I describe Idylls as a song cycle only because it comes as close to being that as anything I've written so far. Lasting just under eighteen minutes, Idylls consists of five songs for solo high voice (soprano or tenor) and piano, using verses selected from five poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The songs are
The songs vary in difficulty. Ring out requires a high B-natural in a couple of places, but apart from that is of intermediate difficulty. Love is and was is straightforward. Of old is relatively easy to sing but presents an interesting challenge to the pianist whose part is basically in the form of a toccata. Saint Agnes' Eve and Crossing the Bar are both relatively easy by comparison.
I have recorded the five songs as performed by a flute / piano duo, in which form they work well.
Ring out, wild bells
Love is and was my Lord and King
Of old sat Freedom on the heights
Saint Agnes' Eve
Crossing the Bar
I dedicated Idylls to Chen Wang and Benedict Rogers. Chen's voice possesses a seemingly effortless grace, which is well matched to the character of the songs. Benedict (Ben) has committed himself to the Roman Catholic Church and to human rights advocacy with a degree of dedication that is remarkable by anybody's reckoning; he is a worthy dedicatee of a song cycle that speaks of Christian commitment and the triumph of freedom.
The idea of writing a song cycle based on Tennyson’s poems first occurred to me in 1986. At that time I was thinking of a tenor rather than a soprano (the present settings work with either voice). I jotted down vague snippets of Saint Agnes' Eve and Of old sat Freedom on the heights, also about half of Crossing the Bar. Then a change of job resulted in me moving to another town quite some distance away. I lost contact with the tenor for whom I had first envisaged the work and in consequence lost the motivation to continue working on the songs. They lay dormant until 2014.
I got to know the London-based Chinese soprano Chen Wang through Ben, who introduced her to my music. I offered to compose a song cycle for her and she liked the idea. At the time of making the suggestion I wasn't thinking specifically of the songs that I had started so many years previously, but listening to Chen's voice made me realise they would be the ideal material for her. I had the song sketches from 1986 but needed more material. I found Love is and was my Lord and King and added it to the list. Having rejected Ring out, wild bells in 1986 because of its rather dated A-B-B-A verse structure, I now realised that by doubling up on the timing of the first line of each verse, I could make it work. So I decided to start the cycle with the thunderous chords that open Ring out.
The set of five songs, entitled Idylls was completed on 8th February 2015, nearly thirty years after I had first jotted down some thoughts about it … and rather like a good single malt whisky, it’s all the better for being so well matured.