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.
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,
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,
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!
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!
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 illustrates well the melodic and harmonic structure of the music.
I wrote Idylls for Chen Wang, whose voice possesses a seemingly effortless grace that is well matched to the character of the songs. She and pianist Jonathan Ellis gave the first performance in Holy Trinity Church, Trowbridge on 12th January 2019.
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, when I got to know the London-based Chinese soprano Chen Wang. I offered to compose a song cycle for her and she liked the idea. I wasn't thinking specifically of the songs that I had started so many years previously, but they seemed ideally suited to Chen's voice.
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 from the comments I have received from reviewers, performers and audiences alike, it seems that rather like a good single malt whisky 'Idylls' is all the better for being so well matured. Chen Wang, the lady for whom I wrote it, says simply that "It was my privilege singing your heartfelt and beautiful songs." Jonathen Ellis, the pianist who first performed 'Idylls', tells me that he is keen to play for further performances.