Painter: Symphony No.3 “Fire in the Snow”
First performance by the Orquesta de la UNAM conducted by Alun Francis at the Sala Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico City on June 19th 2010
Painter: Symphony No.3 “Fire in the Snow”
Christopher Painter: Furnace of Colours
Song-cycle for soprano and orchestra to texts by Vernon Watkins. Recording of world première given by Claire Booth (soprano) and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. BBC Hoddinott Hall Cardiff Bay March 9th 2011
Furnace of Colours
Music of colours swaying in the light breeze,
Flame wind of poppies.
.……. All life begins there, scattered by the rainbow;
Yes, and the field flowers, these deceptive blossoms,
Break from the furnace.
I was first drawn to the poetry of Vernon Watkins when I was in my late teens and his poems have a deeply personal resonance for me. The only time that I have directly used his words was in 1985 with a setting of his “Peace in the Welsh Hills” for soprano and tenor soloists, chorus and orchestra although I have taken his poetry as a starting point for many of my works.
Watkins was born in Maesteg, as was my father, and worked for many years as a bank clerk in Swansea, refusing promotions in order to have more time to write. I recently discovered that my mentor and friend Alun Hoddinott was not only a great fan of Watkins’ work but, as a schoolboy, had known him and often waited for him outside the bank in order to walk home with him and discuss his latest poems.
Although a prodigious songwriter, Alun never set any of Watkins’ verses; surely a sign of the love he had for them, feeling that they needed no music to enhance them.
For this cycle, I have chosen texts from Watkins’ “Music of Colours” – a series of poems celebrating the beauty of nature and linking this to both music and to the fact that the Welsh are inextricably connected to their land and history.
Waking entranced, we cannot see that other
Order of colours moving in the white light.
Time is for us transfigured into colours
Known and remembered from an earlier summer,
These texts remind me of my childhood when summers were seemingly longer and hotter and we would run, short-trousered, through the bracken, our legs raw from stinging nettles but never caring, and lie on the grass, in a cloud-watching haze amidst the scent of the flowers.
“Furnace of Colours” is also my reference to the music of Alun Hoddinott. Alun was blessed (or cursed) with synaethesia which linked his sense of colour to sound and resulted in his mastery of orchestration and his rich use of harmony.
This work is written in memory of my great friend and mentor, Alun Hoddinott, and is dedicated to the players - past, present and future - of his beloved BBC National Orchestra of Wales, a true furnace of colours.
© 2011 Christopher Painter
Christopher Painter - “…the brightness of snow”
Re-working, as a stand-alone movement, of the last movement of Symphony No.3 “Fire in the Snow”. Premièred by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff in February 2011.
Includes an interview with Jac van Steen following the performance as part of a composer’s workshop
IMAGES IN THE MIST [PHANTASIE FOR STRING QUARTET]
Premiered by the Richards Quartet [Gwen Richards, Emilie Godden, Laura Sinnerton, Jessica Feaver), to whom it is dedicated - St Augustine’s Church, Penarth on 17th June 2012
When first conceiving a new work, I always feel as if the music is lost deep in a mist and I am only allowed fleeting glimpses of it. As time passes, if I’m fortunate, this mist lessens and I am able to see the overall outline of the composition even though the details are still shrouded in the mist and tantalisingly just out of reach. Hopefully, as the work progresses, more and more of the composition becomes clear and many long hours of solitude will bring them out of the mist and on to the score. Even so, it is very rarely the case that the completed composition entirely encompasses the material that I have been endevouring to grasp. There are only three works, “Invisible Cities”, “The Spring of Vision” and “The Furnace of Colours” where I feel that I have successfully dispelled the mist and have come closest to attaining my initial ideas.
As someone who suffers badly from insomnia, when I do sleep my dreams invariably involve attempts to escape from dark, unknown, places or situations; being hopelessly lost and searching, in panic, for familiar faces and places or, often most disturbing of all, being involved in a quest, together with friends and acquaintances from my waking life, to find some, often undefined, lost object. I am convinced that this is intrinsically linked to my conscious mind’s attempts to grasp these musical ideas from the fog that clouds my brain. I have previously attempted to describe this in my orchestral work, “Forest of Dreams” and the use of fragments of ideas, their repetition and development is central to my compositional technique.
