The ‘John Clare’ Series

I have been fascinated by John Clare since my early twenties, when I first began reading his poetry, and that preoccupation with his life, and poetry, and prose, has continued unabated. He lived in the early nineteenth century, during  the time of the great romantic poets – Byron, Wordsworth, etc.. – and was certainly eclipsed by them as far as public recognition was concerned, during his lifetime, causing him great disappointment and perhaps fuelling his melancholy and bouts of depression. Nevertheless, he was a prolific ‘rhymer’, and prose writer, pursuing his calling under difficult personal circumstances, both familial and financial, which were worlds away from those of his recognised contemporaries. And perhaps it is this which is part of my fascination for the man and his work, because he persevered with it, from boyhood education to adult published writer, striving to improve himself at all times, even though it ultimately alienated him from his family and social class. Those around him, often illiterate, could not understand his need to write, and his preoccupation with ‘bookish things’, and so his artistic pursuits caused him some grief, and together with his brief early success, and then quick rejection through changing public literary tastes, contributed to his isolation and mental problems. However, the range of his writings, the breadth of its subject matter, the quality of the verse, the close observation of nature (for which he is famous) and the human condition, are all aspects of his work that I admire, and perhaps it is because I can identify with the man and his circumstances, and the difficulties of his life, while all the while struggling to raise himself up to the highest of artistic standards, that I continue to find myself inspired by him. Perhaps, also, it is because of this that I respect the man, and empathise with him and his life’s ideals, and artistic ideals.

I had no singular thought of composing a series of pieces that take as their starting point the work of John Clare, so they have appeared as ideas have occurred to me. Long ago I remember making plans to write something based upon his famous prose piece “Journey Out of Essex’, but that came to nothing until lately I returned to it as part of my plans for a chamber opera on the poet and his life. However, that prose piece did provide the stimulus for the first piece in the series which was “Music to a Poet’s Journey”, written in 1980, and first performed by Lontano at the ICA, London. Much time passed from that composition until the second piece in the series, which was ‘Points of Decision’ (2005/6), for large orchestra, which came about as a result of imagining a moment in Clare’s life, and how it could be ‘re’-interpreted as a musical narrative in a musical composition. And this is fundamentally important to understand, that the music is not in any way programmatic, but rather takes as its conceptual starting point a moment in a real life (Clare’s) and is developed by my imagination as a musical discourse. This is true of this piece, ‘Points of Decision’ as much as the third one, for Clarinet Quintet, ‘A Surfeit of Realities’ (2009). The specific details of the ideas behind those pieces are described later in the attached programme notes.

The fourth piece (so far) is the set of songs for baritone and ensemble called ‘Reveries and False Hums’ (2009/10). Unusually, perhaps, it has taken me a long time to set any of Clare’s poetry to music, and it took many revisions for this piece to be completed. This is because I found myself aware of the gulf between my musical idiom and Clare’s linguistic style, which presented me with a difficult compositional task. Setting nineteenth century words, with their inevitable strict rhyme schemes, as well as their subject matter, in a modern ‘chromatic’ language meant finding a style, shape, and character that allowed the words to be enhanced by the music. Too often, it seems to me, modern contemporary word-setting lacks character because of the faith in the inherent (?) meaning of the single note, the sound, rather than creating a gesture to match the meaning of the text. This seemed to me an artistic and compositional problem, which I hope that I have solved.

I suspect that there will be more pieces in this series in due course, but for detailed descriptions of the completed works please refer to the programme notes following.


Music to a Poet’s Journey

The idea for this piece came from reading the prose piece ‘Journey out of Essex’ by the Northamptonshire peasant poet John Clare. It is an account of his escape from the mental asylum High Beech in Epping Forest,run by Matthew Arnold. Although a lenient regime, Clare had been incarcerated there for a few years, without receiving any visitors from home, because of his delicate unstable mind, brought on by conflicting emotions due to his meteoric rise to fame with the publication of his first volume of poetry, the indifference and incomprehension of his friends and family, and the subsequent lack of interest from a fickle fashion-conscious public. The title, therefore, refers to the journey that he described on his return, but the piece is not programmatic in any way, and is an early attempt at writing abstract chamber music for a mixed ensemble of the ‘Pierrot’ variety. From an introductory passage that gathers the instruments together, and which alludes to the way that I imagined Clare felt about his impending decision, it progresses towards a climactic piano solo, as if exhibiting the feelings of solitariness, and disquiet which Clare experienced upon reaching his destination. 

The piece was first performed by Lontano, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, at the ICA London.


Points of Decision

Symphonic Metamorphoses after John Clare

The idea for this music came from considering the particular moment when the poet John Clare decided to run away from the asylum where he was being treated for nervous disorders. In reading his account of his escape I imagined him being determined at one moment and unsure of his decision at the next. 

Such oscillating moods were what I imagined might be going on in the mind of John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant’ poet of the early nineteenth century, when he considered escaping from High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest, in July of 1841. His highly sensitive, and somewhat nervous, disposition had contributed to his sense of alienation, and estrangement, from those around him, and made the authorities convinced of his need for rest in the, admittedly liberal, regime of Dr Mathew Allen’s asylum. Nevertheless, with no contact with friends or relatives for four years, he had become ‘tired of the place’ and needed to ‘return home’ to his family. He had thought about the idea for several days, but there came a point when he began walking.

