Not Just a Place Dark (2001)

Violin solo, double bass solo, string orchestra
Duration: 7′
Gemini Publications
Commissioned by London Mozart Players
First performance 15 December 1999
David Juritz (vln), Leon Bosch (db), London Mozart Players
St Michael and All Angels, Chiswick, London
Exists in six different versions, including ‘Tango Oscuro’ and ‘Salon Argentina’

Programme note

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Play Ground (1999)

Text: Christie Dickason – – perc – pfte – strings plus 7 narrators and 1 singer (m/f)
Duration: 18 minutes
Gemini Publications
Commissioned by London Musici
First performance 23 February, 1999
Edward Petherbridge, Lady Solti, Humphrey Burton, Susannah Simons, Hilary Tones, Sam Parks, Mandy More, Renzo Murrone, Jason Hicks, London Musici/Mark Stephenson | St John’s, Smith Square, London

Programme note

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Rain, Steam and Speed (2006) – – perc1 – strings
Duration: 9′
Gemini Publications
Commissioned by The Portsmouth Grammar School
First performance 24 June 2006 | London Mozart Players/Nicolae Modoveanu | Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral

Programme note:

Rain, Steam and Speed was commissioned by The Portsmouth Grammar School for the London Mozart Players, conductor, Nicolae Moldoveanu. The first performance was given on 24 June, 2006 at the Gala Concert of the Portsmouth Festivities (celebrating the life of Brunel) in the Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral.

Turner’s painting, Rain, Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway (1844) depicts a broad gauge engine steaming across Maidenhead Viaduct, one of Brunel’s greatest achievements. The painting offers several perspectives to the viewer: a dark diagonal of bridge and train, crossing the Thames, intersects visions of tranquillity. To the left, far below, a fisherman sits in his skiff and to the right of the picture a ploughman turns his furrow. Ahead of the train a startled hare, the swiftest of creatures, leaps across the track.

In writing Rain, Steam and Speed, rather than follow a programmatic development of the title I have tried to convey a feeling of wide open spaces and pastoral repose in the opening section. Even the hare (a pair of clarinets) makes a playful appearance. In Turner’s painting the ‘iron horse’ emerges from the distance, pressing powerfully forwards and so, from out of the calm, a clear rhythmic motif, pianissimo at first, rattles to a full orchestral crescendo, then gradually disappears from view.


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Seraphim (1999 rev. 2002)

Duration: 12′

  • Trumpet Concerto
  • Solo Trumpet, string orchestra, percussion (3 tom toms, bowed vibraphone, crotales, bass drum)
  • 1: Blow your Trumpets  |  2: Angells  |  3: Imagin’d corners
  • Gemini Publiations
  • Comissioned by London Mozart Players and Paul Archibald
  • First performance – 23rd October 1999 – Paul Archibald (tpt), London Mozart Players, St Michael and All Angels – Chiswick, London

Programme Note:
I wrote Seraphim in memory of the broadcaster and journalist, Adam Raphael, who died in 1999 after a courageous battle with cancer. He was a man of great intellect, energy and kindness with a wonderful sense of fun, even when he was so ill. He was aware, of course, of the connection between his name and the Seraphim, the highest in the angel hierarchy, and he asked that the Handel aria with trumpet solo, Let the Bright Seraphim, should be played at his memorial service. In Seraphim I have used some motivic detail from the Handel arias.

Other musical ideas for each of the three movements were suggested by text from one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, (no.4):

  • At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
  • Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
  • From death, you numberlesse infinities
  • Of soules

In the opening movement, ‘Blow your trumpets,’ the strings present a fast-moving, light textured background to the trumpet solo, which, at times, is sustained and at others moves with great agility. In ‘Angells’, the trumpet solo weaves long phrases into the linear violin solo line, supported by the ethereal sound string harmonics and ringing tones of the bowed vibraphone. In the more earthy ‘Imagin’d Corners’ the trumpet solo makes use of the arpeggio shapes from the aria, Let the Bright Seraphim, leading the work to an exuberant conclusion.

The London Mozart Players commissioned Seraphim which was especially written for the trumpeter, Paul Archibald and was first performed in Chiswick, London in 1999.
The premiere of the revised version was given on 27th August, 2002 by Paul Archibald and the Presteigne Festival Orchestra under the direction of George Vass in St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne.

