for narrator and string trio
Composition Date: 2000
Instrumentation: Narrator, Pf, Vn, Vc, +visuals
Ccommissioned for “Summer on the Peninsula” to accompany the ‘Seafarer’ monotypes by Jila Peacock. The commission was supported by Boydell & Brewer Ltd, and first performed at Alderton Church on September 16th 2000 by Crawford Logan, voice, Jacqueline Shave, violin, Robert Irvine, cello and Sally Beamish, piano, in a special presentation directed by David Thompson.
“The Seafarer” for Voice and Piano Trio, with monotypes by Jila Peacock
After Beowulf, The Seafarer is perhaps the most famous of all Anglo-Saxon poems. It belongs to a group of lyric and elegiac poems, all quite brief, all extraordinarily powerful and direct. They are found in one manuscript, the Exeter Book, dating from the early tenth century, in Exeter Cathedral Library. Their mood is one of stoic resignation in the face of loss, lit fitfully by shafts of sunlit hope, sometimes Christian, sometimes less specifically linked to religion. They take us into a world where nature is an overwhelming force, attractive yet devastating: The seafarer speaks of the pull of the sea, the lonely yet fulfilling way of life which ‘that fine fellow, carefree in his cups set snugly up in town, cannot conceive’, but portrays also the bitterness of the seafarer’s existence, the hail which represents both physical and spiritual desolation. But those who live on land are in no better shape. ‘The days of glory have decayed/the earth has spilled its splendour’; and the seafarer is on a journey which is not only liturgical but metaphysical. The final image of the poem is of him steering ‘a steadfast course…to the living well-head and heaven haven of our Lord’s love’. At the close, as the poet gives thanks to God, he sets against the images of transience on earth the Christian liturgy with its images of eternity.
Charles Harrison Wallace
This is the central work in a group of three Seafarer pieces; the first is for solo violin, and the third is a viola concerto. They are all directly inspired by the translation from the Anglo-Saxon by Charles Harrison Wallace, and follows closely his view of the text, falling into five sections. Various themes reappear throughout, transforming as the music develops. The opening undulating wave motif, shortly followed by spiky hail-like counterpoint and the calls of birds (osprey and tern) are merged in various combinations. A ‘hammering heart’ theme emerges. The opening of Part III, with a sinister version of a cuckoo call, marks the beginning of a transformation which culminates at the centre of the piece with eerie otherworldly string music where birds are transformed into banshee-like spirits, hovering as if suspended. Part IV begins with solo cello; the falling third of the cuckoo becomes a mellow elegy. From this point, bleakness almost imperceptibly becomes optimism – a trembling hesitant piano section resolves in a clamour of bells, and thereafter the music anchors itself into a prayer-like ‘coming home’.
All three Seafarer works were inspired by the set of monoprints made by Jila Peacock, which are intended to be projected as an integral part of the performance of this work.
The Seafarer was commissioned for “Summer on the Peninsula” to accompany the ‘Seafarer’ monotypes by Jila Peacock. The commission was supported by Boydell & Brewer Ltd, and first performed at Alderton Church on September 16th 2000 by Crawford Logan, voice, Jacqueline Shave, violin, Robert Irvine, cello and Sally Beamish, piano, in a special presentation directed by David Thompson.
I first read the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer in 1999 when I was asked to advise on illustrations for a publication of a new translation by Charles Harrison Wallace. I became fascinated by the poem and found its concept of life as a voyage, and its concern with the material and the metaphysical world echoed many ideas in contemporaneous Persian and Arabic mystical literature. I made a series of images in response to the poem which I showed to Sally Beamish. In 2000, Jack and Sue Phipps of the Summer on the Peninsula Music Festival commissioned The Seafarer trio, a multimedia piece with voice and projected images. The images were published by Sylph Editions in 2010 and are now in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge.
My original images have now been animated by filmmaker Laurie Irvine, and are projected on a single screen behind the performers.
Jila peacock May 2010