Tree Carols

Composition Date: 2014

Instrumentation: Bar, 2Vln, Vla, Vc



Commissioned by the University of Warwick. First performance by the Coull Quartet with Roderick Williams, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, 5 March 2014. 


Programme Note:



Tree Carols


Poems: Fiona Sampson

Music: Sally Beamish



The idea for this collaboration first came about in 2009, when the Coull Quartet approached me about writing a work with Fiona Sampson. The quartet, Fiona and I discussed at length what form the piece might take, and after some months, Fiona sent me three ‘tree’ poems. I felt I could respond to them immediately. Once I started to write the music, though, I realised more poems would be needed, and Fiona created to more to complete the set.


I asked to write for Roderick Williams, and the settings are written very much with his voice in mind. I know Roddy’s voice well, as he created the role of Byron in my opera with Janice Galloway, Monster, in 2002. The songs tend to feature the higher register of the baritone range.


The first poem is set against a string ‘shimmer’ with small solos breaking through. The second is a canon, building in gusts which hover around an unsettled ‘heartbeat’ rhythm in 5/8 time. The central movement is recitative-like, with aggressive chordal interjections from the strings, containing a brief lullaby interlude before the angry mood returns. The fourth song is characterised by wide, searching intervals and pulsing chords. The work finishes with a song accompanied by birdcalls overlapping in a circular canon, with raw rising fifths.


 Tree Carols was commissioned by the University of Warwick for the Coull Quartet.


Sally Beamish 2013





Tree Carols


Fiona Sampson



1. The Miracle Tree



The true Rood

is in the tree –



as rising sap,                                                                                                   

the Christ-white blood


The true tree

is in the Rood –                                              



as the breaking bark                                        

where the yew bleeds                                      


The Rood

holds up life                                                    


in blood-red apple

and bruised pear,

sweet fruit


The tree

holds up death –                                             


ransacked body,                                                          

hunger and juice

The graveyard miracle


2. The trees are troubled…


The trees are troubled by a wind

that blows from the heart                               

of each tree, a troubled wind                         

speaking the word Loss,                                


taking a breath to speak the word

again, speaking Loss

as if it were the only word –              

and at its heart                                                


the swaying O of the heartwood                      

where death opens                 

Strange birth, when living wood                                           

is forced open                                    


by this world                          

as it changes into world


3. Vigil



God – crush this                                                                                 

stem of anger,                                     

crumple my neck                                                        

like paper


Lord of Envies –                                                          

Vinegar King –

refuse me                                                                    

your unceasing heaven                                                


but make me sleep –                                                                           

hopeless, whole,                                                          


by each nightly ghost –                                                           


to wake at last

in borrowed skin

clothing a shame                                                         

that Love let in                                                                       


You whose daylight                                                                

thrills the nerves –                                                                                                      

burn me now                                                                          

as I deserve



4. The tree is a changing sky…



The tree is a changing sky                             

starred with light                                                        

Dizzy with apple picking                               

I place my ladder                                           


so it rises                                            

so its stiles go breaking                     

and entering this bright                                                                                  

constellation – built in air


as constellations are –

Among the sway and surge of leaves

I rise in a leaf-lather                          


Green is the colour of grief

but for one season

I have ascended to tree heaven                                              



Bushes and Briars


            If I showed to him my boldness

He’d ne’er love me more.

                          ‘Bushes and Briars’ (trad.)


Liquid voice

from the ash 


a bird sings     

Leaves gleam                                                             


Old voice

your sweet fall


tells over

an old story                                                     


A girl lost

in the copse                                                    


Her baby cries

Leaves lean down


Her baby cries

with the thrush’s voice                                                


from every bush

every tree


Sing lullaby

on the ash-branch


sing lullaby

your mother sleeps


The tears she weeps                                                                

are blood


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