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Ode to a Nightingale

composer
Choral symphony No 4; commissioned and first performed by Hertfordshire Chorus on 11 May 2011 at the Barbican, London; dedicated to Hertfordshire Chorus
author of text

 
This setting of Ode to Nightingale is the subject of my 4th choral symphony. These symphonic works have been spaced throughout my writing career and are linked by the motivic/thematic way in which they are constructed. Midwinter (1992) is characterised by a single 12-note cell which permeates the entire structure of the work, and in The Burning Road (1996) a similar approach is used, where the chromatic motif of the opening movement becomes the allargando melody of the passionate final ‘song of the march’ (movement 4). In Gala and Gloria (2004) there is, again a series of motifs which underpin the complete structure, and in the final soundscape we hear a collision of these themes from different performing groups placed around the space (including Cathedral bells!). There is a 5th choral symphony, which is a setting of Dylan Thomas’s Rage against the dying of the light, commissioned by Crouch End Festival Chorus in 2014. It is interesting to note that David Temple has commissioned three of these choral symphonies (Nos 2, 4 and 5) and that he was initially interested in my music when he first heard No 1. I am truly grateful for his part in developing my expressive language in this series of works.

For an artist, receiving a commission is the most exciting and uplifting thing. It’s an endorsement of one’s craft and it never stops being an honour to be asked to create new music for people. On this occasion it was the wonderful Hertfordshire Chorus asking me to set Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale (as suggested by Rod Jones, a Hertfordshire Chorus Patron)—suddenly the happy commissioning glow feels slightly less warm … Ode to a Nightingale? One of the most famous and well known poems in English? The one that everyone studied at school? The one that everyone loves and cherishes? I’m humbled before I even put a single scribble on my manuscript book (yes paper, from which I’ll later construct a computer-notated version)! This is a poem which pulsates with romantic imagery and emotion—death, fantasy, love, hope and despair all embraced in rich and beautiful language. Keats’ short but emotion-filled life pours off the page in these eight stanzas, and the effect of reading the poem leaves you with a sense of being on an amazing and emotive journey through fantastical places and ideas, coming finally to rest on the realisation of mortality. It’s like a symphony in words.

Immediately one notices challenges in terms of integrating music. The poem is in some ways quite repetitive—not in the individual language but in the repetition of sentiment—and the danger is that if you make the music move at the emotional pace of the language we will end up with a rather frenetic canvas that doesn’t suit the overall mood of the poem. So I opt for a symphonic approach in the music, using themes that build organically and can be repeated and returned to. The final result is a single movement ‘choral symphony’ which I hope in some way reflects the incredible outpouring of Keats’ poem.

Like the poem the music has different moods. There are soft harmonies and more urgent ones. Quiet reflective moments and massive climactic gestures. The solo violin weaves in and out of the choral textures like a muse, leading the music forward towards what feels like the central moment of the poem ‘now more than ever seems it rich to die’. There are big orchestral colours and very thin and eerie ones. Like the poem I have sought to use a rich harmonic and textural language.

from notes by Will Todd © 2017

Recordings

McCarthy: Codebreaker; Todd: Ode to a Nightingale
Studio Master: SIGCD495Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Introduction
Movement 2: My heart aches
Track 2 on SIGCD495 CD2 [2'57] Download only
Movement 3: O for a draught of vintage
Track 3 on SIGCD495 CD2 [2'01] Download only
Movement 4: Fade far away
Track 4 on SIGCD495 CD2 [4'20] Download only
Movement 5: Away! away!
Track 5 on SIGCD495 CD2 [2'30] Download only
Movement 6: I cannot see
Track 6 on SIGCD495 CD2 [3'24] Download only
Movement 8: Darkling I listen
Track 7 on SIGCD495 CD2 [4'13] Download only
Movement 8: Thou wast not born for death
Track 8 on SIGCD495 CD2 [2'07] Download only
Movement 9: Forlorn!
Track 9 on SIGCD495 CD2 [6'38] Download only

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