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West Wind

for tenor and piano

Composition Date: 2016



Commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation. It was premiered by James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at Wigmore Hall on 22nd June 2016.

Programme Note:

West Wind

for tenor and piano

Text: Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792–1822

for James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook

James Gilchrist approached me in 2014 about his series 'Schumann and the English Romantics', his idea being to pair three British composers (myself, Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove) with three great Schumann song cycles, using British texts from Schumann's time.

James assigned me Schumann's Eichendorff settings Liederkreis op.39, and

I chose to set Shelley's Ode to the West Wind.

The poem reflects on the powerlessness of the poet when compared to the wind, and expresses a longing to harness the wind to disseminate his words.

It is in five stanzas, and I have created a five section work, made up of five 'songs'. On comparing the Eichendorff with the Shelley, I found common themes, and have highlighted these in the choice of material.

I began by creating a short improvisation on each of the Schumann songs, and used these as starting points for my own music. Some of them are very loosely related – representing a free meditation on the Schumann. Others are more easily identified, by rhythmic or thematic ideas. The central third part, for instance, echoes the stillness of Mondnacht, and this returns at the end of the piece as a gentle reflection. The piano begins with a swirling cadenza-like passage, and often represents the wind, with the voice of the poet being drawn in and stepping back by turns; sometimes overwhelmed and silenced by the piano, sometimes equally powerful.

West Wind was commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation. It was premiered by James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at Wigmore Hall on 22nd June 2016.

Sally Beamish 2016

Ode to the West Wind


O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being

Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,

Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,

Shook from the tangled boughs of heaven and ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning! there are spread

On the blue surface of thine airy surge,

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Mænad , even from the dim verge

Of the horizon to the zenith's height,

The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,

Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere

Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers

Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers

So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou

For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,

As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed

Scarce seem'd a vision—I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd

One too like thee— tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own?

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,

Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1819

Buy/Hire from Edition Peters


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