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Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


Composer's Notes

I con moto
II adagio/adante; solo link to…
III allegro energico/largamente

This piece was written over Christmas and the New Year 1984-85 for Osian Ellis to play at the 1985 Cheltenham festival. The idea of a ballad inspired both character and form. It originates in an image and a problem; the image (sonorous as much as visual) of a story-teller rousing then calming the listeners’ excitement, and the problem of bringing to the forefront of the orchestra an instrument that is usually in the nature of things accompanimental. The problem could be solved and the image realised by giving the harp solo ‘stanzas’ of ballad, separated by passages of orchestral comment or contrast. The continuous dialogue of most concertos is thus formalised into set exchanges, whether sullenly turbulent as in I or lyrical as in II. In III the harp is usually accompanied, but beneath this more continuous texture the same stanzaic patterning can easily be discerned; and towards the end the separation of orchestra and soloist is more stylised than ever.

The word ballad is also used for its nordic and celtic associations. This isn’t programmatic so much as evocative, of a harsh climate and an austere landscape, with their brief seasons of fertility and beauty.

The mood of I is of suppressed urgency, the solo-writing and orchestral colouring dark and lean. Harp and orchestra alternate for four stanzas of mounting tension, after which there is a decided feeling of semi-calm; for this verse-by-verse simplicity has also presented as exposition. The movement from now on, with solo and orchestra at last playing together, is at once development and recapitulation, with the fifth ballad-stanza as climax, after which there comes a rapid winding-down into II which follows without a break.

A string ritornello introduces and frames the three stanzas of a song-without-words for the soloist. As the third verse disappears into the depths, the full orchestra (the winds having been silent since the end of I) blooms full and gentle like a nordic summer; this passage ends by incorporating the string ritornello with which the movement ends. But the harp immediately takes up the new strain, embroidering it into a cadenza that is more of a link than a showplace, foreshadowing the finale and then returning to its own solo song to join without break into III; a moto perpetuo from which a broader theme gradually emerges that eventually reaches full orchestral strength, quelling the harp and stopping the movement in its tracks. The orchestra recovers momentum until it is the soloist’s turn to call a halt, compelling the music with bardic authority to change speed and tonal direction (back to the key of the first movement). These two events form in effect the sixth and seventh stanzas of the first-movement ballad, placed as climax and peroration of the three-movement shape as a whole.

Robin Holloway

Reproduction Rights
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer

Repertoire Note

How extraordinary that such a fine work for harp and orchestra – and there aren’t that many by British composers – should have had so few performances. Harpists ought to be queueing up to play it. The work is cast in three movements: fast-slow-fast and, because the composer was anxious that the soloist should not be overwhelmed by the orchestra, for much of the first two movements the music alternates between soloist and orchestra. The composer has described these sections as stanzas, such as one would find in a poetic ballad. Only in the finale do the soloist and orchestra come together.

Repertoire Note by Peter Marchbank

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