John Donne, Emily Bronte, Shakespeare (E)
The Year’s Midnight is a personal meditation on winter. I chose the texts by Donne, Shakespeare and Emily Brontë because I felt they all, in their different ways, contributed to the mood that I wanted to create. I didn’t attempt to ‘encapsulate’ winter in the work - indeed, by focussing on the Donne work (Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day) which forms four of the six movements, and interspersing that with the shorter texts, this was always intended to be a slanted view of the season. It is also perhaps relevant that I purposely wrote the bulk of this work in the middle of the summer, as I felt this helped me concentrate even more on my personal ‘vision’ of the winter solstice. The Donne work is set on the shortest day of the year, and in the music I wished to explore what that meant to me. I have mixed feelings about this time - the dark is depressing, but also comforting - the light is welcome while it lasts, but the rays of the sun often harsh and devoid of warmth. In other words, it's a time of contradiction for me, and I wanted the music to convey that. The name Lucy, ironically, comes from the Latin for ‘light’ - Donne plays on this in the poem, and likewise the juxtaposition of light and dark was something I wanted to explore musically.
The work opens with two flutes and alto flute, which weave in and out of each other in their lowest registers. The sound of this is rich and warm, hardly wintry, but I felt it effectively represented the stupor of the "hydroptic earth" slumbering in the dead of winter. Most of the opening music shifts seamlessly from one instrumental group to another, and it is not until the introduction of high string harmonics that the orchestration and the music becomes more animated. These high piercing sounds (heard in harmonics, piccolos, crotales etc.) are my response to Donne’s "light squibs" and appear at different points in the work - most notably at the beginning of the second movement. As well as these bursts of light, the orchestration employs great extremes throughout - the highest sounds are often contrasted with dark cushions of sound - low muted brass, string, which often explode thunderously. Indeed, the low muffled growling of the contrabassoon and string basses in the opening movement frequently reappear in more menacing guises.
My decision, in the fourth movement to set Shakespeare’s "Blow, blow, though winter wind" (from As You Like It) might seem incongruous at first. Whereas the Brontë poem relates to the Donne with its wonderful description of the "cold, dark sun" the Shakespeare is completely different in character and language. Indeed, I chose it in part to give some light relief to the potentially oppressive mood of the rest of the piece. The movement begins with a fanfare of heterophonic trumpet lines, cascading alongside a shimmer of brass, strings and bells. The choir’s first entry is also in marked contrast to the preceding movements, where they had mostly sung homophonically - in this movement their fractured lines overlap to create a rich cacophony. (Just as well then, that all they sing in the movement are the words "blow, blow" and "sing heigh-ho"!) While this could be seen as ‘light relief,’ and there is certainly much orchestral scurrying and acrobatics in the movement, there is still a bitter edge to the music, and its abrupt ending is purposely tense as the whirlwind of activity evaporates.
The emotional heart of the work is the 5th movement, "Love’s Limbeck." Limbeck (from alembic) means a vessel of distillation, and later came to mean a racking of the brain. In the context of the Donne poem, it could mean both, but in any case I certainly see the movement as the distillation of the whole work's emotional breadth. It is also the sparsest, focussing mostly on just the tenor soloist and the choir. The brass climax at the middle of this movement is an aggrandisement of the opening flutes’ melody from the first.
The last movement begins with a succession of chords, which fade in and out like dark clouds, but quickly turn into something musically much spikier and energetic. This gradually builds up to a very noisy climax, but this quickly dissipates, and the music plunges into a more sombre lower register. There is one final burst of colour and light towards the close, but the work ends with just the tenor soloist, and a few final ‘squibs’ of light, as the work is enveloped in silence.
David Horne, 2001
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer