Opera, libretto by Blake Morrison (after the novella by Jules Verne)
Duration: c. 2 hours 10'
12 soloists (2 sopranos, 2 mezzos, 2 counter tenors, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 bass baritones)
Chorus (SATB)
2 (2), 2 (oboe d'amore, cor anglais),1 + bass-cl, 1 + contra;
4. flugelhorn.2 + bass.0
electric keyboard,
percussion (3 players)
strings: minimum (1 amplified)

Note : Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue) (1988)

Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue) (1988)

After the final performances of my opera Medea in December 1984 I was interested in the possibility of writing further operas. One was based on Jules Verne's novella Doctor Ox's Experiment ("Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox") and I wrote two concert works as pilots for this project. The first work was By the Vaar, an adagio for jazz bass, strings, bass clarinet and percussion written for Charlie Haden and performed by him at the 1987 Camden Jazz Festival. The other was an extended concert aria for high soprano and ensemble for an Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour in the autumn of 1988. The full opera has been commissioned by English National Opera for performance in 1996.

The action takes place in the Flemish town of Quiquendone, a town that appears on no map, although its geographical location is precisely fixed. It is a town where everything happens very slowly; where an engagement of 10 years is the norm; where the council never reaches a decision; that is, until Doctor Ox and his assistant arrive to install gas lighting, which has a devastating side effect. At the end of the opera, Doctor Ox disappears as mysteriously as he has come, leaving the town to revert to its former existence. At the end, one innocent victim of the doctor, Suzel, recalls at a later date the events that have taken place, and realises that things can never be the same again.  The coda from By the Vaar, where the bass is, effectively, Frantz, Suzel's betrothed, appears transformed in this last scene after Suzel has faced the future nervously. The text is by Blake Morrison, librettist for the opera proper, and the vocal part was specially written for the remarkable soprano Sarah Leonard, for whom I have since written a number of other pieces (The Black River, for voice and organ, and The War in Heaven, for soprano, counter tenor - David James - chorus and orchestra).

This piece is dedicated to Ruby, a typhoon which confined me to my hotel room in Hong Kong, and without whose timely intervention the piece would not have been ready in time for the first performance.

Note : Text of Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue) 1988

Text of Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue) 1988

Dear Frantz, how good to sit with you again beside the banks of the idling Vaar - you with your fishing rod, me with my embroidery, the two of us with needles plying the evening's gentle light. We have found our pulse again - the throb of Quiquendone, a town where nothing changed in seven centuries till the doctor came along. Now Ox has gone and we can live once more like sponges do, or coral: not walking but gliding, not talking but murmuring, calm in the temples of our homes. We are deep and measured as those church bells tolling now for evensong - the bells that will one day ring for us, my love, for Frantz and his Suzel.

How nearly we lost each other - and ourselves. What was it made that happen? What trick did Doctor Ox play with his oxygen? He said he'd light the town up, that each flame would burn like fifteen hundred candles and we need never live in darkness again. But when the streets were dug with gas pipes it wasn't lights that burned - but us. That first night at the theatre when his gas came on, I could feel my cheeks flush, I saw your eyes glow like a tiger's, it was as if we were performers, not the audience, an opera of longing with the heroes and heroines ourselves. Next day it seemed a dream but with these signs to show that it had happened - lost shoes, torn collars, a dent in the middle of a hat.

I blush to think of all that followed. The squabbles, the quarrels. The dancing, the drinking. The revels, the rebellions. The whole town an asylum. The people mad to fight and make love to one another. The dogs turned rabid, the sheep angry as bullocks, the horses snapping at their bits. Fruit rioting in our gardens - melons like belfries, twelve-foot cabbages, strawberries so big you could serve four people from each one. And you Frantz - the way your hair grew and your moustache turned up fiercely at the ends. You were pledged to fight a duel with the banker's son, a duel for my hand after all our years together, and I loved it and egged you both on. We were like nomads, tearing up our roots, losing our tempers and our hymens, wearing out our bodies and our souls.

God knows what would have come of us - our troops were at the gate massing for war against our neighbours when - whoomph - the gasworks blew its crown off, and all of us were thrown to the ground. We lay there in the streets, stunned as these carp are in the river, then slowly rose to upright and shook out the brick-dust from our eyes. Back in the deserts of our drawing rooms, we have found the old pulse again, lazy as the Vaar I with its fishbeds, hurrying no decisions, reaching no conclusions, in a daze of traditions and rites. It's good to be ourselves again, good that Doctor Ox has gone, good that we can go back to our maplessness. Yet I feel that I shall never be the same again, that a new age was born which hasn't been extinguished with the gasworks and I want to be sure, yes our marriage hangs on it, that you, Frantz, have that feeling too.

