Morfydd Owen: Portrait of a Lost Icon
★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) and Brian Ellsbury (piano) perform the music of Morfydd Owen (1891-1918). Including songs Gweddi y Pechadur, and To Our Lady of Sorrows as well the first recordings of some of her piano works. As heard on BBC World Service, BBC Radio 3, Radio Cymru, and S4C.
Andrew Taylor - LullabiesWhat was the initial idea behind Lullabies? Lullabies are one of the first forms of music that many of us are exposed to as infants, and are - for many people - intrinsically linked with some of our earliest memories and experiences. Night-time is often an unknown and frightening experience for many children, but we use this medium of the lullaby to counteract this fear and to create a sense of comfort and safety. In this piece I wanted to play on this idea of the balance between fear and familiarity, by using the musical idiosyncrasies found in lullabies to re-create three different night-time memories from my own childhood that range from the safe and comforting to the frightening and unfamiliar. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? Whilst this is a very introspective and personal work, I hope that listeners still experience the different shades of fear and comfort that are played with throughout the piece, and that it in some way evokes some of their own memories of childhood. What music are you enjoying at the moment? I am currently working with Welsh National Opera, so I find myself listening and watching a lot more opera at the moment which I am really enjoying, but outside of work I’ve been getting into a range of different artists and bands such as Haken, Rise Against and Brad Paisley. Which of your pieces would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? For me that would be my concept album The Commute; it’s an updated retelling of James Joyce’s Ulysses which follows a day in the life of an office worker in Cardiff city through 12 tableaux. It sums me up for two reasons, the first is that the narrative is drawn from my own past experiences of working in the corporate world, and secondly it draws on a range of musical styles such as punk, prog-rock and blues that are extremely important to me as a composer, and seeks to blend them all together in a sort of psychotropic melting pot. Here’s a link to listen to and download the album: https://andrewtaylor3.bandcamp.com/music For more on Andrew and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
Charlie Barber - KyrieWhat was the initial idea behind your work? ‘Kyrie’ was written for Michelangelo Drawing Blood, a chamber opera composed in 2013. The opening ‘Kyrie’, in part, is a reflection on Michelangelo’s intense Christian faith as well as his aesthetic world. For more on Charlie and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
Damian Rees - Dona nobis pacemWhat was the initial idea behind Dona nobis pacem? I wrote this piece over 20 years ago, so much of my thinking has vanished into the clouds of time. I had been asked to write a religious piece using text from the Christian Mass. While I had been brought up a Catholic I am not a practising Christian, so writing a work with a strong Christian message felt disingenuous. In the three words dona nobis pacem I found words that resonated due to their universal sentiment but that also fitted the brief. I do also remember that another starting point was hearing a choral piece based on African music that involved chanting declamations between solo verses. I thought that could be an interesting starting point. Finally at that time I was interested in music expanding from a single pitch, while I varied this more than in the work I completed straight after this, you can still hear this just after the opening bass statement. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? I don’t have any specific hopes as such but would want people reflect on frustrations in the world and achieving peace and that no matter how much we hope this can be can be achieved we haven’t done it yet. What music are you enjoying at the moment? The last piece I listened to before writing this was Elgar's Second Symphony conducted by Mark Elder. The slow movement I find really wonderful. Enjoying at the moment exploring the albums of Neko Case and the music of Irish composer Séan O Riada who I recently came across by chance. Which of your pieces would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? Not sure I could limit it to one piece, also over the 20 plus years I have been writing then different pieces represent those moments and interests at the time I wrote them. There are several themes I return to, one is music inspired by the Aberfan disaster and another is music inspired by local landscapes near Swansea. If I was to direct someone to a piece I would want them to hear my Guitar Concerto, Shouting at the Sea. It’s from about 14 years ago but I think covers a number of my interests, folk music, slow static music, gamelan and melody.
