Crossing the Bar is a setting of the poem by the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The fifth of the five songs that comprise my song cycle Idylls, it is available in two versions: the first for solo soprano and piano, the second for mixed choir (SATB) and piano. Intensely emotional and yet tranquil, the melody has a distinctly Celtic feel. The piano part mimics with uncanny accuracy the lapping of waves on a beach shoreline. It starts in B-flat major and continues in that key until the words “face to face” in the last verse. At this point the music moves abruptly into D-flat major and the piano drops nearly two octaves. The effect is of a sudden and profound sense of peace “when I have crost the bar”.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
played on flute and piano
played as an instrumental
I am Cornish. I grew up with the sea nine miles to the northwest and seven miles to the southeast. My mother came from St Ives and my father from Penzance. So I know the sea. I know its rhythms and its moods. I know the sound of a sloop moored against a jetty, a foghorn in the distance or the cries of kittiwakes as they glide over sea cliffs. Two of my works are profoundly influenced by the rhythms of the sea: the art song Ebb Tide and Crossing the Bar.
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 and perhaps that's why 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 and I 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 a mutual friend, 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.
The set of five songs, entitled Idylls and including Crossing the Bar 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. I decided to publish the songs individually as well as in the form of a song cycle in order to broaden their appeal.