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Seventy Degrees Below Zero (2012)

  • Cantata for tenor soloist and chamber orchestra
  • Duration: 20′
  • 1: We Measure  |  2: The Ice Tree  |  3: To My Widow
  • Text: Sean Street and Robert Falcon Scott
  • Commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and the City of London Sinfonia
  • First performance 3 February 2012  |  Robert Murray (tenor) City of London Sinfonia, Stephen Layton, conductor  |  The Symphony Hall, Birmingham


Seventy degrees below zero was commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and the City of London Sinfonia as part of the Scott 100 Festival of Events, 2012. First performed on 3 February at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, by the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Stephen Layton, with Robert Murray, tenor, Seventy degrees below zero receives subsequent performances in the Corn Exchange, Cambridge (4 February) St David’s Hall, Cardiff (7 February) Cheltenham Town Hall (8 February) and Cadogan Hall, London (3 March). Seán Street was specially commissioned by the composer to write two poems for Seventy degrees below zero to sit alongside extracts from Robert Falcon Scott’s Journals and Scott’s letter addressed, ‘To my widow.’   The commission has been financially supported by the Scott Polar Research Institute, the RVW Trust and the Richard Hickox Fund for New Music. Cecilia  McDowall and Seán Street have collaborated on two other works; the choral work, Shipping Forecast and orchestral song cycle, Theatre of Tango.

Words by Robert Falcon Scott and Seán Street

1: We Measure  |  2: The Ice Tree  |  3: To My Widow

In 2009 Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of the Scott Polar Research Institute, invited me to the Insitute and Museum while it was undergoing an extensive renovation programme; an interesting and atmospheric time to visit SPRI. It was possible to see, in the dark recesses of the basement, artefacts safely stored during the renovation process and examples of the Institute’s enormous polar collection; there were cabinets, drawers and shelves full of fascinating scientific instruments, bulky warm clothing, all manner of camping equipment and sledges – all of which looked dauntingly heavy for dragging across the icy plains of the Antarctic. Later that same day Heather introduced me to the diaries and letters found in Scott’s tent and, most poignantly of all, Scott’s tender letter addressed ‘To my widow’ written in pencil, made faint by time and ice. I took a phrase for the title from Scott’s Letter to his wife; ‘Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero.’ The scientific exploration and data collected by Captain Scott’s team at the beginning of the 20thcentury still powerfully underlines the research which continues to this day. It was with a desire to join the past with the present that I asked the poet, Seán Street, to write two poems to accompany Scott’s words; words from ‘then’ and words from ‘now’.

Seventy degrees below zero is a three movement work for chamber orchestra and tenor soloist. In the first movement, We measure,Seán Street takes extracts from Scott’s Journals to outline the journey to the Pole, and binds them into his own poem. The tenor begins by reading one of the entries from the Journals; ‘This, the third stage of our journey, is opening with good promise.’ Horns and trumpets exchange calls, both near and far, which unfold into a pulsating string accompaniment, driving purposefully towards ‘the Pole’. Scientific instruments measure and document the data of exploration. After the bleak arrival at the Pole on 17 January the second half of the movement (the return journey) uses similar material to the opening section but this time measurement is of a different kind; ‘Nothing to measure now but Time’. The movement closes with the brass calling out across the vast icy plains.  

 In the second movement the delicate imagery of Seán’s poem, The Ice Tree, casts a glacial light over the passage of time, as if looking backwards through the telescopic lens of the ice core. Slow and intense, with the bowed vibraphone bringing a chill to the orchestral texture, the wide intervallic opening of tenor line stretches out. Before writing this movement I watched some silent footage of Scott and his team hauling the sledge together across snow and ice. The bent figures, hunched against the polar air, suggested a falling, dragging motif which is first heard in We measure. This motif underlies all three movements, but is most pronounced in The Ice Tree; a symbolic struggle against the elements. The brass, in muted dialogue, take the opening tenor phrase to close the first section. In the central section Seán Street gives a subtle intimation of today’s fragile ecological balance with the lines, ‘And Earth dissolves, the wilderness shrinks, breaks in acid seas, leaves fall,’ a falling, fractured line, sung by the tenor soloist.

The final movement, To my widow, opens with a gentle, folksy melody as Scott writes tenderly to his wife. The fluid, almost conversational tenor line gives way to something more urgent as the orchestra becomes the writing of the letter. The outburst ‘You must not imagine a great tragedy’ is followed by a full orchestral falling down with the dragging motif stretching and dovetailing into a return of the lighter opening material. The following section brings a renewed poignancy and urgency with the words, ‘oh dear me, you must know that quite the worst aspect of this is the thought that I shall not see you again.’ The work closes with the return of The Ice Tree tenor phrase (God bless you my own darling) taken up again by the brass, calling in increasingly muted tones over the ‘falling’ motif in the strings which is pared away to reveal high solo pianissimo violins.

