It was almost on a whim that I decided to try and organise a recording of many of the chamber and solo works that I had written since graduating from university. I’d almost put the whole idea out of my head in fact, when my application to the Arts Council was awarded funding and the CD became a possible reality, and so began several months of planning (both musical and practical) and further fundraising. After contacting all the musicians who had performed (and in many cases actually commissioned) the works to be recorded, the next most pressing thing was the location of the recording itself. Ates Orga suggested that I contact David and Mary Bowerman at Champs Hill, and I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and kindness. I don’t think they’d ever had twenty-four musicians descend for one recording session before, but they could not have been more hospitable, and the wonderful lunches that Mary so generously provided helped sustain both body and soul of all concerned through the long hours of recording.
The three (extremely full) days over which this recording took place added up to one of the best musical experiences of my life. It was overwhelming how much care, respect and attention my music was given: long after I was happy the musicians, producer and engineer would work to perfect every nuance and phrase, and what you will hear on this disc is as close to what I hear in my head as humanly possible. It is sometimes easy (when, as in the case of Memoria, a piece which took six months to write and was only performed once in its original form) to wonder whether all those hours, days and months deliberating about the exact notation of each bar was worth it, but my time at Champs Hill could not have been more musically reinvigorating, reinforcing my faith in the value of care and attention to the smallest details, especially in this age where music seems to be pumped into our ears wherever we go. Working with Ates Orga and David Lefeber during the sessions, and with Ates over several weeks during the post production phase was immensely satisfying and taught me so much: Ates’s ear for phrasing, tone colour and finesse of interpretation is unsurpassed in my experience.
This CD would have been impossible without the generous support of the Arts Council, the RVW Trust, the Nicholas Boas Charitable Trust, the PRS for Music Foundation/Bliss Trust Composer Bursary, the Worshipful Company of Musicians Priaulx Rainier Prize, Hildon Foundation, James D’Souza and Lina Brazyte, Mark Newbery, Christine Smith, David & Mary Bowerman and Peter Platt. I am truly grateful for their support, and to everyone who was involved in the making of this CD.
MUSIC BY CHERYL FRANCES-HOAD
Among the features of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music that we can apprehend in this collection is the fertile soil for musical invention that she finds in literary inspiration. Stories, poems or literary ideas have provided the spark for most of the works on this disc, sometimes in very detailed ways, as she has explained in the notes to her various pieces (available on her website www.cherylfranceshoad.co.uk). So we are confronted with the age-old existential question about programme music, asked at least since the days of Schumann and Liszt: is it necessary to know the ‘story’ behind a piece to understand and enjoy it? Or does it function successfully – achieve the condition of selfconsistent, satisfyingly structured ‘pure’ music – when removed from its literary origins and dropped into the listener’s innocent ear?
The piano trio My Fleeting Angel (2005) – one of her most celebrated pieces, in that it won her the $10,000 Robert Helps Prize and a residency at the University of South Florida – could stand as a test case. It is based on a fairly complex short story by Sylvia Plath entitled ‘The Wishing Box’ about a husband and wife with entirely different dreamlives. The husband, Harold, incessantly has colourful, inventive, pleasant and seemingly significant dreams both while asleep and in waking reverie. The wife, Agnes, used to have a fertile dream-life as a child but now dreams only infrequently and always ominously. Harold’s delight in his dreams comes to infuriate and alienate her and she declines into a life of sleepless depression, eventually killing herself with an overdose. The ‘wishing box’ of the title was a device from her childhood dreams that granted whispered wishes if its handle was turned, and in death it seems that she has returned to the dream-country where the wishing boxes grew on trees, and where she waltzed with a ‘dark, red-caped prince’.
My Fleeting Angel is patterned in three fairly short movements reflecting three junctures in the story. The first Larghetto movement evokes one of Harold’s dreams in which he sees a desert of reds and purples, the grains of sand like rubies and sapphires, through a remarkably atmospheric use of ‘colour-harmony’, with the strings’ chords based on a pedal G standing for red and the E flat tonality of the piano part conveying the deep blues and purples of sapphires. Lusingando (coaxing, caressing) is a frequent expression-mark for this music, which stands as a brief, vibrant foray into the realm of Scriabin’s or Messiaen’s synaesthesia, and the melancholy sound of the cello’s harmonics, in octave unison with the violin, is a motif that will recur later.
