Commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation. It was premiered by James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at Wigmore Hall on 22nd June 2016.
for tenor and piano
Text: Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792–1822
for James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook
James Gilchrist approached me in 2014 about his series 'Schumann and the English Romantics', his idea being to pair three British composers (myself, Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove) with three great Schumann song cycles, using British texts from Schumann's time.
James assigned me Schumann's Eichendorff settings Liederkreis op.39, and
I chose to set Shelley's Ode to the West Wind.
The poem reflects on the powerlessness of the poet when compared to the wind, and expresses a longing to harness the wind to disseminate his words.
It is in five stanzas, and I have created a five section work, made up of five 'songs'. On comparing the Eichendorff with the Shelley, I found common themes, and have highlighted these in the choice of material.
I began by creating a short improvisation on each of the Schumann songs, and used these as starting points for my own music. Some of them are very loosely related – representing a free meditation on the Schumann. Others are more easily identified, by rhythmic or thematic ideas. The central third part, for instance, echoes the stillness of Mondnacht, and this returns at the end of the piece as a gentle reflection. The piano begins with a swirling cadenza-like passage, and often represents the wind, with the voice of the poet being drawn in and stepping back by turns; sometimes overwhelmed and silenced by the piano, sometimes equally powerful.
West Wind was commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation. It was premiered by James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at Wigmore Hall on 22nd June 2016.
Sally Beamish 2016
Ode to the West Wind
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of heaven and ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning! there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Mænad , even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision—I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee— tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1819