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Settings of four poems by Laura Battiferri, written for Singer Pur and commissioned by Villa I Tatti  



Note : Four Battiferri Madrigals

Four Battiferri Madrigals

These madrigals setting texts by Laura Battiferi come about from my third project with Villa I Tatti.  The first was a commission from the Morrill Music Library, in memory of Elizabeth and Gordon Morrill in 2004. For this I set a sestina by Petrarca that was performed by the Italian group, Vox Altera, along with a group of other madrigals for six voices that I had written earlier that also set Petrarca. Although new compositions, these works reflect the spirit and aesthetic of the 16th century Renaissance madrigal.


I had first became engaged with the idea of writing music in relation to models from early music when I wrote my first piece for the Hilliard Ensemble in 1988 but it was ten years later that I embarked on a series of books of madrigals. For the first of these books, thirteen madrigals for three, four and five male voices (the Hilliard Ensemble), I set commissioned poems by my friend (and librettist for my second and third operas) Blake Morrison. For these, unusually, I had new poems which were actually designed at the outset to be set to music as madrigals. Having written these, however, and following guidance from the tenor John Potter, for subsequent books I decided to set poets whose work had been used by Renaissance madrigalists and for my second, third and fourth books of madrigals I turned to Petrarch. And, indeed, having started on Petrarch I have stayed with him for a considerable period of time. While the second book, for six voices, sets fourteen sonnets from Petrarch's Rime Sparse, the fourth book, for eight voices, uses the longer sestina form, from the same collection - and the first of these settings "A qualunque animale" was the piece commissioned by Villa I Tatti.


The second project involved my setting 16th century texts, by Bronzino and Battiferri, as well as two by Petrarca. Although, like my second book,  these are for six voices, the formation of the group Singer Pur is very different, comprising soprano, three tenors, baritone and bass (as distinct from the 2 sopranos, mezzo, 2 tenors and baritone for the earlier madrigals). These were written in memory of  Craig Hugh Smyth, a fine art historian and former director of the Villa I Tatti, who was a specialist in Bronzino and Pontormo and the choice of texts reflects the interests of the dedicatee. Through correspondence with Kathryn Bosi, Music Librarian at I Tatti and, through her, Craig Smyth's family, I became increasingly aware of his unusual and quite special character.The Bronzino sonnet is a lament on the death of Pontormo, his teacher, and Laura Battiferri's poem is a direct response to that of Bronzino. As I was also asked to set sonnets by Petrarca, I chose two of his closely linked sonnets, numbers 229 and 230 in the Rime Sparse. Having written the Petrarca setting for I Tatti some five years before, I was familiar with the context. Petrach's sonnets attracted me for many reasons. Initially it was because they have such prominence in sixteenth century madrigal music. But it was also the heart-rending beauty of the poetry and its sheer technical brilliance.  Although I was vaguely aware of Bronzino as a painter, I did not know his poetry and I was grateful for the opportunity to look at previously unfamiliar texts, both of Bronzino and of Battiferri. Indeed having such things brought to my attention made me feel a surrogate part of the Villa I Tatti environment., I always felt during the time that I taught in a university that being alerted to previously unfamiliar work - and following up that prompting - to be one of the chief pleasures of being in an academic community.


The third project concentrates on the poetry of Laura Batiferri alone, and comes about because of the anniversary celebrations for her husband Ammannati. Kathryn Vosi sent me a number of texts and eventually I settled on four : three sonnets, one of which has 11 lines rather than the normal 14, and a sestina. From the poems that she sent there are two further ones that I plan to set so that, in due course, there would be quite substabntial volme of I Tatti madrigals that could form an entire book in themselves, combining Petrarca, Bronzino and Battiferri. These two "bonus" pieces will set a poem by Bronzino plus Battiferri's response, like those from the second concert. As with the commission two years ago, these madrigals are for Singer Pur, and there is the advantage this time of having worked with them directly at I Tatti, of spending time with them socially and having a greater awareness of the character of this quite special ensemble. The two 14-line sonnets, numbers 53 ("Fra queste piagge") and 54 ("Ergiti enfin"), have a link to the area near I Tatti, with their references to Maiano, and to the Mensola, and the shorter sonnet 55 ("Temprato aer sereno") also sings the praises of Tuscany.

