A Square and Candle-lighted Boat (2022) – baritone and piano – song cycle of five songs – 12′
A song cycle for baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Susie Allan, co-commissioned by Music at Paxton and Thaxted Festivals with support from RVW Trust. This piece is a companion to Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, but focusses on the antithesis of travel – being at home. The texts are by Frances Cornford, a cousin of Vaughan Williams.
Frances Cornford’s poetry is full of lovingly–observed domestic details such as washing stands and soap, cocoa–tins, fire–lit loaves and chair–legs. I get the sense from her writing that she had a deep sense of home – a ‘rootedness’ in a place, something that I definitely feel myself. This cycle, a companion piece to Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, therefore focuses on the antithesis of travelling – home.
The cycle is bookended by two songs about waking up gradually in the morning (‘Bedroom Dawn’ and ‘Waking in the Attic Bedroom’) so that everything in between can be seen as happening in the course of a single day. As with the final song of Songs of Travel, ‘I have trod the upward and the downward slope’, my final song references some musical moments from earlier in the cycle.
In ‘The Coast: Norfolk’ we meet an old man mowing grass who is kept company by various aspects of the landscape around him (“a poppied field, a cow and calf, / the finches on the telegraph”). I like the idea that he is a counterpart to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond in Songs of Travel; but where the vagabond endures the harshness of the outdoors life, passing from place to place, this mower feels comfort from belonging in Norfolk and is as much a part of the place as the animals and plants around him. Listen out for the finches and the seagulls in the piano.
‘Bickers Cottage’ depicts a comfortable domestic scene in the evening against a ticking clock. Although our thoughts turn briefly to the possibility of a ghost in the storm outside, we are too comfortable to dwell on it for long.
‘The Country Bedroom’ opens with the beautiful image that “my room’s a square and candle–lighted boat / in the surrounding depths of night afloat” – an idea not dissimilar to Stevenson’s ‘My Bed is a Boat’, part of his Child’s Garden of Verses. Clearly some sort of travel is imminent – although an imaginary voyage rather than a literal one.
Charlotte at Haworth (2020) – soprano and piano – 4′30“
A setting of letters by Charlotte Brontë after the death of her siblings, describing her life at home without them. This piece was a prize winner in the Association of English Singers and Speakers English Song Competition 2020.
I am now again at home, where I returned last Thursday.
I call it home still – much as London would be called London if an earthquake should shake its streets to ruins.
I am free to walk on the moors, but when I go out there alone everything reminds me of the times when others were with me. My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her.
The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.
In the hill-country silence their poetry comes by lines and stanzas into my mind.
I am now again at home: Haworth parsonage is still a home for me;
Papa is there; their poetry;
I call it home still.
The Garden in Spring (2020) – soprano and piano – 2′
This song was written for a recital by Charlie Pemberton and Sarah MacDonald, recorded for Newnham College’s Development Office. The words are by Fredegond Shove, a poet who attended Newnham from 1910 to 1913.
A New Year Carol (2016) – voice and piano – 2′15″
This setting of a traditional text moves between dream-like verses and more punchy choruses. The range of the vocal line is only an octave, D to D, in line with the span of many folk songs.