This piece grew from the idea that, since he was sometimes uncertain of himself, somewhat unstable because of his fanciful poetic mind, and very aware of his status as a peasant country labourer, he would have prevaricated in making that decision to walk away from his ‘prison’. Thus, there might have been several moments, or ‘points’, when he would have been positive about the decision to go, and then others when he might have been reluctant, and not make any movement. It was considering these miniscule moments, or ‘points’ of making the decision, which provoked the composition of this music. The fact that his home lay about 90 or so miles north of Epping Forest, and he had to walk all the way, with very little to eat or drink, may have contributed to the indecision that I imagine he may have had. His “Journey out of Essex” relates his hardships, and experiences, and also mentions the fact that at times he would whistle the tune ‘Highland Mary’, which is quoted transformed towards the end of the piece. 

However, this was only the starting point for the music, a glimpse at the way that the music might unfold, a reason for its progress, because the piece should be seen as a symphonic investigation of a theme, and its inherent characteristics. This theme is most clearly heard at the two bars at letter EE, but it is always present in some way, from its tonal and chromatic implications, its melodic intervals, and even to the quintuplet (and other irregular) rhythms. It is the purely musical discourse that is foremost in the music, with a glance towards the image of John Clare deciding to walk away from his keepers as something which informs the narrative of the music. It is definitely not programme music.

This work was developed for performance and recording by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra as part of spnm’s season of events 2007/08. 

The first performance took place at Studio 7, Broadcasting House, Manchester on 19th February 2008.


A Surfeit of Realities

Quintet for Clarinet (Bb) and String Quartet

When the Northamptonshire ‘peasant’ poet John Clare arrived at his cottage after his long walk home, from the asylum that he had been sent to in 1823, he seemed in great turmoil from the conflicting emotions that he experienced there. There were many ‘truths’ that confronted him: his own family, parents and children, his home environment, but also his constructed inner reality, through expecting to see his childhood love and poetic muse, Mary. 

“A Surfeit of Realities” is not programmatic in any way, but merely tries to investigate, contemplate, the emotional upheavals that Clare must have felt at the time spent at home before being sent away again. He was aware that his talent had alienated him from those around him who could not understand his writing, and he had experienced an idealistic love with his childhood sweetheart Mary Joyce who then epitomised the universality of goodness, truth, and beauty to him. All this was compounded on to the idealism and peace which he found in nature, so that his own inner reality was very different from that at the hearth. Thus there were many realities that confronted him, too many, it seems, for him to be allowed to stay with his loved ones.


Reveries and False Hums

Baritone and Ensemble

The texts are taken from the poetry and prose of John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant’ poet of the early nineteenth century. He had been incarcerated in the asylum at Northampton because of his increasing disassociations with reality, and his conviction that he had two wives, one a childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce, and his real wife Patty. His depressive illness had begun much earlier, when he began to feel at odds with the world around him, his fellow workers and villagers, the fickle public that had spurned his later attempts at publication, and even his family. His was a delicate sensitive personality, typical of the romantic generation, that saw nature and poetry as absolute truths and symbols for our lives, but he was unable to bring them together into his life without compromise, and perhaps that was the cause of his illness. In a similar way, the purity of his friendship with his childhood sweetheart was something that he held on to all his life, and became part of the cause of his depressions.

The texts are all taken from the time of his final, and long, stay at the Northampton asylum, where he finally died in 1864, and are a way of coming to understand the man and his moods at that time. Hopefully, the music reflects these moods, which range from bitterness, melancholy, mildly playful fantasy, a deep sense of loss, isolation, and resignation. It is extraordinary that his spirit remained at times free and uplifted, despite his confinement, reminiscent of the freedom that he experienced around his home village of Helpston: he was always a ‘roamer’, a ‘walker of paths’ in his early life, when he would experience and observe nature in the minutest detail, and then immediately ‘drop down’ to pen this thoughts and observations while leaning on his cap.

The title is taken from a letter of 1849, in the early years of his time at Northampton, where he complains of being aware of being muddled in his mind and tired of his surroundings, his thoughts being ‘quite lost in reveries and false hums’.


Movement through Paradox. 

This is another addition to the John Clare series, and was written in 2011. It is also an important sequel to “Points of Decision” in that it deals with the period immediately after his escape, and specifically with his journey home. Thus, both these large symphonic pieces deal with an important period of Clare’s life, in many ways pivotal to his well being, though the outcome of his long walk home was entirely negative, with continued incarceration in Northampton asylum. 

So, “Movement Through Paradox” is a musical portrayal of his pitiful tale of walking home for three days with hardly any food or drink, as is recounted in the prose that he wrote – ‘Journey out of Essex’ – the day after he arrived. Looking back in my notes, I realised that I had considered setting this text about thirty years ago, because I found some notes on how to interpret it musically. This is, obviously, something that has stuck with me for a long time, so I presume it has something that connects with me in a very fundamental way to Clare’s life and work, which I believe to be the manner in which Clare allowed his natural talent to develop despite all the forces that cajoled him and tempted him in other directions. He was a deeply natural poet, born with that literary inclination, and despite his lowly birth he nurtured his talent, and remained true to himself, to become one of the great writers of the period. 

