Dance the dark streets ( 2003 rev. 2005)

Duration: 12′

  • Concerto Grosso for string orchestra with piano obbligato, piano, string orchestra
  • 1: Haar | 2: Whirlwind
  • Gemini Publications
  • First performance 30 March 2005 – Nicola Eimer (pf) | Orchestra Nova/George Vass – St Giles Cripplegate, Barbican, London (Dutton recording)

The two movements of Dance the dark streets are inspired by poems about different aspects of Scottish weather. I enjoy the rich language and the sense of glowering stillness that Alexander’s poem, Haar in Princes Street, evokes with phrases such as ‘hudder like ghaists in the gastrous haar.’ In Haar I have tried to capture the drifting looming quality of that mist from the sea.

The second movement, Whirlwind, brushes away the ‘haar’ with a wild wind. This movement is influenced by Norman MacCaig’s poem, ‘April dances the dark streets of November, Pied Piper leading a procession of the coloured dreams of summer.’

Dancing Fish (2004 re. 2005)

Duration: 8′

  • Soprano saxophone, string orchestra or string quartet
  • Gemini Publications
  • First performance of string quartet version: 29 May, 2004, Sarah Field, soprano saxophone, and the Bronte String Quartet, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London.
  • First performance of string orchestra version, 30 March 2005 – Amy Dickson (sax) | Orchestra Nova/George Vass – St Giles Cripplegate, Barbican, London (Dutton recording)

Dancing Fish is inspired by a Russian fable of the same name by Ivan Krylov. Krylov worked in government before abandoning the post in 1807 to devote himself exclusively to a literary career. His famous Fables, published in 1809, were immediately successful. His tales expose human weakness and are directed against injustice and corruption, rife in the government and professions of the time.

Dancing Fish tells of the piscine race, contentedly getting on with its fishy business in the stream. The fox, elected by the Lion, ruler of all beasts, oversees the finny tribe as governor. However, the waters grow murky as the fox has a penchant for indulging in a fishy dish or two. One day, the Lion passes by and notes that the fox is growing rather fat and asks why the fish ‘wag their tails and heads that way?’ The crafty fox replies that the Lion’s presence has brought the fish joy and set them all a-dancing. The Lion, suspecting (at last) that the fox is up to no good decides to make him pay for his corrupt behaviour, but too, late for the fish are now having their last dance – in the frying pan.

A fragment of Russian folk song is first heard on the saxophone in the opening section and makes further melancholic appearances as the piece progresses, moving from aquatic tranquility to somewhat frantic dancing.

Dancing Fish was commissioned by Sarah Field with funds from David Bowerman and presented by Concordia Foundation and was first performed by Sarah Field, soprano saxophone and the Bronte String Quartet on 29 May, 2004 at the Purcell Room. The following year the string orchestra version was made for a Dutton Epoch recording for Amy Dickson, saxophone, and Orchestra Nova.

There is now a version for Narrator, soprano sax and string orchestra which tells the whole story!

Great Hills (2007)

Duration: 12′

  • Concertante for solo violin, two flutes and strings
  • 1 Prelude: Lady Blunt’s Stradivarius  |  2 Passacaglia: the still night  |  3 Perpetuum mobile: Belloc’s Mill
  • Oxford University Press (Hire Library)
  • Commissioned by Shipley Arts Festival
  • First performance 5th May 2007 – Andrew Bernardi, violin, | Linda Coffin, flute, | Bruce Martin, flute – Bernardi Chamber Ensemble, conductor Nic Pendlebury – St Mary’s Church, Shipley, West Sussex

Great Hills takes its title from the poem, The South Country, by the distinguished local poet and MP, Hilaire Belloc, in which he describes, with great warmth, his love for the surrounding countryside. When the Artistic Director, Andrew Bernardi, introduced me to this beautiful part of England and its gentle rolling landscape with all its vibrant associations in both music and literature I knew I was going to have a feast of inspiration for Great Hills.

One of these associations is with the violinist, Lady Anne Blunt, an ancestor of the Lytton family of Newbuildings Place, Shipley: her Stradivarius was made in 1721 which was about the time Bach wrote his Brandenburg Concerto No.4 (also in the programme of the premiere performance)and it was this connection that seemed to me a perfect starting point for the work. Great Hills uses the same instrumental combination as the Bach concerto grosso (solo violin, two flutes and strings) and the first movement, Prelude, takes on some of the characteristics of this 18th century form with some unexpected twists.

The second movement, Passacaglia: the still night, grew from a poem, A Summer Evening Churchyard, by the poet, Shelley (born in Horsham, near Shipley). The gentle pace of this beautiful poem is echoed by the ground bass as it unfolds beneath the meditative, lyrical line of the solo violin and the interlocking flutes.

The busy, continual motion of the final movement was suggested to me by the sails, grinding cogs and mechanical action of the windmill in Toccata: Belloc’s Mill (the windmill was also known as King’s Mill and as Mrs Shipley). The perpetual movement is shared between the soloists and the strings, always driving the work onwards. In the coda of the toccata the energetic patterns are repeated and as they unwind the work gradually comes to a halt before an exuberant finish.

Belloc acquired the mill in 1906 and kept it in use with the miller Ernest Powell working there until it finally ceased to operate in 1926. On one occasion Belloc invited Powell to make up a four at cards. The other two players turned out to be G.K.Chesterton and Winston Churchill!

This work is dedicated to the memory of my cousin, Charlotte Johnson, whose love of beauty in nature was always an inspiration.

Great Hills has been generously funded by Eve Barratt, a longstanding Friend of Shipley Arts Festival.

Rain, Steam and Speed (2006)

Duration: 9′

  • – – percl – strings
  • Gemini Publications
  • Commissioned by The Portsmouth Grammar School
  • First performance 24th June 2006 – London Mozart Players | Nicolae Modoveanu – Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral

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.

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

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.

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

The Descending Blue (2008)

Duration: 10′

  • Flute, harp and string orchestra
  • Orchestral score and parts for hire
  • Gemini Publications
  • Commissioned by the Shipley Arts Festival to mark the 50th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan William’s death. 

A work to complement the well-loved, The Lark Ascending, a beautiful, musical response to the poem by Meredith. The Descending Blueis based on Spring, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. As I read the poem I found there were many similar resonances with the Meredith poem:

  • NOTHING is so beautiful as spring;
  • When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
  • Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
  • Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
  • The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
  • The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
  • With richness; the racing lambs, too, have fair their fling Gerard Manley Hopkins

Perhaps this work should be called The Thrush Descending! As an acknowledgement to Vaughan Williams I have used five tunes in the work; The Springtime of the YearGreensleevesDown AmpneyMonks Gate and John Ireland’s My song is love unknown.