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This cycle was written at the request of Dunedin soprano Judy Bellingham. It represents my first extended writing for solo voice and piano, something which is perhaps surprising given my substantial choral output.
Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) was born in England, grew up in New Zealand, then spent most of her early adult life in England and Europe. In the 1920's she returned to live in Christchurch, establishing a garden and becoming a focus for the city's literary life. She began to write poetry from the age of fifty. It has been suggested that her poetry was influenced by Whitman and Hopkins, and she has been called 'the truest colonial voice New Zealand possesses'.
I am grateful to my colleague at Epsom Girls Grammar School, Dr Dot Neutze, for offering the following interpretive comments on the cycle: I'm sure (the cycle) comes from Bethell's looking westward from her 'limen amabile' on the Port Hills, and watching the sun set over the Southern Alps. Section I describes the physical scene at sunset, rather grandly as she is leading up to God ('Light of Lights'). She watches the last light of day give way to 'all-encompassing dark'. In Section II the lights of mankind (Christchurch and the settlements of the Canterbury Plains) provide 'choirs of golden lights', but they are only 'sparks' in the 'deepening dark...deepening night'. In Section III, as it gets darker, the 'antiphonal stars' take up the song, extending the music to the lights of the whole universe: 'imperial orbs...moons...planets of magnitude...suns to suns reply...serene to serene stars'. In Section IV heavenly beings take up the mortal Christians' evening hymns 'at the time of lamp-lighting'. While 'pastoral ministers sleep' the 'bright clair-audient angels' continue the praises of the 'Master of Music'. The hymn of praise in Section V deals with the deepest Christian mysteries, the paradox of the Creator who became mortal: 'Almighty Artificer...human heart'. It's the light shining in darkness 'put out for a night' in crucifixion and 'rising mightily' to become the light of the Holy City. At the climax of the hymn 'our lights' are consumed in the light of heaven. After the power of this universal hymn of praise the sequence needs the simplicity of word (and rhyme) in Section VI to bring the poem back to the reality of the physical scene: 'hidden seas and river...the silent night', and the darkness of the plains. In Bethell's poem it shows a reluctance to let go of the vision, a sadness that we are only human. The words seem to tumble over each other, almost in anticlimax, as a very quick winding down.
Musically the cycle develops from the opening piano gesture. It provides a starting point for much of the melodic and harmonic material. Each section of the cycle begins at the point at which the previous section concluded by picking up on some musical element from its concluding bars. Sections II and VI are most closely linked musically with material from the earlier part reappearing in an altered guise in the later part.
Commissioned by Judy Bellingham
Text by Ursula Bethell
Performed by Judy Bellingham (soprano) and Terence Dennis (piano)