But in an age when mobile telephones and email make communication near instantaneous, giving worrying rise to the expectation that one is available to others at every moment of every day, being able to do anything ‘faster’ is apparently ‘better’.

Discussing ideas with John, we spoke about Housman and Vaughan Williams; about Housman’s poplars, seen in poems such as ‘Along the field’ and ‘Far in a western brookland’ — the first the title song of RVW’s cycle with violin, the second set so ecstatically by Gurney in Ludlow & Teme.  I told John how I had first thought to create the cycle out of existing poems, beginning with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’, and including Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The way through the woods’.  John responded to all of these, and the poems he wrote are headed by the initials of the respective poets and composers, to whom they pay tribute, whilst also presenting the narrative of the cycle.  The opening song echoes Manley Hopkins, telling of the felling of the poplar (a ‘hi-vis man assault[ing] the sky’).  The second tells of Vaughan Williams, who looks out upon the fallen poplar, having ‘outlived the Leith Hill aspen’ — a poem with some beautiful allusions by John to RVW’s works.  The third poem is that response to Kipling (‘we saved five minutes’), and the fourth — the slow movement of the cycle — a tribute to Housman and Gurney, with echoes of that ‘Western Brookland’.  The two poets meet on a bridge, and hear something calling ‘out of the west’: the distant call of Severn poplars, that river running through the homelands of both AEH and IBG.  The final song echoes Housman’s ‘Along the field’, telling of the poplars that foretold the lovers’ futures, whilst ‘not knowing their own last trump’.  The cycle ends with the lovers walking ‘where no poplar sighs’.

A ‘fantasia of roots’: the foot of a poplar on Alney Island, Gloucester.

It may be incidental and immaterial, but it felt important for me to begin the writing of the music by going and finding a poplar or more, and spending some time with them, listening.  I was in Gloucester on 14-15 September, staying with my dear friends Sebastian and Vicki Field, and giving a talk at a Gurney event organised by The Musical Brain.  On the morning of 15th, I had a free couple of hours, and so I walked out to Alney Island, on the Severn, west of Gloucester, and found just a couple of poplars.  It wasn’t quite the scene I hoped: oppressive pylons cross the meadows, and the sound of traffic from the nearby main roads mar the peace.  But I spent about an hour or so with these poplars, a little apart from the river.  I stood and listened, and watched, and thought.  They are majestic trees, with the differing greens on either side of the leaves; and the sight and sound of the way they flick and rustle in the breezes is mesmerisingly beautiful.  My song cycle opens with a ‘Prologue’ (with apologies for the ironic pun — ‘Pro-Log’, rather than Prelude or Introduction), which attempts to echo something of that rustling is the breeze rises and falls away.  While I stood beneath those trees, from afar, on the breeze, I heard a voice resound.  It was almost certainly just a child enjoying the echo in the concrete caverns under the main road overpass through which one must walk in order to reach Alney Island, but it took in my mind, and in the Prologue, and there and then I sketched the voice wordlessly sounding a short rising and falling figure under the violin’s poplar in the breeze — ideas that recur throughout the cycle.

Wonderfully, through the generosity of tenor James Gilchrist, the new music charity Sound and Music, and Bristol violinist Roger Huckle, in February 2019, a month after completing the cycle, I was able to hear the cycle begin to come to life, with a rough run-through of the piece in a private workshop.  This allowed me to correct just a couple of things in the violin part, and refine the bowing, phrasing and dynamics in the piece.  How invaluable it is for a composer to be able to work with performers in this way, to learn how best to write for instruments!  And what a privilege it is to collaborate with poets such as John Greening and Euan Tait.  I love bringing poems to life, but it is incredibly special to be able to actively work with a fellow artist, discussing ideas and refining them, making something together; something of our time.

Fallen will receive its first performance on 3 April, and I cannot wait to hear it.  Tickets for the performance are available from Ludlow Assembly Rooms.  If I were you, I would go to that recital just to hear Toby Spence and Iain Burnside perform one of the truly great masterpieces of 20th century English song, Michael Tippett’s Boyhood’s End — never mind about mine and John’s piece!

