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In Damascus

for tenor and string quartet; premiered in May 2016
author of text
translator of text

With In Damascus (2016) for tenor and string quartet we are in a very different world. Commissioned by the artists on this recording for the Sacconi Festival in Folkestone, the quartet suggested a Syrian theme, which Dove welcomed, as he had been a visitor there twenty years previously. In the programme note for the premiere, Dove wrote:

I had a purpose (I was writing music for a play about Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia) but essentially I was a tourist. Like any visitor, I was thrilled to step out of the noisy modern city into the magical ancient world of the walled Old City, its vibrant souk leading to the magnificent mosque, and a labyrinth of winding, narrow streets filled with the smell of unleavened bread.
In Palmyra, I was met with extraordinary kindness everywhere. On one occasion, a little Bedouin boy noticed that I was risking sunstroke wandering bare-headed among the spectacular ruins: he showed me how to tie a turban, then took me to have tea with his family in their tent.
Since then, I have watched helplessly as these places of wonder have been devastated and their inhabitants scattered and killed. I searched for a long time to find a contemporary poet whose work might gain from any music I could imagine. I felt it was important to find first-hand accounts of the Syrian experience—but, of course, I was always reading them in translation. In an anthology called Syria speaks, I was astonished to read something that looked like prose, but was full of poetry. It was Anne-Marie McManus’s fine translation of Ali Safar’s A black cloud in a leaden white sky—an eloquent, thoughtful, contained yet vivid account of life in a war-torn country, all the more moving for its restraint.
In setting these words, I have not attempted to imitate Syrian music. However, there is what might be called a linguistic accommodation in my choice of scale, or mode. Several movements are in a mode that I first discovered while writing a cantata commemorating the First World War: it has a tuning that I associate with war, its violence and desolation. This eight-note mode is similar to scales found in Syrian music. I did not choose it in the abstract: it emerged from the harmonies I was exploring in the earlier work, and emerged again as I was looking for the right musical colours to set Ali Safar’s words.

The work is in eleven movements, the first opening with a brusque and weary series of dissonant chords for the string quartet: these contain in embryo much of the musical material that follows. Dove’s dramatic mastery is soon in evidence with the opening lyrical recitatives, describing children not waking but floating away—only at the end do the narrator and the quartet vent their anger. The second song And what if you weep alone is an extremely simple lament, with a dragging chordal accompaniment.

A weary rising theme depicts refugees queuing to leave the country in the third, which is another variation on the opening chords. The mood brightens in the 4th song: Here and now in Damascus, which shows everyday life proceeding, though it is dramatically shattered by the expectation of new bombs falling. The following number tensely peruses the suffering faces in the crowds, and the tension is further ratcheted up by an instrumental number, which culminates in anguish and dissonance. No 7, Soon, we will be free, is a numb and extremely simple plaint in the face of annihilation, accompanied by a spare chordal accompaniment on the quartet. A lengthy fugal passage, lost, meandering and ambiguous, preludes No 8: I don’t think any nations in existence will match Syrians in their expressions of sadness, their airing of grief. In No 9: On all my travels, I’d take a book and No 10: My heart is a black lump of coal, Dove takes a leaf out of Arvo Pärt’s book in contrasting expressive cantilenas supported by the simplest and most unobtrusively minimal of accompaniments. The conclusion: My country, please wait a little longer is a numbed, shattered plea for hope. One senses, in this work, Dove striving to pare his language back to the absolute minimum, to achieve the starkest expression possible: anything else, in these circumstances, would seem an impertinence.

from notes by Julian Grant © 2017


Dove: In Damascus & other works
Studio Master: SIGCD487Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Part 01: A little while ago
Track 10 on SIGCD487 [2'54] Download only
Part 02: And what if you weep alone
Track 11 on SIGCD487 [1'33] Download only
Part 03: Two days ago
Track 12 on SIGCD487 [3'49] Download only
Part 04: Here and now in Damascus
Track 13 on SIGCD487 [2'32] Download only
Part 05: The many faces of Damascus
Track 14 on SIGCD487 [3'37] Download only
Part 06: Instrumental
Track 15 on SIGCD487 [1'51] Download only
Part 07: Soon, we will be free
Track 16 on SIGCD487 [5'00] Download only
Part 08: I don't think any nations
Track 17 on SIGCD487 [2'59] Download only
Part 09: On all my travels, I'd take a book
Track 18 on SIGCD487 [2'43] Download only
Part 10: My heart is a black lump of coal
Track 19 on SIGCD487 [2'48] Download only
Part 11: My country
Track 20 on SIGCD487 [4'18] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD487 track 19

My heart is a black lump of coal
Recording date
15 July 2016
Recording venue
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Raphaël Mouterde
Recording engineer
Andrew Mellor
Hyperion usage
  1. Hyperion sampler - July 2017 (HYP201707)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: July 2017
    Download-only sampler
  2. Dove: In Damascus & other works (SIGCD487)
    Disc 1 Track 19
    Release date: June 2017
    Download only
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