With the sestina number 48 "Qual per l'onde turbate" we have the same kind of poetic virtuosity demanded of the 39-line form that I enjoyed with Petrarca's "A qualunque animale". This form has six 6-line verses with a final 3-line verse), with the same six words at the ends of the lines in each verse, but in each succeeding verse on a different line. For the final three lines all six rhyming words are brought back, three of them as half rhymes. As with my seting of the Petrarca sestina, I followed this device by devising precise musical equivalents. With Petrarca this involved having  different cadential phrases associated with each of the six words, and finding ways to join them that don't point to the apparent artifice. With the Battiferri setting, I followed the same structural idea, but becoming more flexible by injecting greater variation in these phrases as the poem progresses.


It was the promptings of I Tatti that started me off on my settings of Petrach's sestine, through Kathryn Bosi and others, and which pointed me towards the poetry of Bronzino and Battiferri. I enjoy the intellectual give-and-take, and being encouraged to follow these promptings. After my second project at I Tatti for example, Dr Janie Cole, whom I met at the concert, sent me her book on the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane and it is very likely that I will set some of this poetry in the future. As a professional composer, I live from commissions and these can take me in many different and sometimes unpredictable directions and I welcome the stimulus of such exchanges. In an ideal world, when I would be free to write whatever I want, I would always chose to write vocal music, and having the pprotunity to set Petrarch and post-Petrarchian seicento poetry, is close to Paradise.



Gavin Bryars, Billesdon October 2011




Duration: 30’
Commissioned by Rambert Dance Company for dance choreographed by Lucinda Childs.
Instrumentation: alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flugelhorn, horn, trombone, piano, electric keyboard, bass,, taped voice (or male alto), 2 percussion.
First performance: Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 16 November 1990.

Note : Four Elements (1990)

Four Elements (1990)

Four Elements was commissioned by Rambert Dance Company for the ballet by Lucinda Childs in 1990. I got to know Lucinda's work through the director Robert Wilson at the time I was working on his The CIVIL WarS. from 1981 to 1984. I had let Lucinda have some tapes and she made a solo dance, Outline, to one of these pieces (Out of Zaleski's Gazebo). The commission from Rambert provided the opportunity, finally,  for us to meet. The initial idea for the dance was hers and we discussed many times throughout that year the nature of the piece, its structure and relative pace. The music falls into in 4 sections: 'Water', 'Earth', 'Air' and 'Fire', each one being given a different musical character in terms of tempo, instrumental emphasis and colour; and theatrical character through different permutations of the 8 dancers ('Earth', for example uses only the 4 females, while 'Air' uses the 4 male dancers), the relative complexity of repetitive movement and the use of space.

Part 1 - 'Water' - is slow and features the bass clarinet and colouristic percussion (including the water gong).

Part 2 - 'Earth' - is at a medium tempo with a slow melodic line for tuned percussion and a mirrored line for wind instruments.

 Part 3 - 'Air' - is fast with an accompaniment by keyboards supporting high solo parts for (in sequence) alto saxophone, flugelhorn, and sax with French horn.

Part 4 - 'Fire' - is slow with overlapping lines for unison brass (trombone, horn, flugelhorn) and amplified double bass, using effects pedals, with bass clarinet, over slow keyboard arpeggios and ends with a Coda in which David James' alto voice sings a short vocalise over low drones from the ensemble....

As well as working closely with Lucinda I also had a fruitful collaboration with Roger Heaton, then music director of Rambert who is also clarinettist in my own ensemble. I deliberately chose to use a range of instruments that I had not used before - especially the combination of instruments in the wind section (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flugelhorn, French horn and tenor trombone). The piece was first performed at the Apollo Theatre Oxford in November 1990 and subsequently filmed for BBC Television's Dancemakers series.

Texts: 2 Petrarch, Bronzino, Battiferri
Six voices a capella (STTTBarB)
Commissioned by Villa I Tatti: the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence

In memory of Professor Craig Smyth
Duration c. 14'
First Performance: Singer Pur; Villa I Tatti, Florence, October 16 2009

Note : Text of Four I Tatti Madrigals

Text of Four I Tatti Madrigals


Petrarca: Sonnet CCXIX

Cantai, or piango, e non men di dolcezza

del pianger prendo che del canto presi;

ch'a la cagion, non a l'effetto intesi

son i miei sensi vaghi pur d'altezza.


Indi a mansuetudine e durezza

et atti feri, et umili, e cortesi,

porto egualmente; né me gravan pesi,

né l'arme mie punta di sdegni spezza.


Tengan dunque vèr' me l'usato stile

Amor, madonna, il mondo, e mia fortuna;

ch'i' non penso esser mai se non felice.