The opening of Fallen.

Five Years

Five years seems so short a time, and yet it is now just a few weeks over five years since I reclaimed what has become the crucial part of my work: writing music.  I suppressed it for 15 years; suppressed it through lack of confidence, after the experiences of university, turning away from it and distracting myself with other things.  But it kept coming up to the surface and clamouring for my attention, only to be pushed back again and again.  It is only as memories from my youth are unlocked, or as I stumble upon forgotten notes from my school days, that I have come to realise that it was always the most important thing.  How foolish to suppress it!  But, pragmatically, had I not, I would not be where I am today, writing the works I am writing.

Five years ago, all was unlocked with the granting of a Finzi Scholarship from the Finzi Trust, which bought me time to start finding my way back into writing in the late spring/early summer of that year.  Rather than suppressing ideas, I could try to prise them open and explore them.

So: five years.  So short a time—and how lucky I have been in that time, with some major performances behind me and (excitingly—watch this space!) before me, promoters and artists wanting to perform my scribblings.  There is no greater privilege and honour than that, alongside the pleasure and privilege of collaborating on projects with other creative artists whose work I love and admire, as I have during this last year.

Looking to the future, very shortly I shall be a published composer, my first published work to be issued by Stainer & Bell within the next few months—something that I still don’t quite believe, and such a boon to be so recognised.  Going forwards, there are always works and ideas in hand—new ideas, as well as the several ideas for works that came to me during my 15 years of silence, which have remained with me and still bob up to the surface from time to time.  I am at the moment busily writing funding applications for another major project for 2020, whilst tinkering with a choral piece that grows slowly, and trying to decide which idea to grasp next.  There is a canticle, a song cycle, a string quartet, and a piece for string orchestra all vying for attention.  Every piece is a challenge, but some will be a very serious challenge: the work for which I am applying for funding, and the string orchestra piece, which terrifies me—just as the first notes I wrote five years ago did when trying to take up the pen once more.  It depends upon the funding applications and job situation which it will be, and how quickly the pieces shall come.  However one thing shall remain constant: I shall write, and it will never again, as long as I have strength to work, be suppressed.  Five years.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the next five!

The Elusive Book

For several years, when other projects allow, I have been working on a book: a big critical study of Ivor Gurney’s music and poetry. I really have been working on it, although it is not yet as much in evidence as it should be. To be frank, it should — as other things —have been finished by now, and even (I add, optimistically) be on your bookshelf. But it isn’t. More fundamentally for me, its absence is probably why I don’t currently have a job. 

There are excuses aplenty: We have moved house twice, the first time relocating by 200 miles; we have had four children (in 7 years); and my composition work has become increasingly important.  But I have been Gurneying. Indeed some of my other work on Gurney, projects that are enormously consuming by themselves, are an absolute prerequisite for the book. The cataloguing of the archive has been a far more monstrous task than I or anyone else envisaged, and that has taken much time away from my co-edition, with Tim Kendall, of Gurney’s complete poetry (more on this very soon!), never mind the book. 

But the book has been developing: Over 30,000 words have been drafted, although by the Plan of the book there is a generous 100,000 or so left to go. That Plan, the structuring of the book, however, has occupied more hours of thought and worry than has been spent on the writing. It has been almost nightmarish, causing moments of despair.  How do you best structure a book dealing with the driving forces behind an artist’s work, when so many of the ideas weave together in a rich tapestry of influences across time and genre? The problem is that I am purposely avoiding the biographical detail of Gurney’s life as much as is possible. I cannot avoid them, and must indeed engage in some depth with some of fundamental elements of his life in relating his work; but his biography has done huge damage to the reception and perception of Gurney’s music and poetry. By avoiding the narrative of the biography, there is no ready-made thread on which to hang the critical insights. The book needs to be structured otherwise — likely thematically — weaving its own tapestry of interrelationships that manages to reveal and give insight into the threads within the work and artist by unraveling the threads woven into that work. 