Eloise Gynn - Only BreathWhat was the initial idea behind Only Breath? In Zen there is a saying, ‘Ichi-on Jobutsu’: in one breath one attains enlightenment, or unity. I was inspired by the words of Rumi, the Sufi mystic to illustrate this concept, and chose to use the Persian mode ‘Šur’ to create the sound world. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? I imagine everyone will experience it in their own ways. What music are you enjoying at the moment? Hildegard von Bingen, Jordi Savall, Ladino and Armenian traditional music. I have also enjoyed lots of BBC NOW concerts recently. Which of your pieces would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? Perhaps ‘Song of the Awakening Dawn’. It was written for the London Sinfonietta whilst I was in Orkney, a wild beautiful place reminiscent of West Cornwall where I grew up. I feel it has the energy of my roots, with spacious textures, sounds of curlew and lapwing, and an ascending cello solo. Also ‘Sakura’ which you can find on the LSO Live CD ‘The Panufnik Legacies’. https://lsolive.lso.co.uk/products/the-panufnik-legacies For more on Eloise and her work, please visit her page on our composer database.
Gareth Churchill - Braich Wen & Two Morys RhymesWhat was the initial idea behind your works featured on Only Breath? I think the works of mine featured on this release both take their starting points from the exploration of certain harmonic idioms suggested to me by the respective texts. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? Just as they are, they’re miniatures, really; just moments in time/space. What music are you enjoying at the moment? I’m enjoying exploring the folk song archives at St Fagans Museum at the moment. Which of your pieces (if any) would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? I think I’m a sort of miniaturist, my pieces typically focus on exploring a relatively small number of musical ideas – I do not like pieces to have ‘too many’ notes. These choral works are, themselves, good examples of this. For more on Gareth and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
Geraint Lewis - Seen by the WaitsWhat was the initial idea behind Seen by the Waits? The commission was to write a short piece for unaccompanied voices from a school for girls in Dorset – so I searched for a Wessex poem which suggested fresh voices actually singing outside. And as it was specifically for a Christmas concert in a Bournemouth church I thought the seasonal touch in the Thomas Hardy poem I eventually found fitted the bill perfectly... Part of my maternal ancestry comes from the West Country – and Dorset specifically – so I’ve always been drawn to the imagery and landscape of Hardy's Wessex. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? I wanted, above all, to try and create a nocturnal, moonlit landscape in sound – transparent, luminous and spacious enough to allow the story to unfold within it. These are carol-singers who go from place to place in the countryside with old viols to accompany them – so I give them a walking-tune to sing 'in consort' as if being played on the strings. I also wanted to give some sense of the 'phantasmal' muted sadness and subdued joy behind the haunting story of the 'Lady of the Manor'. The B flat tonality came (retrospectively I'm sure!) from Britten's 'The Choirmaster's Burial' in his incomparable Hardy-cycle Winter Words. But the composer I now connect with it most is somehow Mendelssohn – I wanted every note, however quiet, to register clearly but with warmth. What music are you enjoying at the moment? Tippett's Third Symphony. Hearing the first performance on Radio 3 in 1972, when I was 14, literally changed my life and made me want to be a composer – whatever that actually meant! Hearing a new recording just now, which gets part of it spectacularly wrong (no names, no packdrill!) sent me back to a live 1976 performance (luckily on a BBC disc) with Raymond Leppard and Dame Josephine Barstow – and once again, it hit me right in the solar plexus. A huge amount of perfectly good music is produced all the time – but at any period in history only the tiniest handful of the truly great. That's exactly what this is, so I feel incredibly privileged to have lived 'with it' right from its premiere. Which of your pieces would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? For William Mathias's Memorial Service in St Paul's Cathedral on November 20, 1992 John Scott asked me to write a new piece as a tribute. Much of what is 'The Souls of the Righteous' already existed and I'd played it to Mathias in Anglesey a few months before his death – it was actually commissioned by Nina Walker as an All Souls anthem for her church in Ealing and she was with me in Anglesey at the time – and Will seemed to approve of the piece and was very encouraging. But I couldn't finish one bit in the middle! His subsequent death in the July and John's immediate request suddenly unlocked it.... It therefore ties together three beloved figures in my life – all now dead – and yet it seems to speak to others too. In this last month it was played at different events in London, Winchester, Swansea and Notre-Dame in Paris to my knowledge. It was Thomas