Of old sat Freedom on the heights is to my other songs as Champagne is to grape juice.
It's a setting of the poem by the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the third of the five songs that comprise my song cycle Idylls. It is available in two versions, the first for solo soprano and the second for mixed choir (SATB), both with piano accompaniment. The melody is quite straightforward but the piano part - a glorious ripple of off-beat phrases - is not for the faint-hearted! Nevertheless it is such fun to play and so dazzlingly impressive for an audience that it’s well worth the effort.
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!
played on flute and piano
played as an instrumental
Shortly after I completed it, I played Of old sat Freedom on the heights to a friend. When I finished, she uttered one word, which says it all: "Wow!" Of old thrills me every time I hear it. It's as simple as that. Everything you thought you knew about songs and accompaniments says that this song shouldn't work: but it does, gloriously.
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, with the exception of the piano part to Of old. It resurfaced in 1999 as the main theme in my Toccata for piano, written for the Japanese pianist Makiko Nakachi.
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 Of old sat Freedom on the heights 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.