In trying to find the way through, I have produced numerous lists, schematics, incomprehensible webs of relationships between key subjects and figures, structures and book plans. It took me a long while — indeed until only a matter of 9 months or so ago — to decide that the only way to find the solution is to write it; to start from the beginning and write it in order from beginning to end, rather than drafting chapters and putting them together later; to allow the structural difficulties to resolve themselves and evolve through the controlled organicism of that writing. The only way out is through, as (I think) Robert Frost said. 

Coming to this realisation was surprisingly liberating. Rather than worrying about the whole and its complex interrelationships, I can just focus on a small part. The whole will gradually become apparent. Which is not to say that I am no longer working to a plan. I am, and that quite a detailed one. I know where it’s going, and when I get there I shall be able to resolve bit by bit how I reconcile, for example, the entwining ideas of place, history, war, landscape, memory, and writers such as Whitman and Edward Thomas, in their several permutations and disparate facets as representation and influence upon both his music and poetry (which I am dealing with concurrently, not separately). So, it has been slow progress, but for this last 9 months it has been progressing in a pleasing way, with growing excitement and confidence, when time allows. The journey is far from over, but I feel better equipped now than ever before. I am no longer packing: I have set out on the journey and am getting into my stride. I shall perhaps bore you with thoughts on the writing and ideas being pursued in later posts. The book’s title (it has had a few): ‘The Gathering Mind’. 

The Accents of National Music

As we listen to music, even if we don’t know the piece or composer, we can sometimes identify the national origin of a work.  ‘That’s French!’, we might declare, or Russian, or English, Nordic, Bohemian, Eastern European, American, or whatever else.  As a scholar, a musicologist, a recurring theme that is of interest to some, in talks or notes, is how that sense of nationalism is created.  What is it that allows us to identify that national origin?  What is it that defines a national voice?  How can we identify what it is that make those nationalist differences in music, and what they are?  More fundamentally, do these boundaries truly exist?

After the question of national identity in music arose in a discussion panel at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song in 2017, composer Martin Bussey remarked that he doesn’t set out to write ‘English music’.  Nor do I.  It is the last thing on our minds.  I don’t believe any composer sets out upon their career, or indeed a work, thinking, ‘I must write music as befits my nationality!’  In writing an idea, we don’t think, ‘I can’t write that: it just isn’t representative of the national voice and music to which I am contributing and belong!’  In the case of several composers I have spoken to, we write the music that we want to hear.  Even when a composer is part of a movement that consciously seeks to create, or rationalise, a national cultural voice, they cannot ‘create’ that identity.  Such movements (think Finland, and their 19th century movement towards independence) draw upon traditional cultures: folklore, folk-songs, the reclamation of native language where it has been suppressed — elements of their national, non-occupationist, culture that have survived on the fringes.  Beyond that, a composer or writer cannot truly create a national voice.  It comes from somewhere deeper.

While personal musical style can be a conscious, or half-conscious thing that a composer refines and hones with practice and writing, any sense of a national cultural identity that might be perceived in that music is a subconscious, if not indeed wholly unconscious, act.  So what is it that underpins that unconscious, or half-subconscious, yet tangible sense of ‘national music’?

