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Composition Date: 2012

Duration: 17'

Orchestration: 1+pic.1+cor.1+Ebcl.1+cbn/4.2.2+btbn/timp.2perc/str.(min.



Commissioned by Musikkollegium Winterthur.

First performed at Stadthaus Winterthur on 6 June 2012, conducted by Douglas Boyd.

Programme Note:

for Douglas Boyd and the Musikkollegium Winterthur


The Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, is famously the place where Mary Shelley began her novel, Frankenstein. Lord Byron also wrote several poems there in the same year – 1816. This was dubbed ‘the year without summer’; as strange weather and darkness caused record-cold temperatures across Europe, especially in Geneva. Byron claimed to have received the inspiration for his poem Darkness "when there was a celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight". The darkness was (unknown to those of the time) caused by the volcanic ash spewing from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

This piece is a distillation of the processes that went on that summer in the Villa Diodati, when Lord Byron, Mary Shelley (then Godwin), their friend Dr Polidori, and Claire Claremont, the daughter of Mary’s stepmother, amused themselves by challenging each other to ‘think of a story to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’. (Claire was not a writer, but was at the Villa hoping to engage Byron in an affair).

My opera, Monster, written with Janice Galloway, touches on the same subject, and in the new piece I have started with the music I wrote for Byron – sombre and grandiose trombone chorales – and have overlaid strange and frenzied birdsong, flashes of short-lived light, and a ghoulish scherzo, to create the unease and foreboding that people must have experienced in the inexplicable dark chill of that summer. The piece is about conversations, and ideas overlap. Fear is tinged with humour, as the young friends compete to frighten each other, so, although the steps of Mary’s monster are heard, there are also lighter, more dance-like passages.

The piece ends with a depiction of shimmering moonlight, struggling to break through the ash-laden skies.

Diodati was commissioned by Musikkollegium Winterthur, and first performed at the Stadthaus Winterthur, on 7th June 2012, conducted by Douglas Boyd.

Sally Beamish 2012

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