Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A random collection of music for my birthday

In celebration of my birthday today here is a random collection of pieces I have written, chosen for no special reason, though it goes without saying that I am fond of all of them!

Cradle Song, Op.64

"Be still, my sweet sweeting, no longer do crye, Sing lullaby, lullaby, lullaby baby" are the opening words of the lullaby a nurse sings to the child in her care in John Phillip's 1566 play The Commodye of Pacient and Meeke Grissill. Phillip's play is based on the folklore of Grissill (or Griselda), in which a cruel husband tests the loyalty of his spouse with a series of dreadful scenarios. According to some scholars Phillip's 1566 play was possibly intended as a thinly disguised attack on the recently deceased tyrannical king Henry VIII, in order to help restore the reputation of the out of favour Anne Boleyn, mother of the newly crowned queen Elizabeth I — since her execution, Anne Boleyn had been a persona non grata in England. My setting of the nurse's cradle song was written in June 2005 and exists in three different versions: the original version for one voice, a duet arrangement for two sopranos (the version presented here, sung by Hillary Barlow and Danielle Riggins) and an arrangement for two soprano voices with added descant for children's choir. This video also features the poignant photographs of the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 — 1879).

Siciliano, Op.70b

This work has great personal significance, composed on Christmas Eve of 2005. Five years later, on October 14 2010, just after I had begun my artist-in-residency at Davis & Elkins College in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, USA, flautist Elizabeth Brightbill and cellist Andrew Gabbert gave the first performance (at Davis & Elkins College) of a new arrangement I made for them of the piece. Here is a recording of their performance at the college (the video shows the wonderful fall foliage of that autumn, as viewed from the windows of one of the college buildings).

Sleep Not, Op.19

When I returned to composing at the end of 2000/beginning of 2001, after an absence of 25 years, I was particularly interested in writing songs, and was therefore constantly searching for words that inspired me. It wasn't long before I realised that Emily Brontë's poems gave me more inspiration than most writers, and in the first few months of 2001 I set four of her poems, including this one.

Emily's older sister Charlotte wrote in 1850 that Emily was "a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove" in her appreciation of the wild beauty of Yorkshire's moors where they lived in northern England. She described how inconsolable Emily became when taken away from the moors to attend Roe Head School 18 miles away, where Charlotte taught (today Roe Head School is part of the Hollybank School for children with special needs):

"My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was liberty. Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall. She had only been three months at school; and it was some years before the experiment of sending her from home was again ventured on."

In this video the soprano Ann Mackay sings Sleep Not, a live recording from a concert given in August 2003. The video also contains some rare images connected with the Brontës, including the earliest photographs taken of the parsonage in Haworth were the family lived. Sadly there are no photographs of Emily, Charlotte or Anne Brontë (to the best of our knowledge) though there are several photographic images of their father Patrick. The earliest known photograph connected with the Brontës appears to have been taken in January 1857, when John Stewart visited the parsonage and took several photographs for Elizabeth Gaskell's forthcoming book The Life of Charlotte Brontë, including one of the parsonage from the top of the church tower. At this point in time all Patrick Brontë's family (his wife and children) had died, though he himself was still living there when the pictures were taken. These early photographs show the bleakness of the setting, before there were any trees in the surrounding graveyard, and before the gable wing had been added on the side of the parsonage. From their front door the Brontës had immediate access to the wild moors which Emily adored.

The Bourne, Op.27

In March 1863 Macmillan's Magazine published a short poem by Christina Rossetti entitled The Bourne (originally part of a much longer twelve stanza poem written 9 years earlier, on 17 February 1854, entitled There remaineth therefore a rest). In June 2001 I set Rossetti's poignant words to music, and since then the song has had a small life of its own. It was first sung by Ann Mackay in England in July 2002, and by Charlene Aruta Taub in New York in August 2002. Since then it has been sung or recorded by a number of singers including Ann Mackay, Mary Plazas, Leona Mitchell, Christine Brewer, Suzanne Fleming-Atwood and others. The attached video includes a live recording of a performance given by Ann Mackay in August 2003, accompanied by the beautiful photographs of the northern English countryside taken by the blogger Heather of Uphilldowndale

O Magnum Mysterium, Op.105

The final offering in this birthday selection is one of my most recent compositions, a carol I wrote for the choir of Davis & Elkins College for their most recent Christmas carol service, composed in October and first performed on 6 December 2015. The video features a recording made at that carol service, with members of Davis & Elkins College choir, with myself playing the lovely Casavant Frères organ of Davis Memorial Church in Elkins, West Virginia.