Much has been written of landscape and music, particularly in Britain with the perceived pastoralism of composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and the late-19th–early-20th century school.  Is it the landscape that shapes it?  Is there something of the elemental rock of Iceland, unsoftened by green, in Jon Liefs, as one might say of the green pastures of England’s pastoralism?  Can we differentiate between the urban and rural?  Perhaps we can, but Vaughan Williams, as an adoptive Londoner, wrote many of his apparently pastoral works in that metropole (although I think landscapes reside within us more than without — but that is an essay for another day).  A more fundamental and constant part of our environment I think does have some bearing on national style: the climate; the heat of Spain, the more temperate variance of Britain, and the cool Nordic climes, such as the quality of light in those places is evident in visual art.  Also of bearing, is our national cultural distinction, the nature of our characters.  Of this, I believe one aspect is crucial and fundamental: our language; our voices.  Language is, I believe, the true key to that sense of national identity in music; something ingrained in us from even before we leave our mother’s body, hearing the shape and sound of that which is spoken around us.  In Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ (the Gaelic question is a subject for yet another essay, perhaps), a line stands out in this respect: ‘It wasn’t a factory that made your language — it made you.’  It is likely a factory of men of which he writes (‘Keep / out of the factory, O man, you are not a robot.’), but it is true also of the language: it, the language, made you.

Our language is at the root of our cultural identity and of our music making.  The most basic and innate instrument we have is our voice.  Composing is a singing (a truth I have only discovered this last few years, as the balance between my singing and composing has shifted), and the origin of the sounds that we sing come from the well practised art of speech: from the shape and sound of the vowels in our language and accent, the lie of the consonants and their placing and prominence, the construction of the language, the character of the line, the cadences, and the wider tonal level, range and natural lyrical shape of that speech.  All of this impacts upon how we shape sound in music as we compose.  While it would likely benefit from some scientific surety — a deeper, metalinguistic study, for which I am not qualified — from my standpoint as a writer, a composer, a singer, and a musicologist, there seem to be some extraordinarily strong links between language, accent, and national musics.

At a very crude level, think of Mussorgsky’s extraordinary Boris Godunov.  The Russian language, from my experience of attempting to sing the language, with its verbal placing of sounds towards the rear of the tongue rather than at its tip.  This deep production, and unique sound, seems to resound in the aural quality of Boris (think of the motto theme of that work).  The impressionistic qualities of French music seem to me to echo something of spoken French; the openness of American speech gives something of that quality to their music.  Linguistically, do the formal aspects  of Teutonic music that have came to dominate Western Music for so long have their foundation in the formal, compound-construction of the German language?  Perhaps I imposing these ideas on these national musics, seeing something that isn’t really there; but I don’t think I am. It requires, however, a linguistic analysis — however that might work — with defined parameters that don’t risk resortion to, or definition by, malperceived stereotypes.

But these are hugely cosmopolitan times.  With the ease of international travel (for better or for worse), and the cross-fertilisation and enriching of cultures that arises with the movement of peoples and forming of immigrant communities, with the changes and collaborations that might be possible in that movement (something which has been present in our various nations’ societies and cultures for thousands of years); and with the dilution of parochialism in the centralisation of businesses and services in international centres, are we at risk of losing our national identities?  Are we losing that aural sense of origin, of place, morphing into a homogenous individualism (if that isn’t a too great an apparently-irreconcilable contradiction) devoid of national locus?  No, I don’t think we are, nor will we ever do so.  We will always be true to that native language of our upbringing, be it bilingual or otherwise, in whatever place that upbringing takes place.  It is part of our uniqueness in belonging to a nation (or more than one), and our individual voices.

Thinking further on the national identity of music makes me wonder further whether there is any way of identifying ultra-localism in the music, from the dialects and accents within a nation.  Even though the language is the same, can we identify something of the midland drawl, the harsher tones of English-speaking Glaswegians, or the more song-like tone of the English-speaking Welsh, in music written by composers of these places?  I should love to know.

A Lament for Æthelflæd

I am just completing a new work that is, for the present, a rarity for me: a commission.  It is a small piece I was invited to write for Gloucester’s commemorations of the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great; an extraordinary woman, warrior and queen, who was laid to rest in Gloucester, where she had established the priory of St. Oswald, bringing that saint’s relics to the city.

