Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. Kandinsky
A commission focusing on synaesthesia, the crossing over of the senses, provided a fascinating opportunity to explore lines of parallel thinking between artist and composer; in this case the two contemporary Russian synaesthetes, Kandinsky and Scriabin. Kandinsky, an accomplished cellist, had strong associations with colour and sound, often using music as a structural model of reference, asserting that, for him, colour was an aural experience. Scriabin associated colour with all the keys, though some scepticism has been levelled at the essential nature of his synaesthesia, notably from Rachmaninov.
My starting point for Colour is the keyboard was Kandinsky’s magnificent canvas, Yellow-Red-Blue, in which he describes the ‘earthly’ yellow standing for firmness and the linear ‘heavenly blue’ floating gracefully. The red, with heavier, intuitive ideas, intercepts.
Three colours, three chords, taken from Scriabin’s key and colour scheme of yellow (D), red (C) and blue (Fsharp), structure the piece. The opening ‘hammer’ section, centred around D dances a toccata leading to a three chord falling motif, which pervades the piece. This is followed by a warmly, expressive passage revolving around C which in turn leads to the ‘cool romanticism’ of the F sharp section. With a return of the opening material the work climaxes on the three chords in the coda, all now clearly diatonic. The closing bars bring together a superimposition of all three chords melting into stillness.
Shades of Solace
Shades of Solace was written in 1998 for a Festival of music featuring the American composer, William Bolcom, and first performed by Philip Mead. Ragtime was the theme of one of the Bolcom concerts. The initial impetus for Shades of Solace came from a powerful black and white photograph of the New York skyline taken in the 1940s. There is a mix of the bustle and dynamism of this city with hints of Scott Joplin’s piano rag, Solace, introducing a note of nostalgia and reflection.
Vespers in Venice
The idea of Vespers in Venice (1997) came from Turner’s visionary landscape Approach to Venice, in which there is a wonderful range of colours and shades. On the right of this painting is the pale gold of fading day and on the left, the beginnings of nightfall. The delicate outline of Venice, with St Mark’s Cathedral and the Campanile on the horizon, is just visible. The opening fanfare of Monteverdi’s Vespers (written for the resonant acoustic of St Mark’s) and the far-off bells of Venice are suggested in the blurred texture of the piano writing.
The simple, thoughtful Pavane (1999) was written in memory of my godfather, Arthur Crow, a distinguished Fellow of Oriel College. The presence of the old French song Vive Henri Quatre which Tchaikovsky uses in the final moments of his ballet The Sleeping Beauty, affectionately acknowledges Arthur’s deep love of ballet and music, two important passions of his.
Tapsalteerie pays tribute to James Scott Skinner, a remarkable Scottish fiddler who worked in the Aberdeenshire area around 1900. Known as the ‘King of Strathspey’, Skinner wrote over six hundred pieces, including some particularly virtuosic ones. Skinner’s Cradle Song is, however, simple and was written in response to watching a mother nurse her feverish child back to life. In Tapsalteerie Skinner’s Cradle Song threads through the slow, dream-like opening and appears later as feverish fiddle playing. Taken from the sick child’s perspective, Skinner’s poignant tune has been turned topsy-turvy or, as the Scots say, ‘tapsalteerie’. This work was commissioned by the Strathdee Music Club and first performed by Philip Fowke in 1999.
Sounding Heaven and Earth was commissioned by the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music and was first performed by Léon Charles on 12 May, 2010, at St Pancras Church, London, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Choral Evensong.
Sounding Heaven and Earth is inspired by Prayer, a sonnet written by the metaphysical poet, George Herbert.