Trotter who told me that I'd pinched the opening ritornello from Saint-Saens's Organ Symphony! John Scott and St Paul's Cathedral, with Huw Williams at the organ, recorded it on Volume 7 of their Hyperion series 'The English (sic!) Anthem' and OUP publish it in their 'English (sic!!) Church Anthem' volume, edited by John Rutter and Robert King. I'm told that it can also be found on YouTube but that's all a mystery to a technophobe like me... My next piece is a motet to mark the 150th anniversary, next year, of the Consecration of the magnificent new Chapel at my alma mater, St John's College in Cambridge – a building which has been central to my life in so many ways. That is a very special privilege and therefore especially daunting! For more on Geraint and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
Hilary Tann - ParadiseWhat was the initial idea behind Paradise? It was commissioned by the Gwyl Gregynog Festival so a Montgomeryshire-linked poet seemed appropriate, and I've long been a fan of George Herbert. Once I discovered that "Paradise" means "Walled Garden" the ideas flowed. The piece ends with "I bless thee, Lord, because I grow among thy trees, I bless thee among thy trees" ... and I do. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? There's a narrative to this piece -- the George Herbert poem -- but there's also a quotation from the Vulgate Ps. 95(96), v.9 which states Adorate Dominum in atrio sancto eius. I'd love the listeners to have a sense that the opening Latin quotation gradually becomes "pruned" and lets in more and more light. I "live among thy trees" in Upstate NY. My husband was an apple farmer for 35 years and I've dedicated the piece to him (Thomas David Bullard). The piece is a celebration of "all the trees of the field clap their hands". What music are you enjoying at the moment? Such a wide spectrum! I teach at a small liberal arts college in Upstate NY, so I'm always hearing new things -- gamelan, taiko drums, jazz -- and hearing anew "old" things through my students' ears -- Bach, spirituals, folk music from Quebec. It's actually a relief to settle into one of my own pieces once term is over and I can focus on my own music once again. Which of your pieces (if any) would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? Is there a recording to which you can point people? This is a hard question to answer. As you might see from the compositions and recordings on my website (hilarytann.com) I have many recorded works. I am particularly pleased with In the Theater of Air (CD: NMC D248) which was just launched this fall and is doing well in the UK charts. But my heart is in Seven Poems of Stillness for solo cello and the recorded voice of R. S. Thomas (CD: TCR011). You are asking a parent to choose between her offspring!
Max Charles Davies - Come, Holy Spirit"What was the initial idea behind Come, Holy Spirit? Come, Holy Spirit was composed for use during the Roman Catholic liturgy of Pentecost Sunday, and as happens with much liturgical music, I’m delighted that it has been taken on as a concert work, too. The setting is simple, and prioritises the text (I have set the English translation), and alternates between simple imitative passages and chorale passages. In addition to the written music, there is an atmospheric component involving spoken voices. This captures, quite directly, what happened at Pentecost. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? Not particularly. Liturgical music can be divisive in my experience but I hope at the very least that people find the aesthetic both compelling, and as a space in which to just ‘be’ for its duration, i.e. not have to do much thinking or processing. What music are you enjoying at the moment? Gosh, a tricky question, as there’s always so much… I’m currently working towards a performance of Duruflé’s Requiem with the University of the West of England Singers, which has been a delight to work on. I also recently gave a lecture that included a section on the Webern Five Movements for String Quartet Op. 5 – a work I have not listened to for a long time, and on rediscovery I found the music utterly compelling! And I recently had the privilege of reading through the score of Eloise Gynn’s Concerto for Viola and Chamber Ensemble which, like most of her work, is rather extraordinary! She has a brilliant and vivid sound imagination! Which of your pieces (if any) would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? Hmmm. As my good friend and composer Christian Morris always points out to me privately, most of my pieces are very different from one another but still sound like ‘me’. I’m rather grateful for this feedback, and I daresay lean and depend on it! Three recent works that I feel ‘sum me up’ I would say Tiny Symphony, The Way of Things, and the recently completed Cofio for choir, which exclusively uses triads. Cofio was written as an extension to my recently completed Adopt a Composer project, during which I was paired with the brilliant Cor Crymych a’r Cylch. The resulting piece will be broadcast on Radio 3 in January after a Performance on 3 (date tbc) and the extended project – a 45-minute work – will be premiered in West Wales next June. For more on Max and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