Viva o mora, o languisca, un più gentile

stato del mio non è sotto la Luna;

sì dolce è del mio amaro la radice.


Rime Sparse 229 trans. Robert Durling

I sang, now I weep, and I take no less sweetness from weeping

than I took from singing, for my senses, still in love with

heights, are intent on the cause, not its outward effects.


Thence I bring away equally mildness and harshness, cruel

gestures and humble and courteous;  nor do any weights weigh

me down, nor does any point of disdain shatter my armour.


Let them keep toward me their accustomed style, Love, my

lady, the world, and my fortune; I think I shall never be

anything but happy.


Whether I live or die or languish, there is no nobler state than

mine under the moon, so sweet is the root of the bitter!





Petrarca: Sonnet CCXXX

I' piansi, or canto; ché 'l celeste lume

quel vivo sole alli occhi mei non cela,

nel qual onesto Amor chiaro revela

sua dolce forza, e suo santo costume:


onde e' suol trar di lagrime tal fiume,

per accorciar del mio viver la tela,

che non pur ponte o guado, o remi o vela,

ma scampar non potiemmi ale né piume.


Sì profondo era, e di sì larga vena

il pianger mio, e sì lunge la riva,

ch'i' v'aggiungeva col penser la pena.


Non lauro o palma, ma tranquilla oliva

pietà mi manda. e 'l tempo rasserena,

e 'l pianto asciuga, e vuol ancor ch'i' viva.

Rime Sparse 230 trans. Robert Durling

I wept, now I sing; for that living sun does not hide from my

eyes her heavenly light, in which virtuous Love clearly reveals

his sweet power and his holy ways;


thus he is wont to draw from me such a river of tears to shorten

the thread of my life, that wings and feathers could not rescue

me. Let alone bridge or ford or oars or sail.


So deep and from so full a source was my weeping and so distant

the shore, that I could hardly reach it even in thought.


Pity sends me not laurel or a palm but the tranquil olive, and

clears the weather, and dries my tears, and wishes me still to






Bronzino: In morte del medisimo (Pontormo)

L'Aura vostr'alma, or che 'l fier Borea ammorza

Alle campagne I più vaghi colori,

E 'l corso impetra ai vivi argenti, e fiori

Vedova, e attrista ogni terrena scorza;


Col suo dolce spirar, di nuova forza

Par, ch' aer muova, e nuova terra irrori,

Nuovo Sol n'apra, e piante, acque, erbe, e fiori

Ne renda, e ta', ch' a rallegrar ne sforza.


On'io qual fronda al più nemico verno

Dentro agghiacciato, e fuori atro, e negletto,

Orbo del caro mio buon padre, e duce,


Vigor riprendo, e 'l giel distruggo interno,

Degli onor suoi mi vesto, e 'l suo diletto

Seren m'innalza, e scuopre la mia luce.



On the death of the same [Pontormo]

The aura ([l'aura] of your soul - now that the strong

North wind which fades the flowers

and freezes the river to icy silver, and leaves the earth

bare and saddened as a widow, has departed -


seems with its gentle breath, to move the air

with new strength, and bedew the earth, to open up the sky

so that plants, water, grass, and flowers

rejoice with renewed energy.


While I, like foliage in bitter winter,

frozen inside and out, bleak and neglected,

deprived of my dear father and leader,


I am revived and melt the ice within me,

I dress myself in his mantle and his love

and I rise serene, and reveal my own Light.





Laura Battiferri: In morte del medesimo (risposta)

Bronzino in ciel l'alma beata luce

Quant' altro vago, e luminoso aspetto

Atto a produr fra noi più degno effetto

Come fu già del mondo onore, e luce;


Talchè l'erto sentier, ch' a Dio conduce

Fuor di questo mortal breve ricetto,

Mostra sì piano al vostr' alto intelletto,

Ch' uopo non ha di miglior guida, o duce.


Et io, che 'n alto mar senza governo

Quando è più nudo I ciel de' suoi splendori,

Erro sempre alternando or pioggia, or orza,


Già fatta preda al gran Nettuno, e scherno,

Scorgo non lunge I suoi lucenti albori

Sì che la stanca nave si rinforza.




Bronzino, your beautiful soul shines in heaven;

what other lovely, luminous Power

could create among us greater works, honor and brilliance

than the world has ever known;


the steep path that leads to God

beyond this brief, mortal sojourn

is revealed so clearly to you

that you have no need for a better Guide or Leader,


While I, as if on the high seas with no captain,

the sky dark with heavy clouds,

I veer this way and that, seaward or windward,


though I was prey of great, mocking Neptune,

I see not far away the dawning light

and my weary boat takes heart.

