For viola and piano, with optional spoken voice
Composition Date: 2020
for viola and piano
for Gerry, and for Peter
I. Wide Night
II. Tread Softly
These ‘songs’ were commissioned by my dear friend Gerry Mattock, and are the latest in a chain of numerous commissions supported by him spanning more than twenty years. Gerry sadly died just after I’d completed the piece, and Night Songs represents a remarkable journey from his first commission, Bridging the Day, for cello and piano (1998).
My brief was to write a piece that I would play myself, to celebrate my marriage in August 2019 to writer Peter Thomson, at the place of our wedding: Brighton Friends Meeting House.
The premiere would be with pianist Nancy Cooley, and with Peter performing poems of his choice. I asked him to choose three in particular which might spark ideas for the pieces, and the idea was that the music would somehow also reflect the jazz and blues songs he had sung on our doorstep during the 2020 lockdown, with viola and guitar.
Nancy had suggested we perform Rebecca Clarke’s Morpheus, and this gave us a theme for the concert: sleep, and dreams.
The three poems Peter chose were:
Words, Wide Night, by Carol Ann Duffy, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, by WB Yeats (this one a favourite of Gerry’s), and Refugee Blues by WH Auden.
He recorded readings of all three, and I took his voice as my starting point.
I have ‘set’ them for viola and piano; the first song based on the la lala la from Duffy’s love poem. This is heard as a repeated motif on the piano throughout the piece, which is in a gentle waltz time. The viola ‘sings’ the text - which is a description of love and separation - as a lyrical counter melody.
The second song has a Celtic feel, and the viola opens with a direct musical transcription of this well-loved poem, following its spoken rhythms; played solo, then repeated with a simple piano ostinato. The poem may then be read, while the viola lights the text with harmonics.
The third song is a blues. It is not a literal setting of the words, but expresses the desperation and rootlessness of immigrant populations, forced to the margins of society. The relentless rhythm that characterises this music is a direct response to the blues rhythms in the poem.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors, A thousand windows and a thousand doors: Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours. Stood on a great plain in the falling snow; Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro: Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
Night Songs was to be performed at Brighton Friends’ Meeting House in January 2021; but following cancellation due to Covid, the premiere took place at the Royal Overseas League, London, on March 21st 2022. Sally Beamish performed it with pianist Roland Roberts, and reader Peter Thomson. It was finally performed at Brighton Friends Meeting House on October 16th, 2022 with Nancy Cooley. It was commissioned by Dr Gerry Mattock, and is dedicated to him in gratitude for his tireless support and encouragement over the years; and to my husband Peter.
Sally Beamish 2023
Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Words, Wide Night’ may be read at the start of the performance, and ‘Refugee Blues’ before the third movement, but permission should be sought to read the Auden, and to include either poem in the printed programme.
The Yeats poem may be read as part of the performance of the second movement, and is free of copyright restrictions.