New commissions: programme notes

by Paul Harrison
Commissioned by Mr McFall's Chamber
Premiered 17 Feb 2016

This piece captures something of my mood in November 2015, when I was angry with the decisions made by our idiot politicians. The music may be in part an attempt to reflect the madness and also the beauty in the world, and perhaps the strange feeling of comfort I get sometimes from knowing that ultimately, whatever happens, everything is temporary. Despite the dense jazz harmony, the music plays on major versus minor, dark and light. The name also refers though to the essential form of the piece, which is a kind of theme and variations, or "con-sequences."

Blithe wine
by Jeremy Thurlow
for solo bassoon and string quartet
commissioned by Mr McFall's Chamber and premiered 17 Feb 2016

I think only Mr McFall's Chamber could have come up with the idea of commissioning a character portrait of the poet John Keats in the form of a new piece for bassoon with strings. It's a gloriously eccentric plan. Keats didn't play the bassoon, but there is an account of him imitating one at a rather drunken party when he and his friends decided to make an impromptu 'orchestra', each acting out a chosen instrument at the top of their voices all at the same time, at the top of their voices. John Cage would have surely loved it.

There are many fascinating sides to Keats' character, and my piece explores seven different strands of it in its seven (mostly brief) movements. He was wonderful company: ebullient, charming, lively, good-looking; he could be the life and soul of the party, as we hear in the first and longest movement. The second movement imagines him in his schooldays, gradually learning to discover meaning and beauty and exhilaration in almost everything, from science to politics to literature. His school was an inspiringly enlightened and imaginative place, and the music borrows its plan from one lesson where the boys were taken out into the garden to enact for themselves the orbits of the planets around the sun.

The third movement evokes Keats' romantic yearnings for the love of his short life, Fanny Brawne (star of the film 'Bright Star'). Keats spent several years training as a surgeon – after qualifying, he gave it up for poetry – and the fourth movement gives a glimpse of him assisting at the operating table. The fifth movement is the zany and drunken 'concert' mentioned above. Keats also suffered from bouts of deep melancholy – now it would be diagnosed as some kind of depression (possibly bi-polar) which takes grip in the sixth movement. Poetry was a calling for Keats – for it he courageously pushed aside distractions and disasters because he knew he had something inspiring and important to say. So the seventh and last movement ends the portrait on a visionary note.

It was great to be asked to write a solo role for bassoon. The instrument has such personality and so many different shades of character to explore. And, having heard him in concert, I knew I was writing for an outstanding player in Peter Whelan. Finally, it's so good to work with an ensemble like this which has such a sense of fun and excitement and imagination – exactly what every composer needs. J.T.

I. Friendliness unquelled ~ 'As for Merriment, a Witty humour will turn anything to Account'

II. A living orrery ~ 'Half an hour spent in this play once a week will fix such clear and sure ideas of the solar system as they can never forget, and probably rouse some sparks of genius, which will kindle into a bright and beautiful flame in the manly part of life.'

III. Romanza ~ 'Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath'

IV. The apprentice surgeon ~ 'A dresser attended to all the accidents and cases of hernia which came in, drew innumerable teeth and performed countless venesections.'

V. A little concert among friends ~ 'Uproar's your only music.'

VI. Lunes ~ 'I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.'

VII. A vast idea before me ~ 'I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.'

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Paul Harrison

Jeremy Thurlow

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