Text: George Bruce
Tenor  and piano
Duration c. 12'
First performance: James Gilchrist, tenor, Julius Drake, piano,
Leeds Lieder+, The Venue, Leeds College of Music, October 3 2009

Note : Text of Songs from Northern Seas (text: George Bruce)

Text of Songs from Northern Seas (text: George Bruce)

1. The Fisherman

As he comes from one of those small houses

Set within the curve of the low cliff

For a moment he pauses

Foot on step at the low lintel

Before fronting wind and sun.

He carries out from within something of the dark

Concealed by heavy curtain,

Or held within the ship under hatches.


Yet with what assurance

The compact body moves,

Head pressed to wind,

His being at an angle

As to anticipate the lurch of earth.


Who is he to contain night

And still walk stubborn

Holding the ground with light feet

And with a careless gait?

Perhaps a cataract of light floods,

Perhaps the apostolic flame.

Whatever it might be

The road takes him from us.

Now the pier is his, now the tide.


2. A Departure

The short man waves his hand,

Half turns, and then makes off.

He is going to the country

Taking the road with the field of clover

On one side, the beach in the other,

The beach jarred by white stones,

The clover globed waiting for soft winds.

At the top of the rise within earshot

Of both sea and birds for a moment

He stops. (Stop now for ever there

To witness sea sound, bird note,

Sea town's cries.) But he

As if hurt and shamed,

Moves, head bent, clothes loose upon him.

We would offer blood, cash down,

For a last knowing gesture,

But the hill has him - or the sea.


3. The Helmsman

Write out the wind of his hometown

And reckon its dance, not as the impact

On a wall, but on its history.


This wind that killed in the desert

That slit the ice-cap,

That blasted first life from soil,

That chanted about the Inn at night,

Blew winter at the Babe;


Blows to a flare the light in any

Hero helmsman's brain till his head

Above its circles - hands on wheel -

Is circled by a cloudless constellation.

His eyes are stars, his arms embrace

An unhinged world. Astride the swelling wind

In the empty dawn, in the horizon light

He becomes stature.


4. The Seaman, an Epilogue

For Andrew Stewart


What vision his, Northward he stares

On polar suns that burst and flood

On black and blood-red water

Whose movement breaking the white light

Prismatically, spreads North and North

Salt gold and green to the cold berg's foot.


What vision his when South he looks

From sea to land, across those waterways -

Home, seen now in the perspective of space,

Men minute and shadow-like, active at their doors,

Pulling their doll-like crafts ashore.

He sees their purposes, yet hears nothing,

No pebbles' jar, no thump of boat, no shout

As rapid waters easily o'erwhelm

And run about the low decks and thrust

Aside the boats, returning them to the original sea.


Yet he trusting these shadows,

More real than rock, hearts perdurable

Without doubt or fear - homeward steers.

No.1 "A qualunque animale" for eight-part voices (SSAATTBB)
Text: Petrarch
Duration c. 10’

Commissioned by the Morrill Music Library, Villa I Tatti: the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence, in memory of F. Gordon and Elizabeth Morrill  

First performance Vox Altera soloists, directed by Massimiliano Pascucci

Villa I Tatti, Florence May 27th 2004

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Note : "A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi" (Fourth Book of Madrigals no. 2) for 8-part mixed choir

"A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi" (Fourth Book of Madrigals no. 2) for 8-part mixed choir

In 1998, I embarked on a series of books of madrigals related to those from the Italian renaissance. For the first of these books, I set poems by Blake Morrison which, unusually, were actually written to be set to music as madrigals. For subsequent books, however, I decided to set poets who had been the chief sources of texts for the renaissance madrigalists and for my second, third and fourth books of madrigals I turned to Petrarch. The second book sets fourteen sonnets from Petrarch's Rime Sparse,  and the fourth, as here, sets longer poems, the sestina form.

Petrarch's sonnets attracted me initially because of their prominence in sixteenth century madrigal music, but I was also drawn to the heart-rending beauty of the poetry and their sheer technical brilliance.