Text: Etel Adnan
Duration 17'
Dedication: Jocelyn Herbert
(i) Instrumentation: mezzo-soprano voice, cello, Korg M1
First performance: Melanie Pappenheim, Sophie Harris, Gavin Bryars, The Island Chapel, St. Ives, Cornwall, April 26th 1997
(ii) Instrumentation: mezzo-soprano voice, electric guitar, bass clarinet, electric keyboard, 2 violas, cello

Note : The Island Chapel

The Island Chapel

The Island Chapel was written in 1997 specifically for performance in St. Nicholas Chapel, St. Ives. The piece involves a response to a number of different stimuli. In the first place there is the chapel itself, a simple, tiny building perched in isolation and overlooking the sea on three sides. The "Island" itself is strictly a peninsula (for James Joyce, "a disappointed island") and on the fourth side it looks back towards the town and the Tate Gallery.

A second stimulus is the relationship between the chapel and the gallery across the bay, and this piece was written in relation to the paintings of James Hugonin in the exhibition (A Quality of Light). Two of his pictures were located in the chapel itself, similar in content to those in the main gallery but much smaller, each one the size of a page in the Lindisfarne Gospels. The relationship between the gallery and the chapel mirrors that of James working environment: he lives near the Northumbrian coast and there is a similar physical and spiritual connection between his studio and Holy Island (Lindisfarne).

I have written music before in response to James's work and in the context of his exhibitions. For this piece I visited St. Ives specifically to spend some time privately in the chapel when the two small pictures from James's Lindisfarne series were being installed. The music, for contralto voice, cello and electric keyboard, was designed for performance to a small invited audience in this intimate, semi-private space and to be recorded for replay in the gallery itself - the original idea was to broadcast the piece. The chapel is tiny and the maximum audience size was 6 people in addition to the three performers - so the piece was played twice and recorded on each occasion. The text comprises two self-contained poems Crossing no.3 and Crossing no.4 from an extended poem The Manifestations of the Voyage by the Lebanese poet Etel Adnan whose poetry I have set on a number of occasions. I wished to avoid any direct reference to the chapel or to the paintings, but rather to find through metaphor and allusion a poetic equivalent.

Just as James' work demonstrates through abstraction an affinity with real spaces, both physical and spiritual, so the music has an intimate relationship with the chapel's poignant solitude, the imagery of the Adnan poems and the musical sensibilities of the performers - Melanie Pappenheim (voice), Sophie Harris (cello), Gavin Bryars (keyboard).

Note : Text of The Island Chapel

Text of The Island Chapel

(Crossing no.3)

I am a bird




originating not from the empire

of the Dead

but from the bottom of a

female valley

blinded to better

hear waves and goddesses


I preferred the waves

to the sea.


Feeding on the setting sun

I'm desperately trying

to spend this dark night with an Angel.


sumptuous days

precede my birth

as if they were the coldness

of the snow

shipwrecked is my memory


The linden leaves are

in turmoil

when a tree postpones its



I am the interplay of day and night.


Rambling under the pregnant moon

unbeliever in my own existence

I inhabit the sleep of the dead who,

introduced by archangels

to dark secrets,

pursue their quest....

ferocious is the truth which

manifests itself solely in the

lie of the poem.



(Crossing  no.4)


I go

with speed and love

into the night


the hour hovers

between the bread

the faucet

and the sadness


sorrow     sorrowful     sorrow

the bridges' escape

under the arch

and the green water

the immense gaze of Nothingness


crepuscular twilight

cutting the red sky in two

I am woman

succulent grown

with webbed feet

a crocodile's smile between

my teeth


raving mad a man came down the



recapitulating his death


the night has devoured its stars

gutters explode

we're animals with no pride


trumpet gathering its


love takes the form

of absinths and thorns

Text: Pope Leo XIII
Duration 7'
Unaccompanied voices (TTBar)
First Performance: The Hilliard Ensemble, Little St. Mary's Church, Cambridge July 29th 1997

Note : Expressa Solis (1997)

Expressa Solis (1997)

This piece for three unaccompanied voice was written when I was composer-in-residence for the Hilliard Ensemble's Summer School which was held in Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The Hilliard had planned an evening concert for the second day of the course, but David James had failed to arrive and it transpired that he was very ill and unable to sing let alone teach. The three remaining members devised a new programme so that it could comprise entirely three-part material, for 2 tenors and baritone, but were a little short of material. I learned of this at breakfast on the day of the performance, and said that I would write a piece for them feeling, as I did, a little like a court composer whose duty was to assuage his master's anxieties....  I started after morning coffee at 11 and finished shortly after lunch. I used a text that I had set previously for On Photography and for the third part of Effarene, being a poem in Latin, "Ars Photographica" by Pope Leo XIII and which, for some reason, I happened to have with me. I based the music on the earlier choral setting though with substantial modification given the fewer voices, the different vocal ranges and the absence of accompanying instruments. The piece is in two sections: "Expressa Solis" and "Tersa Perfetta" the second being a nineteenth century translation of the Latin poem, followed by a brief coda.