It was a tricky brief to fulfil, and indeed much of the time I have spent on the project has been devoted to reading Anglo-Saxon poetry and texts, endeavouring to find something that might suitably commemorate this great queen of the kingdom of Mercia — the Myrcna hlaedige; Lady of Mercia.  I sought references to Æthelflæd in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: the idea of the ancient method of reciting poetry made me wonder about telling her story in a sung narration, to which ends I extracted various passages about Æthelflæd from those Chronicles, but couldn’t quite give the text sufficient body or purpose.  (There is a particularly touching passage that tells of Æthelflæd’s grief at the loss of four of her theigns, killed ‘within the gates’ of Derby during the offensive in which she successfully reclaimed from the invading Danes in 917AD).  I almost set a couple of passages from the poem ‘Elene’, which seem to echo something of Æthelflæd’s founding of St. Oswald’s Priory, the poem telling of the finding of the True Cross and the building of a church to house that relic.  In the end I found something that fitted what had been my initial thought on the project: to find a text suitable to form a Lament for Æthelflæd.

The text I found is from that great 10th century source of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book.  It is the end of the 9th century poem telling of the deeds of the Mercian saint, St. Guthlac of Croyland.  I selected various lines from the end of the second part of that poem, Guthlac B; lines relating the death of St. Guthlac.  I couldn’t find a completely satisfactory translation, and so, with an 1842 translation of Codex Exoniensis by Benjamin Thorpe as my guide (see here, pp.183-4), and with the help of an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I set about creating my own translation.  I substituted references to ‘him’ with ‘her’, and added three words from the poem ‘Elene’ — words used to describe Elene: ‘Leader of Warriors’.  (I have seen it suggested that Elene may have been based upon Æthelflæd, but cannot recall where in my readings this was.)  The text I devised became:

Lament for Æthelflæd

Courage is best for those that oft must endure profound misery. Think deep on their torment. Their Lord’s death when it comes, woven by fate’s decree, they shall grieve with sorrowing soul, knowing their kind treasure giver is hidden in earth.

Our Lady, leader of warriors, the best of those between the seas, to God’s judgement, (staff of the weary), from worldly joy and loving kin, in glory has gone to seek that dwelling-place on high.

Now her portion of earth, a broken bone-house, is a house inhabited with death’s-rest, and that wondrous portion of body has in God’s light sought the glorious reward, to partake with the peaceful host of that well-spring of bliss.

It would have been good to have set the words in Anglo-Saxon Old English — indeed I would have preferred to in some ways, being more authentic in its voice.  Perhaps, if there had been more time I would have done so.  However, the difficulties in doing so in a reasonably short time-frame were several: knowing the pronunciation of the language would have been critical, so that it could be accented and properly nuanced in its setting; being able to relay that pronunciation to performers who, likely as not, would be similarly in the dark as to the verbal forming and aural interpretation of the text; and finally, the adjustments I was making to the text were readily done in modern English, but to make them in the original Anglo-Saxon would require an intimate grasp of the grammatical nuances of the language, adjusting masculine to feminine or neuter as required.  Without my being able to take more time than I had trying to grasp the intimacies of the language, and without a tame but knowledgable scholar of Anglo-Saxon to consult, I would not dare risk setting the original Old English.

Musically, I am using a perhaps slightly unusual ensemble, but one that I thought might be quasi-authentic. To the accompaniment of a solo violin (a quasi-rebec, as would have been used in the 10th century) and tenor drum, three solo voices — soprano, alto and tenor — give their lament. (Thinking on it now, the drum is perhaps a nod to Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, although I didn’t think of this when I conceived the piece.)  My mind’s eye saw a banquet being held in Æthelflæd’s honour, where the honoured bard, keeper of the Kingdom’s tales and lore, singer of poetry, gives voice to the kingdom’s grief. Whilst there are nods to the period, musically, the Lament is (I’m afraid!) very much a contemporary work.  Beyond knowledge of instruments, we don’t really know what their music sounded like anyway, so it would be folly to try to write in pastiche.