The purpose of the Rime Sparse (this term appears in the first line of the first sonnet and has the deceptively casual meaning of „scattered rhymes") is to immortalise the real or imagined Laura, who Petrarch may - or may not - have seen near Avignon shortly before Easter 1327. The ingenuity with which he conceals or alludes to her name can be astonishing. She can be the laurel (sometimes obliquely as 'the honoured branch', 'noble tree', 'garland') and she is 'l'aura' (the dawn). Here the "belle frondi" (beautiful leaves) are those of the laurel and the "altri rami" (other branches) are those of the cross. Given that the season ("tempo") referred to in the penultimate sestina may be Lent it is appropriate that the premiere of this choral setting is at that time.

His rhyme schemes can be virtuosic beyond belief. With the sestina form (six 6-line verses with a final 3-line verse), each verse has the same six words at the ends of lines but in each succeeding verse on a different line. Then in the final three lines all six rhyming words are brought back, three of them as half rhymes. These devices have soemtimes suggested musical approaches, but hey are never there just to demonstrate his cleverness, but are always at the service of the poetry.

This extended madrigal was commissioned by the Addison Singers and was written specially for it. The choir's director is an old friend of mine, and both my daughters have been members. The piece is dedicated to the Addison Singers, in a spirit of friendship and affection.

Gavin Bryars. March 2007

Note : Fourth Book of Madrigals (Published individually)

Fourth Book of Madrigals (Published individually)

  1. A qualunque animale (SSAATTBB) ED 12891
  2. A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi (SSAATTBB) ED 13082
Note : Text of Fourth Book of Madrigals

Text of Fourth Book of Madrigals

Fourth Book of Madrigals no.2 "A la dolce ombra" Petrarch: Rime sparse 142

A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi

corsi fuggendo un dispietato lume

che 'n fin qua giù m'ardea dal terzo cielo;

et disgombrava già di neve i poggi

l'aura amorosa che rinova il tempo,

et fiorian per le piagge l'erbe e i rami.


Non vide il mondo sì leggiadri rami

né mosse il vento mai sì verdi frondi

come a me si mostrar quel primo tempo,

tal che temendo de l'ardente lume

non volsi al mio refugio ombra di poggi,

ma de la pianta più gradita in cielo.


Un lauro mi difese allor dal cielo,

onde più volte, vago de' bei rami,

da po' son gito per selve et per poggi;

né giamai ritrovai tronco né frondi

tanto onorate dal superno lume

che non mutasser qualitate a tempo.


Però più fermo ogni or di tempo in tempo,

seguendo ove chiamar m'udia dal cielo

e scorto d'un soave et chiaro lume,

tornai sempre devoto ai primi rami

et quando a terra son sparte le frondi

et quando il sol fa verdeggiare i poggi.


Selve, sassi, campagne, fiumi, et poggi,

quanto è creato, vince et cangia il tempo;

ond' io cheggio perdono a queste frondi

se rivolgendo poi molt'anni il cielo

fuggir disposi gl'invescati rami

tosto ch' i' ncominciai di veder lume.


Tanto mi piacque prima il dolce lume

ch' i' passai con diletto assai gran poggi

per poter appressar gli amati rami;

ora la vita breve e 'l loco e 'l tempo

mostranmi altro sentier di gire al cielo

et di far frutto, non pur fior et frondi.


Altr'amor, altre frondi, et altro lume,

altro salir al ciel per altri poggi

cerco (che n'è ben tempo), et altri rami.


To the sweet shade of those beautiful leaves

I ran, fleeing a pitiless light

that was burning down upon me from the third heaven;

and already the snow was disappearing from the hills

thanks to the loving breeze that renews the season,

and through the meadows the grass bloomed and the branches.


The world never saw such graceful branches

nor did the wind ever move such green leaves

as showed themselves to me in that first season;

so that, fearing the burning light,

I chose for my refuge no shade of hills

but that of the tree most favoured in Heaven.


A laurel defended me then from the heavens;

wherefore often, desirous of its lovely branches,

since then I have gone through woods and across hills:

nor have I ever again found trunk or leaves

so honoured by the supernal light

that they did not change their quality according to the season.


Therefore, more and more firm from season to season,

following where I heard myself called from Heaven

and guided by a mild and clear light,

I have come back always devoted to the first branches,

both when on earth are scattered their leaves

and when the sun turns green the hills.


Woods, rocks, fields, rivers, and hills -

all that is made - are vanquished and changed by time;

wherefore I ask pardon of these leaves

if, the heavens turning many years,

I have made ready to flee the enlimed branches

as soon as I began to see the light.


So pleasing to me at first was that sweet light

that joyfully I traversed great hills

in order to approach the beloved branches.