Text: Thomas De Quincey
Duration: 7'
Dedication: Members of the Hilliard Early Music Summer School Cambridge 1997
Unaccompanied voices (SSATTBarB)
First Performance: Members of the Hilliard Early Music Summer School, Emannuel Reformed Church, Cambridge August 2nd 1997

Note : And So Ended Kant's Travelling In This World (1997)

And So Ended Kant's Travelling In This World (1997)

As my contribution to the Hilliard Ensemble's Summer School, for which I was composer-in-residence, I wrote two works for the entire group of tutors and students: this work, which lasts about 7 minutes, and the Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri. The text is taken from Thomas de Quincey's The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, a work which I have planned several times for operatic treatment and which I intend to bring to completion at some stage, and describes Kant's last journey, a futile and inconclusive visit to a friend in the country. As the students on the course, many of whom were professional singers, were drawn from all over the world I felt that it would useful to write something in English, almost as an exercise in diction. In the event the words which caused most difficulty and disagreement were the (German) words "General von Lossow". When introducing the piece in the final concert I found myself on the verge of making the rather tactless reference to 'almost starting World War III'....

The music is for five-part choir: sopranos, contraltos, tenors, baritones and basses with the basses been given a low C on the final chord.

The piece is dedicated to the members of the 1997 Hilliard Summer School.


In particular the cottage itself, standing under the shelter of tall alders with a valley silent and solitary stretched beneath, through which a little brook meandered, broken by a waterfall whose pealing sounds dwelt pleasantly on the ear, sometimes on a quiet sunny day gave a lively delight to Kant. Once the little pastoral landscape suddenly awakened a lively remembrance, which had long laid sleep, of a heavenly summer morning in youth, which he had passed in a bower upon the banks of a rivulet that ran through the grounds of a dear and early friend, General von Lossow. He seemed to be living over that morning again, thinking as he then thought and conversing with belovèd friends that were no more.

His very last excursion was not to my cottage but to the garden of a friend. He was to meet this old friend at the gardens, and I awaited him. Our party arrived first and had to wait. Such. however, was Kant's weakness that after waiting a few moments, several hours, he fancied, must have elapsed. So his friend could not be expected and he cam away in great discomposure of mind.

And so ended Kant's travelling in this world.

Thomas de Quincey

Text: Cecco Angiolieri
Duration: 12'
Dedication: The Corte Sconta, Venezia
First Performance: Members of the Hilliard Early Music Summer School, Emannuel Reformed Church, Cambridge August 2nd 1997

Note : Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri (1997)

Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri (1997)

As my contribution to the Hilliard Ensemble's Summer School, for which I was composer-in-residence, I wrote two works for the entire group of tutors and students: this work, which lasts about 12 minutes, as well as And So Ended Kant's Travelling In This World. The students were in small vocal groups, most of them already established in their respective countries, and I resolved not to write anything until I arrived in Cambridge and had heard each of the groups. There were 9 student groups, plus the five vocal tutors (John Potter, Rogers Covey Crump and Gordon Jones from the Hilliard Ensemble, plus Linda Hirst and Richard Wistreich) giving effectively 10 groups, totalling 49 solo voices. I had spent the time prior to the course in Venice on holiday with my daughters, where I also gave active thought to what kinds of texts I might use for the singers. One night, at the end of dinner at the Corte Sconta, whose owners are close friends of the Italian friends who took us there, there was a strange and dramatic performance of an old Italian poem. Claudio, the owner of the restaurant, declaimed the first line of the poem and my friend Gianfranco called back the responsory line. I learned that the poet was Cecco Angiolieri, whom I did not know, and I eventually found some of his poems, (which occupied 5 pages of a very large book on early Italian poetry located in the University Bookshop) including the one I had heard the previous evening. The poem that I had heard comprised 10 sentences beginning "S'i' fosse..." followed by responses. I wrote one for each of the nine groups, where the whole ensemble would sing the first line, and a solo group would sing the response. The music for each group attemtped to capture something of their character - a six-part Austrian group, for example, being given something alluding to Brahms (whom they love, and I loathe!). The last sentence was given to everyone. This poem was to be the second of the three poems which I set.