The joy of this small commission is that, unlike the pieces I write to fulfil my own ideas, there is a performance of the piece already in place, and possibly even two performances!  My Lament for Æthelflæd will be premiered next month by Vicki & Sebastian Field’s group, ‘Gaudeamus’.  There is a concert performance in the Gloucester Music Festival on 26th June (the day before my lecture–recital on Gurney in that festival), and, depending on how the programme works out, it may be performed before then, on 8th June at St. Oswald’s Priory, in the opening event of Gloucester’s Æthelflæd Festival.  Four other composers were commissioned also, so there is a collection of new works to be given in honour of the Lady of Mercia at these events.  It will be fascinating to hear what those others have done.  All being well, with permission of the performers, I may be able to post a recording of the thing (if I manage it) in due course.


Life is a bounteous thing. There are so many paths; so many experiences to have. There are people with whom to share life, be it your family, old friendships and acquaintanceships, or new meetings; places to walk or see; books, music, art &c. to be absorbed; work to be done, be it creative or functional; and ideas and aspirations to be pursued. It can be difficult to know where to turn. Every day there are a multitude of decisions that are made that shape and come to define what and who we are. In my life, with our four young children (ranging from 8 months to 7 years), and multitudinous projects and aspirations on the go, as a composer, academic, writer and singer, it can become seriously overwhelming, trying to decide what to get done. This blog has stagnated, in part because I have not known what to write about from the many things going on, and in part for trying to get on with those things in the first place! This last month or so has seen me singing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Gurney’s Western Playland for the first time (amongst other singings), lecturing on Gurney and First World War music, writing a CD booklet note for a new disc due out in October, as well as making some substantive progress with my book on Gurney, completing the composition of an extended work for soprano and piano and trying to build momentum on a rare commission, trying to keep on top of the numerous orders for orchestral parts for forthcoming Gurney performances, and edging closer to the submission to the publishers of both the first volume of the big Gurney poetry edition (2 weeks, fingers crossed!) and a volume of his songs.  I’ve also had an article and a poem published.  This is all before we get onto the family and the job searching and applications I am making to try to afford to keep a roof over our heads. I am certain that this is a light load compared to many; but I think it is the juggling that takes its toll, not knowing quite which hat you need to be wearing.

It has been suggested that I ‘give something up’; that I whittle down what I do in order to focus on just one thing or another. The problem is, what? They are all important parts of what I am.  The family, the singing, the telling-the-world about all the things that excite me, and my original work.  I did stop this latter for over a decade, but it has grown increasingly important to me; even necessary.  It was my frustration at not being able to express myself and exorcise ideas from my brain that drove me back to it in 2011; and while I have enjoyed being out of the cathedral system in which I served for two decades, I do greatly miss the regular singing and return to it with renewed joy when the few opportunities arise for me to sing.  If anything I should like to do more singing, but what gives in its stead?  And there is that eternal question which performers ask, and indeed composers of their works: how do I get more performances than I am getting?  The only answer, I think from experience, is to get out there and meet performers and promoters and to arrange your own outlets — all of which is, I think, more difficult when located in rural Devon rather than a bustling metropole, perhaps.  I haven’t yet ‘put myself out there’ in Devon, following our move here a few years ago.  Something on the ‘To-do’ list — although we do not yet know whether we are able to put permanent roots down here, as we crave.

There are things that suffer: I always try to give 100% of myself to whatever task is in hand, and being a perfectionist in my work I do try to work things through meticulously, which takes time.  In crossing between tasks, however, it can take yet more time to eke one’s way back in, to pick up where one left off.  In that crossing between tasks, sometimes, days or weeks later, one finds a small detail niggling at the back of your mind that you might have missed.  Occasionally a ball is dropped, and something that might only take a day to polish off can end up waiting three months before it is ‘got round to’.  Emails — one of the banes of modern life, but a wonderfully useful tool when used in moderation — can very quickly sink below the screen and end up being forgotten.  The deadline of a performance or lecture date focus the mind wonderfully, there being no leaway with such events that require you to stand up and present something at a particular time; but other things can get a little lost in the midst of all.