Now the shortness of life and the place and the season

show me another pathway to go to Heaven

and bear fruit, not merely flowers and leaves.


Another love, other leaves, and another light,

another climbing to Heaven by other hills

I seek (for it is indeed time), and other branches.


Translated by Robert M. Durling

For bass voice, optional choir, French horn, bass clarinet, percussion, strings
Duration 32’
Text Egil Skalgrimsson (10th century Icelandic)

First performance: Rúni Brattaberg, Cambridge University Chamber Choir, London Sinfonietta, conductor Olari Elts
Cambridge Corn Exchange, November 11th 2004

Note : From Egil's Saga (2004)

From Egil's Saga (2004)

For solo bass voice, optional choir, chamber orchestra, optional electronics

My third opera, based on the life of Gutenberg gave me the chance to spend a great deal of time focussing on the solo bass voice - something that had not been necessary in my first two operas which feature higher voices. In "G" there are four different bass parts, each of which is a substantial role. Rúni Brattaberg, who happened to be the first singer I heard in rehearsal, took one of these parts. I was immensely impressed with Runi's voice, we became good friends and I resolved to find an occasion to work with him in more detail.

When I was asked to propose an idea for a project with the Eastern Orchestral Board I immediately thought of the connection of the east of England with Viking history - the area where I grew up in East Yorkshire is steeped in Viking history and many of the towns and villages have names taken from the Viking invasions. As Rúni is the only professional singer to come out of the Faroe Islands and this led me also to Runi - a gentler modern version of an archetypal Viking.

The piece takes its text and narrative material from Egil's Saga, one of the great classics of Icelandic literature set in the 10th century, but written around 200 years later. The words I set (in Icelandic) are those of Egil, an astonishingly fierce Viking warrior but also a stunning poet - one of the most original and advanced of his time. The extracts from the poems come from four different periods of Egil's life: from a praise-poem delivered in York to King Erik Bloodaxe in order to save Egil's own head; from a lament for the deaths of his two sons; from a poem in praise of a noble ally Arinbjorn; and his last poems written during his gradual, though furious, descent into blindness.

The scoring is essentially of low instruments: bass clarinet, bassoon, French horn, percussion, strings (no violins, just violas, celli and basses). There is an optional chorus, and the work also uses elements of environmental acoustics - field recordings and recordings of Rúni singing in the caves on the Faroes that he would use for his daily practice.

Text: from Bram Stoker's Dracula
Duration 22'
Instrumentation: Baritone voice, viola
First Performance: Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, January 6th 1994

Note : From Mina Harker's Journal

From Mina Harker's Journal

I was approached by James Hugonin some time ago to write a vocal piece for a series of concerts linked to exhibitions of his paintings. We met in Newcastle and talked about his work and I looked at a number of pictures. I decided to write something which was, at the same time, a response to the physical context in which the pictures were made (the North East of England) and in an oblique way linked with the culture of the area. I had already written pieces for members of the Hilliard Ensemble which used 7th Century Northumbrian verse, in particular Cadman Requiem with its use of Caedmon's Creation Hymn.

I chose as text lines from Bram Stoker's Dracula, especially those which presage the wreck of the mysterious ship Demeter at Whitby. As a child I had spent many summers in Whitby, and it was at Whitby too that Caedmon had written his poetry. I noted the Dracula connection when I began re-reading the book following my friend Tom Waits' appearance in the recent film version. It was then that I noticed that the Whitby incidents are described from the vantage point of the cliffs beneath St. Hilda's Abbey, the same place I used to visit, and the same Abbey where Caedmon worked.

For this piece I decided to write for solo baritone voice with viola, and to work in an economical and restrained way moving between the form of the melodrama (spoken voice and accompaniment, like Strauss's Enoch Arden for example) and song. I plan to write other pieces from subsequent parts of this narrative.

Gavin Bryars


Note : Text of From Mina Harker's Journal

Text of From Mina Harker's Journal

(Spoken) The day was unusually fine till the afternoon, when some of the gossips who frequent the East Cliff churchyard, and from that commanding eminence watch the wide sweep of sea visible to the north and east, called attention to a sudden show of 'mares'-tails' high in the sky to the north-west. The wind was then blowing from the south-west in the mild degree which in barometrical language is ranked 'No. 2: light breeze'. The coastguard on duty at once made report, and one old fisherman, who for more than half a century has kept watch on weather signs from the East Cliff, foretold in an emphatic manner the coming of a sudden storm. The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly-coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty.

