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The Tuning (2019)

The Tuning (2019)

Commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival

Instrumentation: Mezzo-soprano and piano
Duration: c.20’
First performance: Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo) and Chris Glynn (piano), at St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, 19 October 2019

The Tuning – five Donaghy songs

The musicality of Michael Donaghy’s poetry is often remarked upon, and perhaps this is what drew me to his texts – a musicality that is more than just pervasive lyricism, one that extends to his precision of gesture and cadence and a delight in the union of formal elegance with expressive heft.  But I think what I love is the magic, and with it the making-strange, whether of poem-as-spell or of a seemingly quotidian observation. The magic holds me.


The five poems in this set are selected from across Donaghy’s output and are unrelated, though ‘Tears’ and ‘The River in Spate’ are placed next to each other in his third collection, Conjure. They are not intended to present a coherent narrative, nor are they a cycle – though the music offers cyclic elements, and a narrative could be constructed if desired. I chose them because I could hear them sung as I read them, and – with the exception of The Tuning, whose exposition-heavy text required a different approach – I set them as songs: simple, often strophic vocal lines and a piano part focusing on a single figuration, as in classic Lieder.


After an extended introduction, ‘The Present’ places cycling pairs of vocal phrases against ever-expanding piano descents. ‘The River in Spate’ and ‘Tears’ both offer types of musical near-suspended animation. In ‘The Tuning’ the piano takes the melodic lead, sinuous counterpoint enveloping the narrator’s arioso. ‘Two Spells for Sleeping’ practices a hypnotism of unceasing pulsation and not-quite-repeating loops.

image credit: Mikkel Frimer Rasmussen / Unsplash

Candlebird (2011)

Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta

Instrumentation: Large ensemble (2,1,2,1 - 1,1,1,0 - 1perc. - harp - baritone - 1,1,2,2,1)
Duration: 22'
First Performance: 29 May 2011. London Sinfonietta, Leigh Melrose (baritone), Nicholas Collon (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

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The five songs of Candlebird are all settings of texts by Don Paterson. The selection and ordering are my own; four songs are taken from Rain (2009) and the final song is from Paterson's earlier collection God's Gift to Women (1997). The choice was, initially, merely personal preference; I was attracted to those poems that 'spoke' to me. That said, I knew from the outset that I wanted the primary vocal impulse to be lyric - in other words I set out to write songs, in a rather traditional sense perhaps (though I didn't necessarily remain faithful to this desire!) - and so the regular metric- and rhyme-schemes of the poems I chose struck me as being particularly suited to musical setting.

Only the central song is a Paterson 'original': the others are his versions of texts by Robert Desnos, Antonio Machado, and Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf. Paterson has described this 'versioning' as a remaking, a process in which he remains faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of the text; not an attempt to capture the original author's voice but an independent poem of his own, albeit one based on a earlier work. This is, I feel, very similar to the process of setting text to music, and the resulting nesting of versions appealed to me, from untexted music at one extreme, to my musical versions of Paterson's versions of pre-existing poetry at the other.

In the first song, 'The Landscape,' the voice triggers orchestral passages of gradually increasing harmonic density. These suddenly release on to an open sonority that remains frozen while a long trombone melody using a quarter-tone inflected scale glides on top. 'Sky Song' is a simple alternation of orchestral and vocal lines. In the third song, 'Motive', the texture is woven from an unpredictable sequence of scurrying fragments, their configuration continually changing while the harmonic underpinning remains constant. 'The Wind' is an exuberant polyphony of dances in which strings, wind and voice live in related but entirely separate worlds.

The final song, 'Candlebird,' is really a song-within-a-song. This is set as a melismatic central section in which the baritone moves freely through many quarter-tone derived scales. Bordering this, intensely expressive string polyphonics gradually shed their ornamentation until they fuse into a simple sequence of harmonies, their repeated cadence bringing the work to a close.