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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


Available Recordings:

Tree Carols: No. 1, The Miracle Tree

Tree Carols: No. 2, The Trees are Troubled

Tree Carols: No. 3, Vigil

Tree Carols: No. 4, The tree is a changing sky

Tree Carols: No. 5, Bushes and Briars

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