Before the sun dipped below the black mass of Kettleness, standing boldly athwart the western sky, its downward way was marked by myriad clouds of every sunset-colour - flame, purple, pink, green, violet, and all the tints of gold; with here and there masses not large, but of seemingly absolute blackness, in all sorts of shapes, as well outlined as colossal silhouettes. More than one captain made up his mind then and there that his 'cobble' or his 'mule'  would remain in the harbour till the storm had passed. The wind fell away entirely during the evening, and at midnight there was a dead calm. There were but few lights in sight at sea, for even the coasting steamers which usually 'hug' the shore so closely, kept well to seaward, and few fishing-boats were in sight. (Add some 'singing' tone) The only sail noticeable was a foreign schooner with all sails set, which was seemingly going westwards. the foolhardiness or ignorance of her officers was a prolific theme for comment whilst she remained in sight, and efforts were made to signal her to reduce sail in face of her danger. Before the night shot down she was seen with sails idly flapping as she gently rolled on the undulating swell of the sea.

"As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean"

(Recitativo) Shortly before ten o'clock the stillness of the air grew quite oppressive, and the silence was so marked that the bleating of a sheep inland or the barking of a dog in the town was distinctly heard, and the band on the pier...was like a discord in the great harmony of nature's silence. A little after midnight came a strange sound from over the sea, and high overhead the air began to carry a strange, faint hollow booming.

(Singing)  Then without warning the tempest broke. With a rapidity which seemed incredible the whole aspect of nature at once became convulsed. The waves rose in growing fury, each over-topping its fellow, till in a very few minutes the lately glassy sea was like a roaring and devouring monster. White-crested waves beat madly on the level sands and rushed up the shelving cliffs; others broke over the piers, and with their spume swept the lanthorns of the lighthouses which rise from the end of either pier of Whitby harbour. The wind roared like thunder, and blew with such force that even strong men clung with grim clasp to the iron stanchions. To add to the dangers of the time, masses of sea-fog came drifting inland - white, wet clouds, which swept by in ghostly fashion, so dank and damp and cold that it needed but a little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death, and many shuddered as the wreaths of sea-mist swept by. At times the mist cleared, and the sea for some distance could be seen in the glare of the lightning, which now came thick and fast, followed by such sudden peals of thunder that the whole sky overhead seemed trembling under the shock of the footsteps of the storm. Some of the scenes thus revealed were of immeasurable grandeur and of absorbing interest - the sea, running mountains high, threw skywards with each wave mighty masses of white foam, which the tempest seemed to snatch at and whirl away into space;  here and there a fishing boat, with a rag of sail, running madly for shelter before the blast; now and again the white wings of a storm-tossed sea-bird. On the summit of the East Cliff the new searchlight was ready  and in the pauses of the inrushing mist the officers swept with it the surface of the sea. Once or twice a fishing-boat, with gunwhale under water, rushed into the harbour, able, by the guidance of the sheltering light, to avoid the danger of dashing against the piers. Before long the searchlight discovered some distance away a schooner with all sails set. The wind had by this time backed to the east. Between her and the port lay the great flat reef on which so many good ships have from time to time suffered, and, with the wind blowing from its present quarter, it would be quite impossible that she should reach the entrance of the harbour. It was now nearly the hour of high tide, but the waves were so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible, and the schooner, with all sails set, was rushing with such speed that.- "she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell." Then came another rush of sea-fog, - a mass of dank mist, which seemed to close on all things like a grey pall, and left available to men only the organ of hearing, for the roar of the tempest, and the crash of the thunder, and the booming of the mighty billows came through the damp oblivion even louder than before. the rays of the searchlight were kept fixed on the harbour mouth ... The wind suddenly shifted to the north-east, and the remnant of sea-fog melted in the blast; and then, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on deck at all.  A great awe came on all as they realised that the ship, as if by a miracle, had found the harbour unsteered save by the hand of a dead man!  The schooner paused not, but rushing across the harbour, pitched herself on that accumulation of sand and gravel washed by many tides and many storms into the south-east corner of the pier jutting under the East Cliff..

(Recitativo) The vessel drove up on the sand-heap. Every spar, rope and stay was strained, and some of the 'top-hammer' came crashing down. But the very instant the shore was touched an immense dog sprang up on deck from below, as if shot up by the concussion, and running forward, jumped from the bow on to the sand. Making straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the laneway to the East Pier so steeply that some of the flat tombstones  actually project over where the sustaining cliff has fallen away, it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed to intensify just beyond the focus of the searchlight.