Essentially the movement is a prelude to the central, scherzo-like Allegro spiritoso e scherzando, which begins with a scurrying introduction but soon evolves into a frequently recurring tremolo-like figure that is intended to represent the sound of the wishing box’s handle being turned. The movement becomes a headlong, exciting moto perpetuo in constantly changing (Bulgarian) rhythms, building eventually to a grandioso climax and then subsiding into quietness with a hint of the waltz-rhythm that will dominate the Allegretto eleganza finale. Here a sinuous and, indeed, elegant waltz-tune eels its way across a dream dance-floor in piano octaves, with a dance accompaniment from the strings, and then in counterpoint with them. The eerie harmonics return, this time in the violin. The waltz turns darker and the harmonics become adjuncts to its rhythm, the dance eventually expiring in a playfully spectral coda.
Frances-Hoad has suggested that this waltz-finale represents ‘the confusion of emotions’ that a reader is likely to experience on coming to the end of Plath’s story, and certainly its atmosphere is ambiguous and intriguing, both bittersweet and almost humorously macabre. But I think we would conclude, having listened to My Fleeting Angel, that a knowledge of the story is not absolutely necessary to enjoying a work at once so phantasmagorical and tightly structured, so assured in all its aspects and hinting so elegantly at a complex web of experience.
Dreams and a Sylvia Plath connexion feature too in the string trio The Ogre Lover (2007), whose seven short movements are based on lines from ‘Fairytale’, one of the poems in Ted Hughes’s collection Birthday Letters, which memorialises his relationship with Sylvia Plath. As Frances-Hoad describes it, the poem ‘is full of the vivid imagery of the couple’s dreams, of high palaces with forty-nine doors, “tingling stars” and an ogre lover that waits “inside death” for Sylvia to return to him every night’. The trio was composed just after she had finished a large-scale orchestral piece that had taken all her energies (Many Moons, a work that still awaits a premiere), and so The Ogre Lover became a kind of holiday task in which she ‘simply had fun, indulging myself with all the timbres, motives and harmonies that the poem suggested.’ We should not, therefore, attempt to analyse this inventive and invigorating string trio, except to note the remarkable virtuosity of technique that gives the players plenty to do; the luminous textures; the rhythmic vivacity of its mainly fast movements, which flow into one another without a break; the obvious (but appropriate) echoes of Bartók at several junctures, and the atmospheric effectiveness of the spooky rustlings and flutings of the brief Coda. Here is an absorbing divertimento of the imagination at play.
Looking back over Frances-Hoad’s development, one of the first works to display her potential as a musical poet was the piano trio Melancholia. Written in 1999, this is based on a painting by Edvard Munch, part of his extended cycle of paintings called Frieze of Life, in which Munch explored the themes of love, fear, death, depression and so on. (His most famous painting, The Scream, belongs to this cycle.) Melancholy comes from the portion of the cycle called Love Blossoms and Dies and depicts a man staring at the sea under an oppressive sky. (The figure is often said to be Munch himself, but the model was actually Munch’s friend the art-critic Jappe Nilssen, whom he sometimes thought of as an ‘alter ego’ and who was at the time engaged in an unhappy love-affair with Oda Krohg, the wife of another mutual friend.)
Frances-Hoad casts her work as a sequence of theme and three variations. The Theme – a long, slow, beautifully shaped melody marked dolente e tenero – unfolds on violin and cello in unison (sometimes octave or double-octave unison, and sometimes with the cello on top), over groups of repeated piano chords punctuated by silences (the tempo marking is Largo trascinando, ‘slow and dragging’.) Not only do these chords lay out the controlling harmony of the work, but the silences between them communicate also with the thematic line, which expires in progressively more broken utterance. The Più mosso Variation I sees the strings begin to take over the chordal texture while the piano, now itself in octaves, breaks into melody, even precipitato flurries of figuration as it varies the theme. The music becomes increasingly agitated and passionate, driving to a brief climax and subsiding through stabbing chords.
Variation II, Meno mosso, is for sostenuto cello and piano only, the one turning the theme into a long, meditative cantilena while the other, in varying its chordal textures from the first part of the work, provides a rich harmonic background. There is no fast music in this work – the composer thought of adding a ‘fast, manic’ variation but felt it would have been out of keeping with the rest – so Variation III continues the tempo of Variation II. This is at first mainly for violin and piano, both of them voluble and ornate in their decoration of the material with only token support from the cello, but as the movement develops the cello joins in and the music sweeps to an anguished climax, culminating in a fff con somma passione, molto maestoso statement in octaves from violin and cello, against the fullest harmonic development of the piano’s opening chords. From this expressive peak the music declines dolente and misterioso to a calm, but unreconciled ending.