The great fear, of course, is that one day this mist will refuse to give up its secrets and that the compositional journey will be at an end. Composers are not exactly only as good as their last composition but there is no guarantee that the next composition will come; the last composition could always be the final composition. I have been through fallow periods (one lasting ten years) when nothing meaningful would come from this mist and I, like all composers, live with the fear that I have already written my last work. The joy and the gratitude that someone has commissioned a new work are always tempered with the responsibility to produce a work that justifies both the trust that the commissioners have placed in the composer and the talents of the performers.
With all this in mind, I have endeavoured in this piece to give an idea of the presentation, repetition, juxtaposition and development of disparate ideas which swirl in the compositional mist as a series of episodes in the manner of the old English Phantasie or Fancy (a popular instrumental form prior to the Stuart period) where different sections, in varying tempi and style, are juxtaposed and repeated with the motifs being slightly developed with each repetition.
Whilst there is no overt programme to the work (there may well be a subconscious one) - the listener is welcome to imagine and work out their own if they wish - the main idea behind the composition is the expression of mood and emotion.
In Schoenberg’s words:
‘Form in music serves to bring about comprehensibility through memorability. Evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision repetition, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony and even logic- none of these elements produces or even contributes to beauty. But all of them contribute to an organization which makes the presentation of the musical idea intelligible. The language in which musical ideas are expressed in tones parallels the language which expresses feelings or thoughts in words, in that its vocabulary must be proportionate to the intellect which it addresses, and in that the aforementioned elements of its organization function like the rhyme, the rhythm, the metre, and the subdivision into strophes, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc. in poetry and prose.
Let me say at once that I am more inclined - unconsciously, for sure, and often even consciously- to blur motives, a tendency that will certainly meet with the approval of those who feel in music ‘life on several levels’ and who therefore prefer to hear a kind of ‘counterpoint’ between motive and phrase: a complimentary opposition. ‘
“Cad Goddeu” (The Battle of the Trees) from “Yr Hanes Swynol” (A History of Charms) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello & piano, based on stories from the Mabinogion, performed by the PM Ensemble.
“Adar Rhiannon” from “Yr Hanes Swynol” (A History of Charms) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello & piano, based on stories from the Mabinogion, performed by the PM Ensemble.
Buried Light is an Adagio & Rondo which takes as its starting point Vernon Watkins’ poem of the same name and is written in memory of my cousin, Peter.
I have long been an admirer of Watkins’ work and have written several works either based on or setting his poetry and his choice of subject matter – the landscape of Wales, the elements, loss, longing and rebirth all have a very personal resonance for me.
Also, the idea of light has an important place in my work and I am fascinated by the various moods created by it – the vibrant colours of the fields in France, diffused light shining through the trees on the roads in Somerset, the sun shining through the bands of rain in the Welsh valleys, the warm shades of dawn and the mystical feeling of twilight.
My large orchestral work, Towards the Light, depicting a storm as an allegory of the souls’ journey from the trials of this world to the triumph of the next, was written to celebrate the Golden Wedding of Peter’s parents and I felt it was fitting that Buried Light should be my tribute to someone I saw as my big brother and who is sorely missed.
The musical material for this work is derived from an initial note row which has been repeated until it could be divided into equal segments of five notes each and then each segment subjected to row rotation to provide another five, interlinked, variants. This process yields sixty five-note cells which are all inter-related and which provide the basic material from which to build the fabric of the work. Although the building blocks are derived by use of serial technique, the work itself is not serial and has a harmonic structure that is independent of the rotated cells.
I have chosen two, non –consecutive, stanzas of Buried Light to head the two movements of the work.
What are the light and wind to me?
The lamp I love is gone to ground.
There all the thunder of the sea
Becomes by contrast idle sound.
Come, breath, instruct this angry wind
To listen here where men have prayed,
That the bold landscape of the mind
Fly nobler from its wrist of shade.
The first movement is an elegy for the lost light which as now “gone to ground” whilst the much faster, virtuosic, Rondo celebrates the soul “Flying from its wrist of shade.” Buried Light was written for, and dedicated to, Gwenllian Haf Richards.