Composition Date: 2016
Instrumentation: Viola and Piano
Commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Philharmonic Society as part of the New Generation Artists Scheme.
First performed by Lise Berthaud (viola) and David Saudubray (piano) in a BBC Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall, London, on August 29th, 2016.
for viola and piano
in memory of Max
Once my children had left home, I moved to Glasgow, after 20 years in rural Stirlingshire.
The first few months were marked by a blackbird in the plane tree outside my window. I had worried about being kept awake by city noise, but hadn’t anticipated sleepless nights caused by this blackbird’s constant singing. His song seemed plaintive, grief-ridden, obsessive; and this mirrored my own sense of loss and displacement.
Soon after the move, my daughter Stephanie decided on a career in violin-making, and made her first instrument – a viola - which she gave to me. I had not played or even owned an instrument for many years, following the theft of a cherished viola in 1989.
The blackbird sang as I rediscovered the joy of playing, and this work expresses that reconnection to a previous life.
Just before I started work on the piece, my beloved friend and mentor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, died. A mutual friend, Mike Merritt, told me that Max had left a pile of manuscript paper at his house in Inverness, where Max would often stay on the way to and from his home in Orkney. Mike suggested that I write my next piece on this paper in Max's honour. Max and I first met when I was playing and he was conducting. So Merula Perpetua was composed onto this paper. The Latin title is also a nod to Max's influence, and translates as 'Perpetual Blackbird’.
I began by taking several recordings of my blackbird, and selected a line of his song as the basis for the piece. All the music is taken from a simple transcription of these notes.
The music starts tortuously, obsessively – winding around itself and never resolving. The piano begins to beg for calm, attempting to introduce a slow paragraph of chords, but is always interrupted by the restless viola. Eventually the music settles into an expressive elegy, and thence eases into a delicate scherzo. The two instruments come together finally in an exuberant unison moto perpetuo.
Only at the very end is the blackbird's song heard in its exact notation.
Merula Perpetua was commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Philharmonic Society as part of the New Generation Artists Scheme, and first performed by Lise Berthaud (viola) and David Saudubray (piano) in a BBC Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall, London, on August 29th, 2016.
Sally Beamish 2016