That second (solo cello) variation of Melancholia has since taken on an independent existence under the title Invocation, and as such has become one of Frances-Hoad’s most successful short works. She arranged it first as a piece for cello and piano at the request of the cellist Leonid Gorokhov, and subsequently made versions for double-bass and piano and viola and piano as well as the most sumptuous form, recorded here, for solo cello and an accompanying ensemble of six celli and double-bass. The all-string sonority gives the piece a very different, more nostalgic (dare one say more Russian?) feeling. Related to Melancholia, at least in mood, is Memoria for oboe and cor anglais (one player), string trio and piano. Dating from 2002, this is literally a memorial piece for the distinguished oboist and cellist Sidney ‘Jock’ Sutcliffe (1918–2001), who had been Frances-Hoad’s cello supervisor at the Yehudi Menuhin School. One of the pieces that Sutcliffe helped her with was Bach’s solo Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, and after his death Frances-Hoad discovered it was one of Sutcliffe’s favourite pieces, which he had practised privately for about 50 years before he felt ready to play it in public. Memoria is based on the Bach suite, but entirely without literal quotation. Rather, the composer says, ‘the skeletal harmonic and structural form of the Bach is magnified so as to provide the framework’ of her own work. ‘This framework is then “ornamented” with original material, hopefully resulting in a piece that sounds nothing like the Bach but at the same time is deeply indebted to it’.
D minor, which Bach seems to have associated with both nobility and melancholy, is a key he used for some of his greatest achievements: witness the great violin Chaconne. Structurally Memoria, in a more chromatically expanded D minor, is cast as a Prelude and Fugue (there is of course no fugue in the Bach Suite). It is also the most sustained work on this CD, with the longest, most exhaustively developed movements. The tender chordal writing of the piano’s introductory solo has a similar elegiac appeal to that of Melancholia, as does the cor anglais’ melancholy melodic line. This develops into an exquisitely poised duet with the cello, and then the string trio takes over in intensely lyrical mode. (Throughout, one can admire the careful patterning in terms of instrument and timbre.) A stretch of richly textured, lamenting music for the whole ensemble, coming to a piangevole emotional catharsis, is interrupted suddenly by a vigorous dance-music, led off by violin and piano but soon infecting the other instruments. This leads to the biggest climax so far, an ecstatic maestoso e molto cantabile, declining at last to a memory of the piano’s opening chords and a desolate solo for the cor anglais that leads directly into the second movement.
The composer calls this a fugue, though it is far from the classical idea of one. In fact it is a sort of fantasia on the idea of a double fugue, the first subject a skittish, capricious affair in gambolling triplets, espoused at once by the strings, the second a range of derivatives from a long, lyrical oboe line (the cor anglais player has changed instruments) that harks back to the mood and melos of the Prelude. Both subjects are fluid and changeable, rather than having a fixed form, and they are sometimes developed together; the texture is more often imitative rather than strictly fugal. The Prelude’s piano chords are developed too. Rapid, flickering, mercurial variations of the material lead to a bravura climax and a valedictory resumption of the substance of the prelude, winding down to a moltissimo tranquillo ending, the oboe having the farewell word. Clearly Frances-Hoad is equally at home writing for wind instruments as for strings and piano, as is further illustrated by the solo clarinet piece Bouleumata. The word is Classical Greek for ‘the ability to deliberate’. Before she wrote her solo clarinet piece with this title, in 2007, Frances-Hoad had participated unsuccessfully in the competition to compose the incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play of that year. The Greek Play is
venerable institution which goes back to 1882 and, more or less triennially, stages semi-professionally a play from the corpus of Greek tragedy or comedy in the original language, with specially composed music: in the musical sphere, it has given us such notable pieces as Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps and a number of substantial scores by Hubert Parry. In this particular year the play in question was the Medea of Euripides, and Frances-Hoad admits she was ‘stunned’ by its ‘depiction of Medea, a woman who kills her two children to spite her husband Jason (who has just left her for a Corinthian princess)’.
