Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a true English eccentric, a poet and novelist whose work was illustrated with characteristic doodles and cartoons. The bereaved swan begins with the striking image of the swan as a floating cake of soap, opening out into an exploration of Smith’s predominant theme: death.
The silver swan is well known as a madrigal by the English composer Orlando Gibbons, published in 1612, but my setting was made before I had heard this original. The words are unattributed, but possibly by Gibbons himself. The text deals with the legend that the swan, silent through life, sings a beautiful song before dying. In the final two lines, set to blazing cluster chords, the swan symbolises the wise, increasingly outnumbered, in Gibbons’s day as in ours.
The oldest of the poems in the set, although presented in a modern adaptation, is a Riddle from the Exeter Book, for which the answer is ‘swan’. The Exeter Book is a tenth-century codex and a major source of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which contains over 90 riddles. Its modern version is the work of poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson (1905-1985). The poem itself does not contain the word ‘swan’, but the choir presents it as if in parentheses throughout the movement, announcing it decisively only at the end.
from notes by Bernard Hughes © 2016