In continuing to sympathise with Clare’s plight, and admire him for his tenacity and his perceptive works, I seem to be creating a whole raft of pieces around his poetry and life. These days this seems anathema to the general trend for one-off consumerist ephemera, but, nevertheless, I feel that this method of working is important for me. I like the idea of creating a corpus of works which connect with each other, interlink with and reflect upon themselves, because I think that this creates a broader perspective with which to perceive ideas, and I have no qualms about conveying my thoughts about Clare and encouraging others to read him.

For about a decade now I have had the idea of writing a chamber opera on the life and work of John Clare, and drafted out a libretto from his poetry, prose texts, and letters. This draft took the form of a work in three acts, the middle of which is a setting of the whole of the text of ‘Journey out of Essex’. Thinking about its musical setting, I realised that in order to be sympathetic to the background meaning of it, and in order that it would be dramatic for the purposes of the opera, I had to make the music slow down gradually through the act, yet continue on its climactic path towards the end where Clare arrives home exhausted and somewhat delirious to find that his (imaginary) beloved second wife is not at home. This huge disappointment I imagined as being an emotive climax to his homeward journey, and thus the music had to move forward inexorably towards this point, but at the same time slow down gradually to represent his increasingly tired physical state, and thus making his return all the more dramatic – all that effort and no reward, either in real life or his imagined one. I did not know how to write music which did this, so decided to write some instrumental music as a study, and this is how ‘Movement through Paradox’ came about. It is a study for the middle act of the proposed opera. 

I began by making some decisions about the music, simple enough in themselves, some of them, but with more time on the project I realised that the music had to work with some subtle ideas for it to be viable. But firstly, the music had to begin fast, in order that it should slow down, and thus it had to be rhythmic in essence for the concept of slowing down to be perceived by a listener, and the rhythms had to be felt by the listener, so they could not be ‘intellectually’ conceived rhythms, but ones which could be viscerally understood. I knew that Clare in his prose text ‘Journey out of Essex’ mentioned whistling a tune to himself to keep his spirits up, and I had quoted it in ‘Points of Decision’ (transformed), so I decided to use that song as a source, through which I filtered a fixed set of pitches ( the same as I used in ‘Points of Decision’ ), and this created various rhythmic and motivic ideas which became fundamental to the music. For example, There is a repeated note/chord figure, initially two beats, that expands and contracts; a fanfare figure appears in various guises and instrumental textures; an espressivo melodic idea based upon a scalic motif (g# a b c)  appears, in  different tempi, and as foreground and background music; and a sf tutti chord which grows from the introductory music reappears throughout the piece, sometimes suddenly, sometimes as part of the narrative, marking the slowing process, and acting, as I think of it, as the black lines in a Mondrian painting demarcating the sections but being integral to the compositional process. Here, though, the chord gradually recedes by getting quieter and dispersing itself over larger periods of time, giving the impression, I hope, that it is moving forward in time but petering out ever more exhaustively. The music is hectic at the beginning, after the introductory music, slows gradually through various separate sections, which in themselves visit different moods, of melancholy, fantasy, ethereality, much in the manner of Clare’s description in his text, until towards the end the music reduces to just some pulsing chords in the strings. After that comes the final climax. 

The music is not programmatic in any way, but does have a musical narrative which is responsible for the overall structure, and which reflects the dramatic line. The introduction, for example, quotes a short passage from ‘Points of Decision’ which, in that piece, was symbolic of Clare finally deciding to make his escape, so the two pieces are integrated artistically and compositionally. Both, too, are in one single movement, concerned as they are with one individual narrative each, the first with making a decision to escape and the second with the slowing process of a tragic and exhausting journey and a climactic ending. I was conscious of the fact that a climax is, of course, usually done in reverse in music, with an increase of speed, and rhythms, towards a conclusion, so it is in a way a paradox trying to show that a great deal of energy, of rhythm and movement of one sort or another, can retain its dramatic tension whilst slowing down, and this is why the movement is somewhat paradoxical, even though there is much rhythmic movement throughout the whole piece.


Shadows of Memory

This grew out of “Movement  through Paradox” because I wanted to write something succinct, to see if I could do it, and because I reasoned that shorter pieces would have a better chance of being performed. The pieces I have written over the past years have all tended to be quite long, so this was an opportunity to work on a different time scale and to try to get more performances, too. 

It is also another piece in the “Clare” series. I imagined Clare at his kitchen table the day after he arrived home, writing his prose piece “Journey out of Essex”, and I thought that he would be remembering what happened to him over those few days, so I took this as a starting point for myself, and thought that the new piece would be a reworking of the larger one, thus using my memory of my own piece. I used the same material but altered and recomposed much of the music, especially to fit a shorter time frame. It therefore became a shadow of the larger piece intuited from my memory, and in turn a more distant shadow of Clare’s prose, and his memory.

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