Christmas Eve at Sea was commissioned by Jane Wickenden for the occasion of her husband’s 50th birthday. It was first performed by Richard Latham, baritone, and Victoria Savage, piano, at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London on 23 December, 2006.
Jane asked me if I would write a song for her husband’s 50th birthday which falls on Christmas Eve. She suggested the poem Christmas Eve at Sea by John Masefield and it couldn’t be a better poem to set for Robin who is in the Royal Naval Reserve. It was not a poem I knew but I felt there was something really quite beautiful in the ghostliness of it, with its eerily swaying imagery and starry, moonlit sky; an unusual and intense welcoming in of Christmas Day. Subsequently Christmas Eve at Sea performed as a tenor song by James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbury (piano)at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, on 12 February, 2011.
The music of Four Shakespeare Songs reflects some very different aspects of love. The first, What ’tis to love, gives a gentle affirmation of it, using text from the closing scenes of As You Like It in an exchange between Rosalind, Orlando and two shepherds. The second song, Give me my robe, is sung by Cleopatra who, devastated at having been abandoned by Antony, prepares herself for her death. How should I my true love know? is sung by Ophelia in the play, Hamlet, when she finally loses her reason, provoked by Hamlet’s harsh treatment of her. The simple old melody is used here, altered slightly, with an agitated accompaniment to mirror her unhinging. First rehearse, sung by Titania, appears in the closing scene of Midsummer-Night’s Dream. Here, Oberon and Titania cast their fairy blessing on the lovers, united at last. The light texture of the ensemble gives an exuberant finish to the song cycle.
The four songs were commissioned by Gillian Humphreys for performance as part of Shakespeare and Love, a compilation of extracts from the plays with a selection of Shakespearean song settings. The first performance of Four Shakespeare Songs was given by Gillian Humphreys (soprano) and Courtney Kenny (piano) with the actor, Edward de Souza, in 1991 in Southwark Cathedral. The programme was recorded and issued on the Pearl label.
Radnor Songs, a cycle of six settings of atmospheric poems by Simon Mundy which evoke the history and beauty of the Welsh Border Marches, has been commissioned by the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts and will receive its first performance on 29th August 2005 by Rachel Nicholls (soprano) and Paul Plummer (piano) at St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne.
The first performance of The Buzzard was given by Gillian Keith (soprano) and Simon Lepper (piano) in St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, on 25 August, 2003, and was written for A Garland for Presteigne to celebrate the Presteigne Festival in its twenty-first year. The composers who contributed to the Garland were Michael Berkeley, James Francis Brown, John Joubert, Geraint Lewis, David Matthews, John McCabe, Cecilia McDowall, Rhian Samuel, Hilary Tann and Adrian Williams. This jubilant cycle was recorded in January 2004 for the Metronome label at the Royal Academy of Music.
Two Ratushinskaya Songs were commissioned by the contralto Mary Hamilton and first performed by her, accompanied by Kathron Sturrock (piano), in 1996 in St Olave’s Church, London. The first performance of the revised soprano version of Two Ratushinskaya Songswas given at the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts by Rachel Nicholls (soprano) and Simon Lepper (piano) in 2002.
In March 1983, on her 29th birthday, the Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, received a seven year prison sentence for expressing ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ in her verse. Undaunted, she continued writing poems in prison, aware of the possibility of yet more serious danger and punishment. She wrote, in minute handwriting, on tiny scraps of paper, anything available, and gradually the verses were smuggled out of the prison camp. Later they were gathered into a collection called Pencil Letter.
The Song of the Mice and the Chipmunk both come from this anthology. In the Song of the Mice the mother sings her tender lullaby to her little one. She sings of sweet things, of a sleepy crust of bread and of the pleasure of eating cats, yet there is always an underlying sense of real fear.
The Chipmunk is an unfortunate character. Life has dealt him a poor hand and he is outraged by the injustices heaped upon him. At the start of the song the chipmunk stutters nonsense to itself before unleashing a diatribe against the ‘bear’, which, of course, symbolizes the repressive Soviet regime. His ridiculous plea is that he should be born again but this time . . . as a tiger!