The men working the searchlight then turned the light on the derelict and kept it there. I was permitted to climb on deck and saw that dead seaman whilst actually lashed to the wheel. (Reduce  to 'singing/speaking' tone) The man was simply fastened by his hands, tied one over the other, to a spoke of the wheel. Between the inner hand and the wood was a crucifix, the set of beads on which it was fastened being around both wrists and wheel, and all kept fast by the binding cords...In his pocket was a bottle, carefully corked, empty save for a little roll of paper. The man must have tied up his own hands, fastening the knots with his teeth. The dead steersman has been reverently removed from the place where he held his honourable watch and ward till death.

(Spoken) Already the storm is passing, and its fierceness is abating; the crowds are scattering homewards, and the sky is beginning to redden over the Yorkshire wolds. I shall send further details of the derelict ship which found her way so miraculously into harbour in the storm.

Opera in 2 Acts, with Prologue and Epilogue
Libretto: Blake Morrison
Duration c. 2hours 30’
Dedication: Sandy Brown
16 soloists (2 sopranos, 2 mezzo sopranos, counter tenor, 2 tenors, 4 baritones, 3 bass baritones, 2 basses. 4 of these parts may be taken by choral soloist)
Chorus (S.A.T.Bar.B.)
2 flutes (both doubling piccolo); 3 cor anglais (1 doubling oboe, 1 doubling oboe d’amore)
1 clarinet (doubling E flat); bass clarinet; 2 bassoons; contrabassoon
5 horns (four doubling Wagner tubas)
2 trombones (both doubling alto); bass trombone; tuba
timpani; percussion (2 players)
harp; celeste/ harpsichord (one player)
strings (
First performance: Staats Theater Mainz, February 23rd 2002, designer Rosalie, Director Georges Delnon, conductor Gernot Sahler

Work for unaccompanied solo bass voice

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Note : Gallus et Agnus (After Demantius)

Gallus et Agnus (After Demantius)

The piece was written for Clive Birch, bass in the Australian vocal ensemble The Song Company, at the suggestion of the group's director Roland Peelman. It was to be placed in the short break between Demantius' St John Passion and David Lang's The Little Match Girl, during which the group had three minutes to get into costume. As there is no part for bass voice in the second work, this short piece formed a kind of bridge. The first text (Gallus) takes the passage of Peter's three denials of Christ linked to the cock crowing, which is abbreviated in the Demantius setting, while the second (Agnus) sets Jesus' reinstatement of Peter after the Resurrection through his three-fold injunction to "feed my lambs".

As Clive Birch was retiring from the group after this performance, it formed a kind of retirement gift.



(text by Pico della Mirandola)
Duration 15’
Dedicated to Frances Barber and Neil Pearson.
Commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble
Instrumentation: 4 voices (alto, 2 tenors, baritone)
First performance: Hilliard Festival of Voices, Lewes, August 1988.

Note : Glorious Hill (1988)

Glorious Hill (1988)

Glorious Hill was commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble and first performed by them at its summer Festival of Voices in Lewes, Sussex, in August 1988. It was the first piece I wrote for the ensemble and I focused on the singers' unique ability to move with ease from early music to tonal music of the present day. There were techniques which I asked for which I hardly needed to notate - the staggered breathing of the two tenors to supply a continuous unbroken held note for example - and the piece moves between passages for solo voices and sections of highly chromatic homophony, almost as if the music were switching between the 12th century of Perotin and the 16th century of Gesualdo. Each of the four voices is given its own solo passage - sometimes accompanied, sometimes quietly supported by the other voices.

The title, Glorious Hill comes from the name of the small-town Mississippi setting of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. I wrote the music for the 1987 production of this play at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre, the first time I had written any incidental music for the stage. Williams makes very specific demands in terms of music and there is one particularly powerful scene, the penultimate one, throughout which music and atmospheric sound effects are continuous. The principle character Alma argues passionately about the vital importance of human choice with the man to whom she has, too late, admitted her love. I watched this section every night throughout the 4 week run of the play watching the different ways in which the actress, Frances Barber, played the scene. There is a powerful emotional and philosophical connection between the imagery of this scene and a passage from the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man which forms the text of Glorious Hill. This passage has been described as one of the few passages in Renaissance philosophy to treat human freedom in a modern way. The text, which is sung in Latin, is addressed by God to Adam before the fall from grace.

Dedicated to Frances Barber and Neil Pearson