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The Seafarer: Viola Concerto no. 2

Composition Date: 2001

Duration: 30'

Orchestration: soloVla/2(pic).2.2(Bcl).2(cbn)/



Commissioned by Swedish and Scottish Chamber Orchestras.

First performed by Tabea Zimmermann (vla), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Swensen, at City Halls, Glasgow, 2002.

Programme Note:

Viola Concerto No.2 ‘The Seafarer’ (2001)

Andante irrequieto

Andante malevole

Andante riflessivo

I first came across the 9th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, when artist Jila Peacock sent me a new translation by Charles Harrison Wallace, whose Scottish and Swedish ancestry has led to a very Nordic take on the poem, using words which resonate in both Scandinavian/North Scottish languages, and reflecting a Nordic view of life’s journey, using the metaphor of a sea voyage that comes to rest in ‘Heaven’s haven’. I was struck by its vivid imagery and wrote a short piece for solo violin inspired by the text.

In 2000 I was asked by the ‘Summer on the Peninsula’ Festival to make a setting of the poem for narrator and piano trio with Jila’s Seafarer prints projected as part of the work, and in so doing I began to hear more orchestral textures and to want to explore the material further. The Viola Concerto is the third part in my ‘Seafarer’ Trilogy and is in three movements.

The first suggests wave shapes, seabirds, and ideas of conflict and exploration.

All I ever heard along the ice-way

was sounding sea, the gannet's shanty

whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull

were all my gaming, mead and mirth

At tempest-tested granite crags

the ice-winged tern would taunt

spray-feathered ospreys overhead

would soar and scream

The second is based on a two-note motif first heard on the bassoon –

And heralding his summer hoard of pain

the gowk (cuckoo) repeats his plaintive geck

foreboding bitterness of breast

Soft-bedded bloods cannot conceive

what some men suffer as abroad

they travel tracks of exile

Reckless of that, my thought is thrown

beyond my heart's cage now. My mind is cast

upon the sea swell, over the whale's world

The music is mocking and ironic in character, with a fragile and transient middle section – the half-heard cries of banshee-like spirits.

The last movement is essentially a set of cadenzas exploring material from the first two movements, set against a gentle string refrain and resolving into a simple hymn-like passage which ends the concerto.

Come, consider where we have a home, how

we can travel to it, how our travail here

will lead us to the living well-head

and heaven haven of our Lord's love

The concerto is dedicated to Tabea Zimmermann, in memory of the conductor David Shallon, who was to have conducted the first performance, and who died tragically in 2000. It was jointly commissioned by the Swedish and Scottish Chamber Orchestras, and first performed by Tabea Zimmermann with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, at the City halls, Glasgow, conducted by Joseph Swensen, in January 2002.

Sally Beamish


Available Recordings:

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