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for harp and symphony orchestra

Composition date: 2020





for Catrin Finch

I. Winter

Inside the Hive

II. Spring


Foraging (1)

Waggle Dance

Foraging (2)

Round Dance

III. Summer

The Swarm

The Queens Emerge

The Killing of the Queens

The Victorious Queen

The Strutting Drones

The Pampering of the Queen




Inside the Hive

This work arose from an idea for dance by playwright Peter Thomson, and is based on his narrative. Entitled 'Hive', the concerto explores the life of a beehive over the four seasons. It begins with the shimmering, shifting bees in winter, then the gathering of nectar, swarms, dances and battles, to the eventual quietening of the hive as autumn leads back to winter. The work, as well as following the narrative of the beehive, describes the colours of the four seasons.

'Hive' displays the harp as 'dancer' - partnering soloists from the orchestra and bursting into solo virtuosity.

When writing the piece I was deeply inspired to hear Catrin playing with the Colombian band Cimarrón. I have drawn on her improvisational skills and compelling performance style; and the scoring and use of percussion is very much influenced by what I heard that night.

The music is often modal, but as ‘foreign’ notes are threaded in, the harmonic language expands. Groups of 6 interlocking notes often characterise the music – like the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb.

Inside the beehive, Winter opens with a close mass of bees, all shivering their flight muscles to keep the temperature constant. The harp gradually emerges as soloist. Drowsy descending string clusters are echoed from the back desks, before being passed to the woodwind.

Spring; and birdsong is mixed with a fresh, breezy constant rhythm. As the first bees emerge from the hive and begin to look for nectar, the harp forms a trio with solo viola and flute. Bees begin to return to the hive with news of where the best nectar is to be found. In one of the most extraordinary phenomena of nature, this is communicated through a ‘waggle dance’. The bee repeats a figure of 8 pattern, which describes in detail where the flowers are, via the angle and length of its central trembling ‘waggle’. As more and more bees return, the dances overlap and the hive is alive with dancing bees.

A second ‘foraging’ trio features harp and percussion with celeste, followed by a ‘round dance’ – which conveys the news that the hive is surrounded by flowers in all directions. The dance builds to a riotous celebration.

At the start of Summer the old queen, having laid her final batch of eggs, abruptly leaves the hive, taking half the colony with her. A chromatic fugato opens with low trumpets, and builds rapidly to a climax, as the swarm departs, collects and hovers. The swarm fades into the distance, and the new queens begin to hatch from their cells. They make a unique sound – an insistent ‘piping’, which is here represented by cor anglais and oboes, and becomes the underlying theme of the movement. But there can only be one queen. They fight to the death.

The victorious queen is represented by percussion, which includes the harp’s soundboard. She bursts out of the hive, where the drones are waiting excitedly, and the strings begin a jaunty hornpipe.

The drones have done nothing all their lives, but now, at last, they are centre stage. This is their big moment. Only a small number of them will get to copulate with the Queen. Many will climb onto her back, and try, but more often than not she will brush them aside. A few will pass the test. Their triumph is literally short-lived – after ejaculation, when they withdraw, they are ripped apart.

The satiated Queen is pampered and made comfortable in the hive, where cells have been prepared for her eggs. Delicate string and woodwind melismas surround the harp.

From here on, the music begins to settle, and Autumn is heralded by a brass fanfare: the descending clusters that were first heard in Winter.

A robin sings. We are where we started – the bees are ready for winter.

I would like to thank Peter Thomson for his narrative and research; and beekeeper Mark Pappenheim for his expertise and advice.

I am also grateful to Catrin Finch, Enno Senft and Chris Brannick, for specific technical advice.

Hive was commissioned by the BBC Proms and the International Harp Congress, and first performed by Catrin Finch and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Ariane Matiakh, on 21st July 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall, and subsequently as part of the International Harp Congress, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on 24th July 2022.

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