A Setting of lines 54 – 68 of William Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle
Two Soprano Solos, Mixed Choir (SATB) and Cello
fp. 25 November 2014; Aberdeen University Chamber Choir, Peter Davis (cello), Paul Mealor, King’s College, Aberdeen, UK
Threnos (2014) (pdf)
Threnos is a setting of the final five verses of William Shakespeare’s surreal and possibly allegorical The Phoenix and the Turtle of 1601. This dramatic poem, which has long confounded scholars and intrigued other poets and composers is amongst Shakespeare’s greatest and most unclassifiable works and shows the playwright and poet at the height of his powers. Shakespeare himself subtitles the final verses ‘Threnos’ (from the Greek for a song for the dead) and these verses set a dark and subdued end to the poem.
My work is scored for solo cello, two sopranos and chorus and sets four of the five final verses (I omitted the verse beginning ‘Leaving no posterity’ as I felt it made little sense without the rest of the poem). The work is both a threnody and a meditation with the cello expounding upon some of the themes in the poem, often saying more than the choir and the text have said. Threnos is similar in design to my earlier work for trumpet and choir Invocation (2010) – but in this later work the cello has a more active role, rather than a pure commentary, often accompanying the choir, often using them as an accompaniment. I chose the cello for both its rich, dark timbre and range, but also the very human quality of its tone – unlike some of my other works for this instrument, the cello never reaches its highest range, sticking instead to the comfortable range of the human voice (both male and female).
Although I initially thought Threnos was one of my bleakest pieces, I think there is some warm, reflective music here which belies my initial thoughts. I wrote the work in the full heat of summer looking over the beautiful Skiddaw mountain range in the English Lake District (where I come from) – with this in mind, I included a quote from a song I wrote whilst a teenager which used the same hills as an awkward metaphor for unrequited love. It made sense to me.