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Sister Helen 'Symphonic Poem No 3'

'Wallace: Symphonic Poems' (CDH55461)
Wallace: Symphonic Poems
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Part 1: Largo sostenuto
Part 2: Vivace
Part 3: Andante
Part 4: Con fuoco
Part 5: Meno allegro
Track 18 on CDH55461 [5'46] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Track 6 on HYP201401 [5'46] Download-only monthly sampler

Sister Helen 'Symphonic Poem No 3'
Sister Helen represents the opposite approach to love from that of Beatrice—that of implacable revenge motivated by betrayal and jealousy. This, the third and perhaps the most intense of Wallace’s symphonic poems, is based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti’s poem is in ballad idiom, but coloured with pre-Raphaelite colours:

‘Why did you melt your waxen man,
Sister Helen?
To-day is the third since you began.’
‘The time was long, yet the time ran,
Little brother.’
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Three days to-day, between Hell and Heaven!

The opening Largo sostenuto depicts her brooding jealousy and, in the woodwind, the flame of the waxen image of her betrayer. Recollection of her former love, expressed with great feeling, only wells up to the dotted rhythm of the first fortissimo, cruelly anticipating her ultimate triumph.

The Vivace, Scottish in idiom, describes with lilting innocence the little brother whom she has sent to the window to see if a horseman approaches. And soon, indeed, we hear the approach, leading to a climax at her refusal, meno allegro:

‘But he calls for ever on your name
Sister Helen,
And says that he melts before a flame.’
‘My heart for his pleasure fared the same,
Little brother.’
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Fire at the heart, between Hell and Heaven!

The Andante describes the tokens and pleas of her former lover, forming a kind of slow movement, musically isolated, as it should be, from the perverse emotions of Sister Helen which break out again at the Con fuoco. Others ride to her to beg her to break the spell, but to no avail. The extreme melodrama of the subject might have tempted a lesser composer into a work of unremitting gloom, but Sister Helen’s own memories of true love return in varied form, and it is typical of Wallace’s rounded view of his characters that he allows her a true memory of beauty—something not granted her in the poem.

But the end is indeed inevitable, and the final stanza is brought to its awful fruition with intense power as her dead lover’s ghost is doomed to wander as hers will be until the Last Judgement:

‘Ah! what white thing at the door has cross’d
Ah! what it this that sighs in the frost?’
‘A soul that’s lost as mine is lost,
Little brother!’
O Mother, Mary Mother,
Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!

from notes by John Purser © 1996

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDH55461 track 17
Con fuoco
Recording date
13 December 1995
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Wallace: Symphonic Poems (CDA66848)
    Disc 1 Track 17
    Release date: September 1996
    Deletion date: August 2011
    Superseded by CDH55461
  2. Wallace: Symphonic Poems (CDH55461)
    Disc 1 Track 17
    Release date: January 2014
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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