for Harp, Viola and Strings
Composition Date: 2008
Commissioned and first performed by Purbeck Strings on 15 March 2009 at St Mary's Church, Swanage, conducted by Ian Pillow, with Amy Stanford (vla), Ruth Potter (hp) and the Stanford Quartet.
Rhapsody on Themes from Hafez
Sally Beamish 2008
Some years ago, the Iranian-born artist Jila Peacock sent me some poems from the 14th century Persian work, Divan e Hafez. Jila had shaped each one into an image of the bird or animal mentioned, using the original Persian writing. She had also made beautiful, simple translations, which immediately suggested music. It happened that in 2007 I was beginning two vocal works: one for Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles – a song cycle; and a choral work for Portsmouth Grammar School, for Remembrance Day, with counter tenor Michael Chance as soloist. I decided to use the Hafez texts for both these works, and set nine poems in all. Only one poem overlaps the two works, and this is the opening Hoopoe, which closes the Four Songs from Hafez cycle for Mark, and, in a more developed version, opens and closes The Lion and the Deer – the cantata for Portsmouth. In Islamic mythology the hoopoe is the love messenger between Solomon and Sheba, the male and female aspects of the Divine countenance:
O Hoopoe of the east wind,
To Sheba I shall send you.
Take heed from where to where
I shall send you
When I began work on the Rhapsody, the Hafez was still in my head. I wrote a short ‘refrain’ section, with the idea of using it as a kind of marker through the rhapsody. I then realised that the music I had written was a variation on Hoopoe, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I needed to develop the Hafez material still further, into an extended instrumental work.
The voices of viola and harp are the main protagonists. The string quartet is used not so much as a unit, but to add colour and provide extra solo voices, and the string orchestra provides a ‘chorus’, commenting on and echoing the thematic ideas.
The work divides into sections, with the refrain appearing at the opening, centre, and end.
Images from the poems recur throughout the music. During the first refrain, the buzzing of flies is created in the strings – a reference to lines from Hafez’s ‘Falcon’ poem:
The falcons of the path repose content as flies,
Such is the sweetness of this world.
After the first refrain, the image is of the soft footfall of a deer, with gentle pizzicato bass and a yearning theme in viola and harp:
Rejoice you lonely seeker of the scented path
Out of the wilderness the perfumed deer is come
The second appearance of the refrain is much darker, with an impassioned, keening solo on viola. Against this background, the quartet becomes restless, introducing a semiquaver theme which will underpin the next section, taking on an optimism suggested by the image of a lion – ‘the lion of the sun’:
Incense streaming from your hair shames
The hyacinth’s perfumed curls
This leads to a section depicting Hafez’ ‘horse of the winds’, with a horse-hoof motif on cello, and whinnying upper strings. A central section features arrow-like upward rushes, leading to slightly more reflective music, before returning to the sound of hooves:
Each shining arrow soars a while
But must return to dust.
So do not waver from the path
Love life now,
For oblivion completes all design.
When the refrain is heard for the final time, it is overlaid by the harp with the song of a nightingale. In Hafez’ haunting poem, the bird represents separation from the beloved, and human longing:
Roaming the dawn garden to gather flowers
I heard the call of a nightingale
Forlorn like me he loved the rose
And in that cry surged all his warbling grief
I drifted in that garden’s timeless moment
Balancing the plight of rose and bird
For endless roses flower each day
Yet no man plucks a single bloom
Without the risk of thorn
Rhapsody on Themes from Hafez was commissioned by Purbeck Strings, who requested a work that would accommodate the mixed abilities of their string orchestra. It was first performed on 15th March 2009 at St Mary’s Church, Swanage, by Purbeck Strings conducted by Ian Pillow, with Amy Stanford, viola, Ruth Potter, harp, and the Stanford Quartet.
The commission was funded by the National Lottery.
Sally Beamish 2009
Excerpts from the poems are reprinted with kind permission from Jila Peacock