Before going through with the double murder Medea has a monologue that expresses her wildly oscillating emotions, between horror at the deed she is contemplating and the conviction that it must be done to punish her enemies. She says at one point, ‘I understand that what I am about to do is wrong, but my emotion has been vanquished by my bouleumata’. This turns conventional feeling upside down: rather than killing her children in a fit of passion, Medea seems to be saying that she is doing it as a calculated act, suppressing her natural emotions in the process. Both extremes – of feeling and calculation – can be felt in Frances-Hoad’s piece, which contrasts agile, angry, highly rhythmic (even jazzy) writing at the opening against a central section in much more lyrical, liquid and tonal style. This evanesces to what seems a momentary point of stillness before a series of fretful, trill-dominated phrases leads back to the wild and angular music of the opening, rising to a peak of fury.
In the song-cycle The Glory Tree (2005), Cheryl Frances-Hoad combines two different sources of inspiration that are not often linked. The songs are settings, in the original Anglo-Saxon, of anonymous1 Old English poems from the 6th to 8th centuries. While these texts – from The Dream of the Rood and Judith – are normally regarded as religious poems, Frances-Hoad treats them as utterances of a shamanic ritual, something we associate far more readily with early poetic literature from the Far East or Native American peoples. There is certainly pre-Christian imagery in The Dream of the Rood, and Frances-Hoad had come across a book theorising that shamanic elements could be found in Anglo-Saxon poetry. This was sufficient spark to her imagination (perhaps in Bouleumata she was also remembering Medea’s shaman-like role as a sorceress from semibarbaric Colchis). She had studied shamanism at university and knew that before a person could be initiated as a shaman, they had to travel in the spirit to the three most important destinations in the spirit world: up to the heavens, across the sea, and down to the underworld. This idea of the three journeys underlies the three principal movements of The Glory Tree. The work is also influenced by the idea of shamanic healing, during which to drive out the hostile spirit who is assumed to have entered the sick person, the shaman enters a trance state and lets his spirit travel to the heavens or the underworld to persuade the gods to release the sick person from the hostile power.
Thus we have an apparently Christian song-cycle with a shamanic sub-text, in a language many centuries nearer to paganism than modern English, constructed in five movements that follow each other without a break. The first, third and fifth songs are the shaman’s three journeys (Heaven, across the Sea, Hell), while the Runic texts of the second and fourth movements mark transitions between these three levels of the world: rain falling from the heavens becomes water, and a boat floats across the water to land, where the descent to the underworld begins.
What is obvious from the outset is the intensely dramatic quality of these songs, in which the wide-ranging, declamatory style of the vocal writing is counterpointed by extremely imaginative use of the full colouristic spectrum of the ensemble – flute (taking piccolo), clarinet (taking bass clarinet), violin, cello and piano. The very first word – Hwæt!, the customary Anglo-Saxon interjection meaning ‘Listen!’ or ‘Now hear this …’2 – is split into a leap of an octave and a fifth, and becomes an important element in the song-cycle as a whole. The ending of the first song seems to enact the flight into the heavens, the singer’s unaccompanied line soaring up to a Queen of the Night-like high F. The ‘rain’ music of the scherzo-like second song is graphically depicted, only to lead to the slow, rapt, undulating music of the sea-crossing, given at first just to the two string instruments and the voice, with a single short, clangorous entry from the piano after which the instrumental lines are taken over by flute and clarinet: a very simple but effective demonstration of transformation.
The bell-like piano chords of the fourth song, with its woodwind flurries and long-held string harmonics on E, are like an extended dominant preparation for the cavernous A tonality of the last and longest and most theatrical song, which after a hugely rhetorical opening becomes a kind of danse macabre that drives to an exultant, impassioned climax. In the mesmerising ending, with the last triumphant cadence, the last word, as it was the first, is Hwæt!, stretched out now over two octaves and a third, A to C sharp, crescendoing from fff until the note ‘breaks into a scream – as if suddenly breaking out of a shamanic trance’.
Shamanism also provided the imaginative spur for the solo violin piece The Snow Woman (2007), which was composed as an encore piece for Natalia Lomeiko to play after concerto performances. The inspiration here was a Siberian folk-tale, ‘Tynagirgin and Gitgilin’, about two giants and a young shaman in search of a wife. The giants make repeated attempts to kill the young man, but twice he outwits them through his ability to change shape – into a mosquito, or a hawk – and eventually he is able to summon up the sea itself to drive them away and take the giants’ wife for his own. The three short movements, played without a break, correspond to these three stages of the story, but even without any knowledge of the programme, any listener can hear that this is a marvellously assured display of bravura writing for the violin, testing the player’s technique and musicality to the limit in vivid and pugnacious musical imagery in the outer movements, and in the desolately ecstatic arioso of the central Adagietto.
Notes (c) Malcolm MacDonald