On a more personal note, I am not in touch with my friends as frequently as I should like, but I am fortunate in being able to see my family far more than many another working father would, which is a great great joy.  (Being here when the children return from school/nursery; and our 8-month-old little boy is just starting to explore speech sounds, although only two words with association have yet been formed: ‘cat’ and, just this lunchtime, that most important of words, ‘Tea’.)  But I still worry about how much time I spend at my desk when they are around, and how I can be a better husband; a better father.  This worry grows as I look to a possible future as a full-time academic — should any of my applications ever bear fruit, wherever in the country such a post might take us.

While it can be difficult to juggle several careers (as such) — aspects of my work which it is easy to pigeonhole and separate out, to undertake alone as a sole pursuit — the exciting thing about them all is how they feed into each other and enrich each single occupation.  My academic work on poetry informs my understanding of the poetry I sing; the performing of that poetry through singing enhances my understanding of it, which feeds into my research and writing about those works (I am fortunate in being asked most frequently to perform the British music I study); that same act of singing, both of music and words, and the wider study of words and music, enhance both my composing and my own poetry.  My family is the bedrock of all; the constant against which all else shifts and grows and renews.

So yes, life is bounteous thing, and while I could, theoretically, give up some aspect of my work, making additional room for the other aspects, it would diminish both myself and those other pursuits to do so.  It would be very difficult for me to give one of them up, and anyway, I am unable to choose which it would be.  The creativity became a physical necessity and so I had to take up that mantle again; the more academic tasks excite me and I feel hugely proud and privileged to have played a part in bringing new works out of the archive to publication and performance, and to be setting the record straight on one certain Mr. Gurney.  As for the family: before I turned 30 I imagined myself to be a bachelor, devoting my life to research.  One chance meeting changed this, and our family has become the greatest thing I have ever done.  So I cannot give up anything.  Nor can I do as I have so often been implored, to keep it all as a hobby and go and get a job in a bank.  If anything I should like to turn my hand to additional things, to letterpress printing; to visual art, in which I dabbled long ago; and to do more walking, gardening and cooking, all of which I love.

So often in life, we have to choose.  We have to set ourselves in one pigeonhole or another.  When dealing with the systems of ‘civilisation’, be it for car insurance, loans or other such a thing, you need to be able to define yourself as one thing or another; you need to be able to give a single label occupation.  Life isn’t like that.  We grow in many directions, and to cut off one of those directions can compromise what we are.  So I shall carry on juggling.  I shall keep on composing, writing, singing, researching, being a husband and father, for all of these are what I am.  I shall keep trying not to let a ball drop, and to keep bringing the various ideas and projects to fruition.  It may take me years, but I get there, and each time something is finally put to bed one of the amassing reservoir of new ideas will take its place.  New works, new research projects, new challenges and adventures for the family.  A juggle, a worry at times, with often not enough of a living to be financially comfortable, but worth every moment.

A Christmas Offering

In recent weeks I have been revising and completing a piece which I first drafted a year ago: an Aubade for Christmas Morning, for 2-part trebles and string quartet. It is a setting of a short poem by the Finnish poet Bo Carpelan (1926-2011), in a translation by David McDuff, ‘The green tree, the blue sea’, from Carpelan’s collection The Cool Day (1961). It is not an openly ‘Christmassy’ poem, if there is such a thing. Indeed it doesn’t even mention that, or any other, season — nor indeed any time of day. It is extraordinarily simple in its means. A tree holds its arms above a child; the sound of the sea mingles with the child’s breath. These interactions with the child happened ‘years ago’, and yet the tree and the sea remain: through them we have a connection with that child. The child might be any child, but the apparent need to hold that connection, to feel that link, made me think of a particular child whose birth we celebrate in late December. My aubade echoes the procession of these ideas: the peace of the child; the passing of time; and the joy at the realisation that the connection with the child remains. Whilst I completed that first draft some while ago, the end has always nagged at me as being unsatisfactory. It was just too unabatedly joyful; its end to too decisively affirmative. Those who know me will testify to my curmudgeonliness. I am what is most properly known as a ‘grumpy bugger’ — but that is not to say that I don’t know joy. I merely express it in more introverted ways. One of those ways is through my music, where one can risk just a little joy, but — as in the case of the Aubade — it can’t be too forthright in its expression. So, I revised the end, the joy easing into a peace imbued with that joy; a peace born of the knowledge that we share those connections of the tree and sea that witnessed the child’s being. The Christmasness (if there is such a word) of the setting is affirmed in small nods to both ‘The Sussex Carol’ and ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ in the acompaniment.

