The Seafarer: Viola Concerto no. 2
Composition Date: 2001
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.
Viola Concerto No.2 ‘The Seafarer’ (2001)
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 2001. 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.