To the 5-part tutorial group I gave a short and poignant text that I had found on a grave in the Protestant section of the San Michele cemetery and which served to punctuate the verses and to form a coda. For the first poem, I used the singers in different combinations of pairs of groups. For the last poem the setting is more traditionally choral, though in 7 parts (sopranos I, sopranos II, altos, tenors I, tenors II, baritones, basses), with the 5-part tutorial group separate from them. In view of the circumstances of its performance and the time available this was perhaps not the easiest kind of piece to have produced...

The piece is dedicated to the Corte Sconta

Note : Text of Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri (1997)

Text of Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri (1997)

1. La mia malinconia....

La mia malinconia è tanta e tale,

ch'i non discredo che, s'egli 'l sapesse

un che mi fosse nemico mortale,

che di me di pieta (de) non piangesse.


Quella, per cu' m'avèn, poco ne cale;

ché mi potrebbe, sed ella volesse,

guarir 'n un punto, di tutto 'l mie male,

sed ella pur "I t'odio" mi dicesse.


Ma quest' è la risposta c'ho da lei:

ched ella non mi vòl né mal né bene,

e ched i'vad' a far li fatti meiei;


ch'ella non cura s'i' ho gioi' o pene,

men ch'una paglia che le va tra' piei;

mal grado n'abbi Amor, ch'a le' mi diéne.




My melancholy is such and so great

that I am certain that, if he knew of it,

one who was my mortal enemy

would weep for pity of me.


It matters not to her, whether she has me;

what good would it do me, if she wished it,

to be cured in a moment of all my troubles,

if her only word for me was "I hate you"?


But this is the answer I have from her:

that she wishes me neither good nor ill,

and wishes I would go my own way;


that she cares less whether I have joy or pain,

than a straw which goes between her feet;

may Love be cursed, who gave me to her.


2. S'i' fosse foco....

S'i' fosse foco, ardare' 'l mondo;

s'i' fosse vento, lo tempestarei;

s'i' fosse acqua, I' l'annegarei;

s'i' fosse Dio, mandereil' en profondo;


s'i' fosse papa, sare' allor giocondo,

ché tutti cristiani embrigarei;

s'i' fosse 'mperator, sa' che farei?

a tutti mozzarei lo capo a tondo.


S'i' fosse morte, andarei a me' padre;

s'i' fosse vita, fuggirei da lui;

similemente faria da mi' madre.


S'i' fosse Cecco, com' I' sono e fui,

torrei le donne givani e leggiadre;

le zoppe e laide lasserei altrui.




If I were fire, I would burn the world;

if I were wind, I would bestorm it;

if I were water, I would drown it;

if I were God, I would hurl it into the deep;


If I were Pope, I would be happy,

as I would harry all Christians;

if I were emperor, do you know what I would do?

I would chop off the heads of the lot of them.


If I were death, I would go to my father;

if I were life, I would run from him,

and I would do the same for my mother.


If I were Cecco, as I am and have been,

I would take for myself all the young and pretty women,

and leave the lame and ugly for others.


3. La stremità....

La stremità mi richer per figliuolo,

ed 'I' l'appelo ben per madre mia;

e 'ngenerato fu' dal fitto duolo,

e la mia balia fu malinconia,


e le mie fasce si fûr d'un lenzuolo,

che volgarmente ha nome ricadìa;

da la cima del capo 'nfin al suolo

cosa non regna 'n me che bona sia.


Po', quando I' fu' cresciuto, mi fu dato

per mia ristorazion moglie che garre

da anzi di 'nfin al cielo stellato;


e 'l su' garrir paion mille chitarre:

a cu' la moglie muor, ben è lavato,

se la ripiglia, più che non è 'l farre.




I claim misery as my child,

and I call it my mother too;

I was conceived out of heavy grief,

and my wet-nurse was melancholy,


and my swaddling clothes were a sheet

whose common name is trouble;

from the top of my head to the soles of my feet

there was nothing in me that could be called good.


Then, when I was grown, a wife was given to me

for my refreshment; she talked

from the early morning until the sky was full of stars;


and her talking was like a thousand guitars:

when such a wife dies, if her husband remarries

he has no more brains than a boat of gravy.*


"O Venezia benedetta no ti vogio più lasciar"

(Epigram on grave of Thomas McAndrew, San Michele)


* This last line is not a strict translation but rather includes an affectionate anagrammatical allusion to Gavin Bryars, noted by the translators Selene Mills, Richard Wistreich and Massimiliano Pascucci.