a John Clare Newsletter:
Like many of you now reading this, I have an admiration for the work of John Clare, and also for the man himself, and have been interested, since being a member of the Society, of reading of the ways in which he has inspired others in their own work. Since reading the Journal and the Newsletter I have noticed how his work has prompted such varied responses in other commentators. Chief among these, of course, have been the literary critics of one sort or another, discussing the way in which the poet’s work has been reflective of one aspect or another of poetic practice, but of late, I have noticed semi-fictional novels being penned of his life in the asylum of High Beech, and now see work based upon the viewpoint of his wife Patty. I believe there is also literature recounting the life of Mary Joyce. It was reading the agenda of the forthcoming conference on Clare’s work, to be held in Nottingham University in September, that I saw reference to papers being given on the effect that the poet’s work has had on an artist and his painting, and this prompted me to think about writing this little article about how it has affected me as a composer. I do not intend this to be an erudite discussion on poetry and music, but rather to state how differently I may have responded to his work, and the way that I have approached composing music that takes Clare as its inspiration.
Although I first read Clare’s poetry when in my twenties, it has only been lately that I have written music ‘about’ him. This is mostly a matter of ‘finding one’s voice’ as it were, because I must confess to being a child of the modernist aesthetic, and this has a bearing upon the way that music and poetry can come together, whether within a formal framework of setting his verse to music, or through some other looser source as inspiration for new work. So, seeing how other artists have shown how their work has stemmed from Clare, I thought that I would briefly outline how it has been a starting point for some of my compositions, and in particularly within the context of a contemporary musical idiom.
To date, I have written three extended pieces, two of which are purely instrumental, and the third, and last piece is a selection of settings of Clare’s late asylum poetry. For both the instrumental works, I took a moment in Clare’s life as the starting point for the pieces, and imagined possible episodes arising from that moment. For example, in “Points of Decision”, for large symphony orchestra, I imagined Clare at the crucial moment when he made the decision to walk away from High Beech, in Epping Forest, back to his family in Northborough, and because of his character, both determined and independent, and to some extent servile, I imagined that he dithered a bit, began to walk, returned unsure of himself, became confident, then wary, and eventually having the strength to make his decision to walk, culminating in his purposeful strides forward. I imagined him having the idea, and it pleasing him, and I also remembered that he sang the tune of Highland Mary while on his way home. All of these fictional imaginings of mine are governed by a musical narrative, and not a literary one, or a literal one, either, so the music is not in any way programmatic, and does not ‘represent’ any event, idea, person, etc.. I find that music has to have its own musical direction, but its seed, in this piece, was that moment in time when his decision was made: a fictional image on my part of a real event in Clare’s life. At around twenty-six minutes long, it deals with these ideas through a symphonic discourse, but does importantly use a varied form of the song Highland Mary in the latter stages of the piece. It was first performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, in Manchester in February 2008.
Similarly, the second piece in this series, “A Surfeit of Realities” took as its inspiration the time when Clare, having arrived home from his long journey from Essex, realised his situation, and understood that his Mary was not at home, and was then taken away again to the asylum in Northampton. This time I imagined him to be distraught, unsure, angry, and perhaps even somewhat violent, culminating in the fraught and tense moments when burly men (in white coats?) would force him out of the house. This piece deals with these ideas, which when translated into a musical narrative become, essentially a sound story of musical expression, of varying moods, rather than concrete ideas, which is what music can do very effectively, of course. Again, it is important for the pieces that the musical discourse is uppermost in the balance between the representation of real or imagined events, and the expressive flow of characterful expressive emotions. This piece is for a chamber ensemble of Clarinet Quintet.
The third piece is different from the others in that it sets a series of texts from the second asylum period. My reason for doing so was that I felt it important to see the man from his point of view, especially since he spent so much of his life incarcerated in institutions. So often, we hear settings of his nature poems, that I felt a balance needed to be struck as to how Clare himself felt at these times. Yes, an exquisite and insightful illustrator of nature, the seasons, wildlife, etc., but it is important to remember that the man who could write such wonderful descriptions of the quality of the air in spring time, or such heartfelt but perceptive self commentaries as we find in his late work, was also the man who liked a few pints of beer with his friends, probably spat into his hands to help alleviate the calluses from his labouring, and liked the ladies very much. His sensitivity drew on his sensuality, and vice versa, and his deep perceptive ability to appreciate beauty meant that he could empathise with the song thrush, or little lady bird, as deeply as he could appreciate the pretty face of a young lady. I tried to give the man some limelight and how he viewed the world around him, because in that way I can understand him more fully. The collection is called “Reveries and False Hums”, a quotation from one of his letters, and is for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble.
I hope that the foregoing might briefly explain some of the reasons and thoughts behind my series of compositions about Clare, without going too deeply into the process, and how he has given me ways into writing music. I can recognise similarities between my work and others’, but it may well be very different, too, from contemporary poets, writers, artists, who have other ways of finding voice for their work. Suffice to say that I just wanted to show that Clare has given me ideas, - yes, I suppose the word is ‘inspiration’ – for symphonic, chamber and vocal music written in a contemporary idiom, and that the spectrum of his influence shines far and wide.
b. Composition Today
Christmas music, and contemporary language
A response to a question raised in “Composition Today” about the problem of writing Christmas music in a contemporary style.
As I read your interesting article on Christmas music I was reminded of similar thoughts that I have had over the years concerning just this problem: that of language, and it's associated emotional impact through the meaning of the words. I agree entirely with your observations, but have no quick solutions, of course, but I believe that a composer today who writes music that reflects language and it's meaning faces an intrinsic dilemma of style.
What is the problem? Those composers who are concerned with an emotional impact in their music, who start from the premise that they are writing to reflect a certain emotion, are the ones that are faced with this conflict between text language and music language. But, those composers who write in a more modern abstract style, and who are (generally) not concerned with imbuing their music with a human emotional impact, then this is not so pressing for them. (It is at this point that I feel that I might be completely misunderstood, because I am trying to put into a journalistic time frame something that should be discussed in a book!) Nevertheless, for those composers who want to reflect the ideas behind words, and this often means emotions, too, then the words can often seem to be at odds with the contemporary language that composers can use today. As you say in your article, for some, they embrace these textual restrictions readily, easily, and successfully, and those composers tend to use tonality as the basis of their language, and it is successful for the very reason that their musical language matches the textual language, as both embrace the need to reflect certain human emotions. We have gone beyond that, in music, and developed languages that are more abstract in nature, as can be seen in the 'complexity' movement, the 'conceptual' musics, and even the more general contemporary styles that are abundant now. But, probably, those emotive Christmas responses are not in the vocabulary of such musics, it is only when one wants to reflect the "meaning" behind the words, and, again, that usually means some emotional response in the music, that one comes up against the problem that is cited in your article, which is of matching the music to the words and their ' meaning'. Thus, I think that a contemporary composer (assuming a contemporary style) might have a problem setting Wordsworth for example, because of the inherent stylistic traits of the poet's language, which matches tonality more because it is functional in nature. It is the same with Christmas carols. But, I do think that it is an intriguing compositional problem, and for some, resorting to tonality ( as you say in your article) is the solution. There is nothing wrong in that: it is a personal choice (of style). However, I think that the larger problem, Christmas carols being only one example of it, is one of the major issues that faces certain composers today, and depends so much on a compositional solution as much as a stylistic one. But that is yet another book!