There are, I suppose, two questions that might be asked: why did I turn to a Finnish poet, and why the curious and unusual accompaniment for string quartet? The answer lies in a short piece by the remarkable Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, whose work I admire enormously: Vintern var hård — ‘Winter was hard’ (click here to hear the piece on YouTube). When exploring Sallinen’s works, in the wake of my discovery of his music through the fabulous Barrabas Dialogues, I stumbled upon Vintern var hård. I was struck by its remarkable texture — treble voices and string quartet — and its austere atmosphere. However, I was frustrated, solely from a musical perspective, that the piece didn’t progress or develop significantly. I felt there was so much more scope for the thing. However, Sallinen is in fact absolutely correct in his conception of the piece! He sets a poem from Bo Carpelan’s 1969 poetry collection The Courtyard, which is a series of poems which draws upon Carpelan’s recollection of his 1930s childhood in Helsinfors. The collection is inhabited solely by what he describes as the poor; the beaten; the silenced. Austerity is both the subject and the means of the poetry. In the short poem set by Sallinen, there is insufficient bread for the dissatisfied ducks, never mind the people; the water is freezing and ‘even the money froze inside the bank’. ‘Saturday evening’, he writes, ‘could only be celebrated every second Saturday.’ Winter was hard. Therefore the unyielding austerity of Sallinen’s setting — the purposelessness in its staid demeanour — is wholly in keeping with the poem. He is taking heed of Carpelan, echoing absolutely his image.

To answer my musical thoughts, I thought I would explore a piece of my own for the ensemble; and what better way to pay homage to that work by setting Carpelan, as did Sallinen. I have a ‘thing’ about Finland–Swedish poetry, and indeed Nordic music, so was only too glad to become better acquainted with Carpelan’s work through the means of David McDuff’s invaluable translations. (If you are so inclined, I do urge you to seek out his translations both of Carpelan and, more especially, the contemporary Finland–Swedish poet Tua Forsström, the latter available from Bloodaxe.) And so my Aubade for Christmas Morning was born, set with the kind permission of Carcanet Press, the publisher of McDuff’s translation of a set of three collections by Carpelan, gathered together in a volume from Carcanet titled Homecoming (1993).

With such an esoteric accompaniment, I suppose one might perhaps turn one’s mind to arranging the piece for something more generally useful, like trebles and organ. The problem is that, if I were writing the piece for organ, it would be an entirely different piece: I would not have written it as it is. It has been conceived for the string quartet and I don’t think it would work satisfactorily on the organ. It might perhaps be feasible to arrange the accompaniment for organ with violin obligato, but I’m not wholly sure. For now, however, it will stand as it is, and I shall move on to other works that are craving my immediate attention. In writing the work in the way I did, I had in mind Lichfield Cathedral, where, until December 2014, I was bass Lay Vicar Choral in the cathedral choir. In recent years they had been having a string quartet join the choir to accompany Christmas morning eucharist alongside the organ. Sadly this hasn’t happened since I wrote the piece.

Do you have a quartet at your disposal alongside a girls’ or boys’ choir? Or are you perhaps performing the Sallinen and wondering about a companion piece? Do get in touch if you would like to see the score. I shall be having it printed before long to make it available.

A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator.