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John Metcalf (b1946)

In time of daffodils

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Grant Llewellyn (conductor)
Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 2006
Brangwyn Hall, Guildhall, Swansea, Wales
Produced by Tim Thorne
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: March 2007
Total duration: 66 minutes 29 seconds

World renowned Welsh composer, John Metcalf presents his new work, In Time of Daffodils. A song cycle, originally set for voice & piano, Metcalf has extended his own work into an orchestral masterpiece, setting the words of much loved poets to the six concluding songs of the cycle.

Metcalf drew on material from 12 years of creative work to produce the three works which appear on his latest release. Metcalf emphasises the connections in the way the movements were conceived; originating as a whole or in part as works with piano. Metcalf embraced the pan-diatonic or ‘white note’ style when composingParadise Haunts and Three Mobiles encompassing a sense of minimalism in each, yet the movements are both distinctive; Three Mobiles has a larger rhythmic complexity than the more sublime former.

The BBC National Orchestra perform beautifully with Thomas Bowes and Gerard McChrystal interweaving with leading lines on violin and saxophone. The final movement, In Time of Daffodils is a collection of beautiful songs performed by Jeremy Huw Williams, (baritone). The songs are based on texts from 7 poems by poets including William Wordsworth and Amy Lowell, based around the central theme—and emblem of Wales—the daffodil.


'Thomas Bowes has the right kind of sound—warm and dutifully expressive—to highlight the music's melodic strengths, and his energetic pursuit of Metcalf's lavish decoration powers the music onwards, through the overlapping repetitions of the middle section towards its cathartic conclusion' (Gramophone)

'These performances will not easily be bettered. Everyone sings and plays with conviction and commitment; and the whole is warmly, yet naturally recorded—a real pleasure from first to last' (MusicWeb International)
Paradise haunts …
Thomas Bowes, after hearing a performance of my music in 1994, invited me to compose a new piece for him. A chance reading of a review of a book about film-maker Derek Jarman’s garden started the creative process. The particular quote that became etched on my memory was 'paradise haunts gardens and it haunts mine'. As well as the starting point it gave me the central impetus for the work—the sense of the metaphysical that inhabits gardens (which others have also noted)—and, of course, the work’s title.

Jarman’s garden was very distinctive and the images of it were striking. Contrasts abounded—between exotic plant species and driftwood sculpture, the austere beauty of the Kent coast and the dominating presence of the nearby nuclear power station. But the focus of the inspiration for the piece also quickly moved both to gardens in general and moreover to my own wild garden by the Afon Teifi in West Wales. Also present in the piece is a sense of mortality. Jarman’s garden had been developed in the last years of his life and had clearly been important to him during his final illness.

As the composition progressed I found myself drawn into new creative areas. For some years I had been moving towards a pan-diatonic, ‘whitenote’ music. Though Paradise haunts … marked the completion of this stage of development it was nevertheless quite a shock to write such an extended work without any chromatic change. The piece is in strict variation form and the white note harmony rotates around a simple four note progression in the bass—A/F/D/E. Notwithstanding this rigour and simplicity, the surface of the music is in no way ‘minimal’ but is characterised, rather, by essentially familiar contrasts of mood and texture. The violin writing is often virtuosic and incorporates fast passage work and, in one section, rapid alternation between arco playing, left hand and standard (right hand) pizzicato. The piece is at times impressionistic and also to a degree suggestive, in what might be called a naturalistic way, of the subject matter.

The variations proceed without a break, an emotional progression informing the music and moving it forward. Towards the end of the work a long flowing passage of endless melody leads to a sustained climax and what seems like a very final chord, the solo part doing a downward glissando into silence. This was, indeed, the intended ending of the piece—but it was not to be. At this point in the composition I felt the need to continue and I did, writing the last five minutes of the piece in a single afternoon in July 1995. In a final section, after a brief return to the music of the very opening of the piece and a series of elegiac chords answered by single notes on tubular bells, the violin again climbs steadily accompanied by reiterated chords before once more subsiding gradually into silence, this time in a new, unknown, space.

The original version of Paradise haunts … was for violin and piano and was premiered on October 3rd 1995 by Thomas Bowes and Eleanor Alberga in St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. I subsequently orchestrated the work. Thomas Bowes also gave the world premiere of this version with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Grant Llewelyn on September 9th 1999 in Llandaff Cathedral as part of the 1999 Vale of Glamorgan Festival.

Three mobiles
Since my music sometimes wears its heart on its sleeve I have frequently employed quite limited material and rigorous structures to counterbalance this—simple ‘white note’ harmony and palindrome to give just two examples. When making choices such as these, I have simultaneously aimed for a certain lightness or playfulness of expression so, although the music is, in certain senses, very strict, in others it is the very opposite. Works like Light Music for piano (four hands) and the palindrome for six pianos Never Odd or Even typify this approach and so, by slightly different means, does Three Mobiles.

In sculptural terms a mobile is a three dimensional object with moving parts. Those parts never change in essence but, as they move, are seen in a seemingly endless series of different combinations and perspectives. This is the effect I have tried to achieve in this piece. I have taken a series of 36 chords, all diatonic to E flat major. Some are common chords, while most have one or more notes added to the basic triad. The chords have a further ‘logic’ in that the bass of each successive chord moves down step by step. Using them as a basis, I have constructed the three movements in the manner of classical variation technique adding a ‘free’ melody on top drawn from notes of the current chord. In this way I have tried to replicate the qualities of mobiles in terms of sound.

Mobile I is fast and lively; it has repeated chords overlayed with polyrhythms. In a further attempt to represent the concept of the piece, the material is presented in the same rhythmic and metric format three times. Mobile II has a slow walking bass over which combines with a very free, almost jazz-inflected melody conveying a feeling of calm and tranquillity. Mobile III is very playful and light and moves swiftly through and around the now familiar harmony.

Like Paradise haunts …, Three Mobiles also started out as a piece with piano accompaniment. It was commissioned by the Machynlleth Festival with funds made available in part by the Arts Council of Wales and was first performed on August 21st 2001 by Gerard McChrystal with Dan Moriyama (piano). The piece was revised in 2003 (when the version for String Orchestra was made) and again in 2006.

In time of daffodils
Like the other two works, the version of In time of daffodils heard on this disc also evolved in its own particular way. The starting point was a commission from Jeremy Huw Williams to write a short song cycle for voice and piano. Flowers have inspired many poets and there are, in particular, a number of beautiful poems about daffodils. This was a strong enough impulse to pursue the idea but it was also helpful to have such a clear and consistent theme and the obvious associations with Spring (when the first performance was to be given) and with Wales, further encouraged this approach. Having chosen To daffodils by Herrick, To an early daffodil by Lowell and the famous Wordsworth poem, I was ready to set to work.

In the meantime, a commission had arrived from BBC Radio 3 for an orchestral work to mark my 60th birthday year. It soon became clear that a much more substantial song cycle was possible and three further poems were added—Housman’s The Lent lily, the famous prologue to Endymion by Keats and a second Amy Lowell poem—White and green. In order to pursue a more symphonic approach to the now much longer cycle, I decided to group the poems into two sets of three and also to make the second set of three a musical paraphrase of the first—the Housman of the Herrick, Keats of Wordsworth and the second Lowell setting a reworking of the first. I also decided to write a short orchestral interlude between the two sets. I then decided on a final order:

Housman; Wordsworth; Lowell
Herrick; Keats; Lowell

In a further move towards symmetry, I then made specific structural decisions about the tonalities of the settings. The Housman is diatonic to A minor and the Lowell to D major. The central Wordsworth setting contains stanzas in these two tonalities alternating with its own tonality (diatonic to B minor/D flat major). The second sequence of poems follows the same tonal scheme. The aim of this whole approach was to represent in music both the familiarity of the turning/returning year and the different feelings and circumstances that we may encounter at those same times. I also wished to touch on the theme of death and renewal.

The poems are, on the whole, very well known, especially the Wordsworth—which is perhaps the best known of all poems in English. Herrick paints a poignant picture of transience and mortality which I have reflected in a very romantic setting while Housman evokes a compelling image of a lost rustic world. Amy Lowell’s poems contain sensuous imagery and a bright vibrant energy which are evocative of the flower and the time of year. Coming towards the end of the cycle the Keats extract, drawn from the prologue to his wonderful epic poem Endymion, introduces a new dimension and emphasis. While all the other poems speak solely through and about nature, Keats reminds us of the comparable experience and solace to be found in the art created by man:

‘And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read!
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink’

The title of the piece is drawn from the first line of a poem by ee cummings (not set).

The first three songs of In time of daffodils were commissioned by Jeremy Huw Williams with funds made available by the Arts Council of Wales and the National Lottery. The subsequent reworking into a symphonic cycle of six songs with a short orchestral interlude was in response to a commission from BBC Radio 3. The orchestration of the work features prominent roles for solo woodwinds—to reflect the pastoral quality of the piece—and for brass and harp (for their visual association with daffodils).

John Metcalf © 2007

The three works on this disc span a period of twelve years of creative work. There are connections in the way that they were conceived in that that they all started life either as a whole or in part as works with piano; the versions on the disc evolved, therefore, over time.

Paradise Haunts was composed at a creative turning point in my life. It marked the end of a long process of simplification of my musical language and was the first work of mine to embrace a wholly pan-diatonic or ‘white note’ style. It is, however, only in this sense a 'minimalist’ work because its structure and textures are more intuitive than motoric and are developed in ways which, at least on the surface, will be familiar to experienced listeners.

Three Mobiles take this pan-diatonic process further, displaying (to reflect the title) a structural approach influenced by serialism and—especially in the outer movements—a rhythmic complexity which is also a feature of my music.

The most recent work of the three is In time of daffodils. I drew on my experience of writing opera in composing it. The challenge of writing for baritone and a large orchestra yet keeping the texture and words clear was an important one to respond to. I also attempted a quasi symphonic structure with the parallel sets of three poems being musical paraphrases. At the same time the piece makes a tentative move back to a small degree of harmonic discursiveness—the central song of each set of three containing the tonality of the outer two songs as well as its own harmonic area.

These intellectual, structural and harmonic devices serve a simple purpose in the music—to retain unity and consistency in what is very often a romantic outpouring.

John Metcalf © 2007

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