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In their own words

John Corigliano
Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan
(2000) 37 mins
Solo Soprano (amplified) and orchestra, written for Sylvia McNair

‘When Sylvia McNair asked me to write her a major song cycle for Carnegie Hall, she had only one request; to choose an American text. I had always heard, by reputation, of the high regard accorded the folk ballad singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. But I was so engaged in developing my orchestral technique during the years when Dylan was heard by the rest of the world that I had never heard his songs. So I bought a collection of his texts, and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language. I chose seven poems for what became a thirty-five minute cycle. A ‘Prologue: Mr Tambourine Man’, in a fantastic and exuberant manner, precedes five searching and reflective monologues that form the core of the piece; and ‘Epilogue: Forever Young’ makes a kind of folk-song benediction after the cycle’s close. Dramatically, the inner five songs trace a journey of emotional and civic maturation, from the innocence of ‘Clothes Line’ through the beginnings of awareness of a wider world (‘Blowin’ in the Wind’), through the political fury of ‘Masters of War’, to a premonition of an apocalyptic future (‘All Along The Watchtower’), culminating in a vision of a victory of ideas (‘Chimes of Freedom’).’

Judith Weir
Natural History (1998) 17mins
Solo soprano and orchestra, written for Dawn Upshaw

Natural History is a setting, for soprano and large orchestra, of four texts taken from Chuang-tzu, a classic collection of Taoist writings from the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The oldest of these writings are known as The Inner Chapters, ascribed to Chuang-tzu himself; and it is from here that the texts of Natural History are taken. My interest in Chinese philosophical literature began in my teens, and was directly inspired by my enthusiasm for the writings of John Cage, in which ancient Chinese ideas are frequently connected to musical models. The texts of Natural History are typical of the qualities I most enjoy amongst this literature; concision, clarity, lightness and (hidden) wisdom.’

Peter Lieberson
Neruda Songs (2005) 30 mins
Solo mezzo-soprano and orchestra, written for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

‘I discovered the love poems of Pablo Neruda by chance in Albuquerque airport. The book had a pink cover and drew me in. The five poems that I set to music seemed to me to reflect a different face in love’s mirror. The first, “If your eyes were not the color of the moon,” is pure appreciation of the beloved. The second, “Love, love, the clouds went up the tower of the sky like triumphant washerwomen,” is joyful and also mysterious in its evocation of nature’s elements: fire, water, wind, and luminous space. The third poem, “Don’t go far off, not even for a day,” reflects the anguish of love, the fear and pain of separation. The fourth, “And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream,” is complex in its emotional tone. First there is the exultance of passion, then, gentle, soothing words lead the beloved into the world of rest, sleep, and dream. Finally, the fifth poem, “My love, if I die and you don’t,” is very sad and peaceful at the same time. There is the recognition that no matter how blessed one is with love, there will still be a time when we must part from those whom we cherish so much. Still, Neruda reminds one that love has not ended. In truth there is no real death to love nor even a birth: “It is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips”. I am so grateful for Neruda’s beautiful poetry, for although these poems were written to another, when I set them I was speaking directly to my own beloved, Lorraine.’

John Tavener
Supernatural Songs (2003) 30 mins
Solo Mezzo-soprano (=baritone), string orchestra, percussion Premiere of mezzo-soprano version by Sarah Connolly

‘The use of “exotic” instruments helps to colour the vast horizon of the poetry of Yeats. The sound of the pow-wow drum implies the primordial world of which Yeats was a consummate master. The Hindu temple gong is used for its sound but also because of the Unpanishad nature of the late poems of Yeats. There is, I hope a quality of both ecstasy, and what Yeats termed his “tragic gaiety” in the music. Where there is love in the music, it is always accompanied by an awesome manifestation, never more so than in the very strange “A Nativity” where Yeats ponders “Why is the woman terror struck” and “is there money in that look?” Supernatural Songs represent for me in miniature, a change of metaphysical direction which occurred during the final part of The Veil of the Temple. Not so much a move away from Christianity, as a realization that the same essential Truths lie hidden beneath the forms of all great traditions.’

Kaija Saariaho

Quatre Instants (orchestral version) (2002) 23 mins
Solo soprano and orchestra, written for Karita Mattila

‘The cycle was originally written for soprano and piano. Trying to extract the colours I had in my mind from the piano, and at the same time adapting its vast expressive scale to the diminutive vocal lines, reminded me of the work of a jeweler, who, with the help of a loop, creates rich, microscopic details. I had always planned to make an orchestral version of these songs and I wanted the new version to achieve the same very clear, bright sound as in the original. I contacted Amin Maalouf who gave me some short texts, from which I chose three, and I then asked him to write a fourth text based on the first three. It is this text that closes the cycle: in it the singer returns to the atmosphere of anticipation that is set at the beginning, but now her mind is full of memories. The apparent simplicity of Amin’s texts gives space for music. The words and short phrases are codes which hide a rich world of sensations, colours and fragrances.’

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