8th February 2015
Jonathan Ellis (piano, assisted by Charlie Jackson-Allen) and Chen Wang (soprano)
World première, 12th January 2019 | Photograph copyright © Celia Lansley

What is it?

Idylls is a set of five songs for solo high voice (soprano or tenor) and piano, with an overall duration of just under eighteen minutes. While relatively straightforward overall, the following points should be noted:

  • The first song features two high B-naturals for the singer.
  • The third song features an accompaniment in the form of a toccata that is out of sync with the primary time signature.

It was first performed on 12th January 2019 by Chen Wang and Jonathan Ellis.


The songs use verses selected from five poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.


Ring out, wild bells

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


Love is and was my Lord and King

Love is and was my Lord and King,
And in his presence I attend
To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.

Love is and was my King and Lord,
And will be, tho' as yet I keep
Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompass'd by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
Who moves about from place to place,
And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.


Of old sat Freedom on the heights

Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet:
Above her shook the starry lights:
She heard the torrents meet.

There in her place she did rejoice,
Self-gather'd in her prophet-mind,
But fragments of her mighty voice
Came rolling on the wind.

Then stept she down thro' town and field
To mingle with the human race,
And part by part to men reveal'd
The fulness of her face—

Grave mother of majestic works,
From her isle-altar gazing down,
Who, God-like, grasps the triple forks,
And, King-like, wears the crown:

Her open eyes desire the truth.
The wisdom of a thousand years
Is in them. May perpetual youth
Keep dry their light from tears;

That her fair form may stand and shine,
Make bright our days and light our dreams,
Turning to scorn with lips divine
The falsehood of extremes!


Saint Agnes' Eve

Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes;
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.

As these white robes are soil'd and dark,
To yonder shining ground;
As this pale taper's earthly spark,
To yonder argent round;
So shows my soul before the Lamb,
My spirit before Thee;
So in mine earthly house I am,
To that I hope to be.
Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far,
Thro' all yon starlight keen,
Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star,
In raiment white and clean.

He lifts me to the golden doors;
The flashes come and go;
All heaven bursts her starry floors,
And strows her lights below,
And deepens on and up! the gates
Roll back, and far within
For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits,
To make me pure of sin.
The sabbaths of Eternity,
One sabbath deep and wide—
A light upon the shining sea—
The Bridegroom with his bride!


Crossing 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.


This is the official release of the complete work, recorded in January 2024. (N.B. We did record Chen Wang singing it but unfortunately the technical quality of the audio was not up to the standard I judged necessary for this website.)



Chen Wang, 'St Agnes Eve'
Photograph copyright © Celia Lansley

The idea of writing a set of songs for tenor and piano, based on Tennyson’s poems, had first occurred to me in 1986. I wrote out a few first sketches, but 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, when I got to know the London-based Chinese soprano Chen Wang. I offered to compose a song cycle for her, she liked the idea and my earlier song sketches became the basis of the new project.

By this time I was working in Hanoi, Vietnam, so one of the songs ('Love is and was my Lord and King') was written sitting at a hotel desk! 'Ring out, wild bells' matched my mood at the time, so it became the first song in the set.

I called the set Idylls as a nod of respect to Tennyson's epic 'The Idylls of the King'. It was completed on 8th February 2015, nearly thirty years after I had first jotted down some thoughts about it … and from the comments I have received from reviewers, performers and audiences alike, it is all the better for being so well matured.


Jonathan Ellis, assisted by Charlie Jackson-Allen, 'St Agnes Eve'
Photograph copyright © Celia Lansley

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