Cecilia McDowall  © 2012


Seventy degrees below zero                                              

Words by Robert Falcon Scott and Seán Street


 1. We measure

Friday, December the twenty second, 1911. Camp 44, about seven thousand one hundred feet.

Temperature, minus one. Barometer, twenty two point three.

This, the third stage of our journey, is opening with good promise.

Observations: Latitude, eighty five degrees, thirteen and a half minutes.

Longitude, one hundred and sixty one degrees, fifty five minutes.

Variation, one hundred and seventy five degrees, forty six minutes east.

The weather has been beautifully fine all day, as it was last night. Night Temperature, minus nine. [1]


Sublime inhumanity watches. We measure.

The instruments that make our music, their song of precision,

anemometer, magnetometer, barometer, the language of calibration.

Hypsometer, thermometer, their rhymes and reason

the evaluation of life, elemental accountability,

an actinometer to appraise sun,

a spirometer to graduate mortality

pressed by katabatic winds.

Thermograph, internal; thermograph, external.

Measurement concentrates purpose,

civilizes the unpeopled indifference of ice.


The thin strands of sound begin to fall away, falling.

Wednesday, January the seventeenth, 1912.

The Pole. [1] Nothing to measure now but Time,

these minutes, no pure dial, emphatic needle,

no numbers but five men moving into whiteness,

no instrument to measure pain.

Science demands a mind spurred by ambition [1]

but the precision of fact, the elegance of calibration,

human thoughts’ beauty cannot reconcile infinity,

the inner silence of white, when the last strands fall away.


[1] Robert Falcon Scott (Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition) © 2006;     Seán Street © 2011


 2. The Ice Tree

The trek paper makes from tree,

up through rings of the ice tree,

through past air, held layers of years,

wisps of words caught in circles of time

fading to transparency under winds’ press,

where the process of thought formed.


The tree’s paper freezes its findings,

the last words held, recorded, preserved,

 poem placed with pencilled articulation of discovery,

mortality’s pages spun by vortex into the ice tree’s fibre.


And Earth dissolves, the wilderness shrinks,

breaks in acid seas, leaves fall.


Men move away through pain, hurt

across snowscape, dark marks on faint paper.


Glass ghosts blur in blinding light,

far, growing farther, wisps vanishing,

fading to transparency.

© 2011, Seán Street


 3. To my widow

Dearest Darling, we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through. In our short lunch hours I take advantage of a very small measure of warmth to write letters preparatory to a possible end. The first is to you on whom my thought (sic) mostly dwell waking or sleeping. If anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me. I should like you to take what comfort you can – I shall not have suffered any pain. You must not imagine a great tragedy.

I must write a little letter for the boy, if time can be found, to be read when he grows up. Oh my dear, my dear, what dreams I have had of his future and yet, oh my girl, I know you will face it stoically – your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast.

Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero. You know I have loved you and, oh dear me, you must know that quite the worst aspect of this is the thought that I shall not see you again. The inevitable must be faced. God bless you my own darling.

© Robert Falcon Scott (Scott Estate) 


Seventy Degrees Below Zero – Glossary of terms used in the text


Anemometer. An instrument used on weather stations for measuring wind speed.

Magnetometer. A device for measuring the strength and direction of a magnetic field. Magnetometers are used at all latitudes, but are particularly valuable near the poles, where the Earth’s magnetic fields are grounded. Results today can be used to predict – among other things – space weather patterns.

Hypsometer. This is used for measuring height or altitude by observing atmospheric pressure shown in the change in the boiling point of a liquid, such as water. Liquids boil at progressively lower temperatures as atmospheric pressure decreases; because such pressure decreases with altitude, the boiling point enables the calculation of an altitude at a given location.

Actinometer. A generic term for a family of instruments used to calculate the intensity of incident radiation; in particular it is applied to a device by which the intensity of radiation can be measured by the speed of a photochemical reaction.

Thermograph. A type of thermometer used to produce a continual record of a fluctuating temperature. This can have a valuable application in medicine, but Scott’s expedition would have used a version of the instrument to measure environmental temperature variations on a graph as a function of time.

Spirometer. An apparatus used to measure the volume of air inspired and expired by the lungs. Thus spirometry is a common form of testing procedure to calculate the efficiency of breathing.

Katabatic. From the Greek, katabatikos, meaning ‘going down hill’. Katabasis is the term given to air cooled as it flows down over a glacier, or from high plateaux. This air movement is known as a katabatic wind. In Antarctica such winds can blow with ferocious force for days on end and can occur at any time of year.                                                                                                                                    Seán Street