This work was performed in September 1997 in St Mary's Church, Dorchester, by the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, soprano soloist Jenny Hockey, and the Occasional Singers, all directed by Richard Dickins. Just before the performance was due to begin, the principal horn player was unable to play. Consequently the rest of the horn section had to step up to the mark, and it is the fourth horn part which is missing.
As it happens, a few weeks before this performance, whilst I was in London wandering around near the back of the Albert Hall one afternoon, I heard a horn section practising in one of the rehearsal rooms of the Royal College of Music, and this music sounded quite familiar. After a while I realised why – it was my music, the Songs of Time, and I felt a little bit taller as I went about my business for the rest of that day!
In the sixth movement, To His Coy Mistress, one of the percussion players responsible for some huge cymbal crashes miscounted the number of bars before his entry, playing his part with splendid enthusiasm but in entirely the wrong place! I have attempted to minimise the shock of this using some clever sound editing software, with partial success. It is just one of those things that can happen in a live performance.
1 The Heritage
3 The Flower Girl
4 It Is Not
5 Inward Light
6 To His Coy Mistress
8 Everyone Sang
Songs of Time
This work came into being as a result of a successful application to the Arts for Everyone scheme (part of the lottery grants) whose idea was to bring together the Occasional Singers, the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra (with Richard Dickins) and an original, new score, a group (in this case quite large) of expectant performers, and even for the first time in my life, a small fee. It was very hard to find enough quality time, energy and concentration that composing a full-scale work demands, on top of my work, but the tremendous opportunity of writing for so many eager and talented performers helped hugely. I set my alarm each night for about 3.30am and worked for three uninterrupted hours every day for months.
I researched many texts and made several decisions, even starting composing: (the Rime of the Ancient Mariner; the Eve of St Agnes; Oberon’s Palace; Goblin Market; An Hymne to Heavenly Beauty (Spencer); etc). Copyright permission to set TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday was refused; I made up a collection of poems entitled “The Conversation Of Prayers” comprising poems of Dylan Thomas, William Blake and Henry Vaughan, but found the Thomas too lyrical to set to music (although some years later I did set Fern Hill). In the end it was the sheer urgency of the spring months flying by that helped me to select the poetry which comprises Songs of Time, but the decision to stay even with these texts and commit myself to the composition was certainly not an easy one to make without the panic of the September deadline.
The texts have a strong common theme, expressing much of my own philosophy: the passage of Time add our mortality dictate a necessity to get on with and enjoy, if possible, the "here-and-now", most eloquently put by the Andrew Marvell extract (To His Coy Mistress). Dylan Thomas too, in one of the poems of his that I came near to setting, used some of the same imagery:
wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, do not go gentle into that good night.
Much of the language of the poems in Songs of Time concerns flowers and song; my music attempts to highlight these symbolic images.
Of the eight movements, six have been written since early June 1997, in time for the first choral rehearsal in mid July. Two of the songs are re-workings: the Flower Girl was written in 1988, without the chorus part since added, and Inward Light dates from 1995 and was originally an unaccompanied motet. I invested much thought into the integration of all the movements into a unified whole, and there are consequently numerous cross references – melodic, harmonic, and a germinal motif that occurs in many of the movements. I have linked literary ideas from different poems by using common motifs, (motto themes), in a way first tried by the 19th-century Romantic composers (Berlioz with the idees fixes, Wagner with the leitmotif). The coming together of these ideas is carefully considered and helps unify the individual songs into a collective whole.
One often hears complaints in choral/vocal music about clarity of some of the text. It has always seemed to me that the text itself will often be unclear, especially when set, for example, in a polyphonic, contrapuntal style with different bits of text in different voices at the same time. Of course the texts (especially in Songs of Time) are hugely important, but it is the essence of the texts that should be borne in mind; the music is directly related at all times to the meaning of the text, and as one becomes familiar with the music, the full relationship will become better understood. I do not think it is valid, in this sort of work, to expect to hear all the words.
The soprano soloist is Jenny Hockey [now 'Bartlett'] who had been a student at Weymouth College and who went to Cardiff to develop her fabulous singing technique. I have all but lost touch with Jenny, as she went abroad with her husband to do missionary work. But how grateful I am to her, as, along with Richard Dickins' splendid Imperial College students, she produced a flawless and wonderfully expressive performance of my work.