for bass-baritone and piano
Geoffrey Hill (E)
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I first read Geoffrey Hill’s sequence The Pentecost Castle when Tenebrae came out in 1978, and immediately felt strongly drawn to its possibilities for a song-cycle. But it was only when I heard him read it aloud that I realised the full dramatic intensity within these at first sight transparent lyrics. After this it seemed that such distillation should not be sullied by musical setting. Somewhat later, browsing through a copy of Tenebrae in a bookstore in Aspen, Colorado I got excited all over again; with the connivance of the lady on the till I copied out the entire sequence into a note-pad, and en route during the next months read them over and over, shaping a cycle, sketching some of the music (and one song complete); and finally pulling it all together in the autumn of 1981. The resulting song-cycle was commissioned "after the event" by Emmanuel College Cambridge (where Geoffrey Hill was a Fellow) as part of its celebrations for the 400th anniversary of its foundation.
The Lover’s Well does not use all fifteen poems of The Pentecost Castle, brief as they are. But I have retained the poems’ original numbering to indicate omissions which, possibly, intensify the sense of buried drama so strongly communicated in the poets’s live performance. It is as if the manuscript of a story already elliptical has come down incomplete to the twentieth century from a remote past. The poet has elided, the musician has made holes; yet whatever these breaks in continuity the latent drama moves on, and when the stream again surfaces everything is irretrievably altered. These subterranean events are never explained any more than the evocative names – Medina, Olmedo – are glossed. Everything is left suspended, to work by hint and reverberation - most of all in the rhapsodic and passionate piano fantasia upon some of the song’s melodies that was added after the first performance.
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