Pwyll ap Siôn - Hiraeth (‘Cannwyll ar Draethell Unig’ and ‘Innis Leacain’)What was the initial idea behind your works? The two shorts songs included on this recording (‘Cannwyll ar Draethell Unig’ and ‘Innis Leacain’) have their origins in a project created and commissioned by a visual artist I worked with during 2012-3 on the subject of ‘Hiraeth’. The Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ is notoriously difficult to translate. Some see at as meaning a kind of ‘longing’ for something, while others refer to it as a form of ‘nostalgia’. My original plan was to compose a cycle of six songs, each one taking the letters h-i-r-a-e-th. The first of these, called ‘h’, was performed on several occasions by Only Boys Aloud – once, memorably, near the gravestone of Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who died during the First World War. Anyway, soon after, poet Twm Morys became involved in the project, and the two settings you have here are based on his words. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might the pieces? Clearly the intention is for both pieces to evoke what ‘Hiraeth’ means. For a word that’s difficult to define in words music arguably gets closer in expressing what it means! The first song, ‘Cannwyll ar Draethell Unig’ refers to the poet’s recollection of another poem he once read which refers to a lonely house standing on the opposite side of an estuary. The poet recalls that one night a flicker of light suddenly appeared from inside the house, like a candle on a lonely beach (hence the title ‘Cannwyll ar Draethell Unig’, which means just that). This, he concluded, was hiraeth. The second song, ‘Innis Leacain’, refers to an island off the west coast of Ireland in the county of Connemara. In the poem, the poet recalls a time when, as a child, he would take a rowing boat to the island with his father, who would allow him to swim the final part onto the shore. This image, captured like a faded photograph in the poet’s memory, is hiraeth. My setting actually takes a harp piece by Welsh composer Grace Williams as its starting point, also called Hiraeth (1951). Thus, we hear the memory of a piece of music in order to evoke memories. What music are you enjoying at the moment? I listen to a wide range of music, partly through the classes I teach at Bangor University, partly through my research, and partly as reviewer for Gramophone music magazine. Recently I’ve been listening to Liszt’s Faust Symphony for a lecture I had to prepare on the cyclic symphony, a disc of trios by English composer Robin Holloway, a wonderful collection of film themes brilliantly placed by the French violinist Renaud Capuçon, an awesome debut album by a Scottish contemporary jazz trio, Trio HLK, called ‘Standard Time’ (also featuring Evelyn Glennie), and Japanese percussionist Kuniko Kato’s new recording of Steve Reich’s epic work Drumming, where she plays all the parts – phenomenal! Which of your pieces (if any) would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? Difficult question – there’s a piano piece called ‘Valse’ (‘Waltz) which perhaps sums my early style. It appears on Iwan Llewelyn-Jones’ ‘Welsh Portraits’ CD and is available as a download on iTunes. Excerpts from a more recent work, featuring soprano Elin Manahan Thomas (also, as it happens, with words by Twm Morys), can be accessed on YouTube via the following link: For more on Pwyll and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
Rhian Samuel - Yr AlarchWhat was the initial idea behind your work? I wrote this piece setting my favourite poem, the 14th-century, ‘Yr Alarch’ (‘The Swan’); I’d set it before, a number of years ago, for solo voice, in a very different way, playing constantly with the sounds of the poem, which was written using ‘cynghanedd’. This time, I wrote a piece inspired by the colours and images of the poem. This is what I hope an audience would take from the setting. [The score is available here from our shop.] What music are you enjoying at the moment? At the moment I’m sitting in a room in London with the sounds of diggers, pneumatic drills and railway announcements coming through the window! (Not sure if the term should be ‘enjoying’, but it’s very interesting!) But over the past weekend I did enjoy two concerts, one of the music of Xenakis and the other of Bach Cantatas. Which of your pieces (if any) would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? On 15 October 2019, pianist Clare Hammond will be playing my piano set A Garland for Anne at the Cardiff University Concert Hall; these five pieces, very varied, are all inspired by the poetry of Anne Stevenson, with whom I have collaborated for several decades. It seems that the CD on which they appear (where they are played by the brilliant Chenyin Li) has just been put on YouTube... No, 5, Four-and-a-half Dancing Men is here: For more on Rhian and her work, please visit her page on our composer database.
Richard Elfyn Jones - Adam's FallWhat was the initial idea behind Adam’s Fall? My publisher knew that King’s College Choir, Cambridge was keen to find an alternative carol to the very often performed Adam Lay Ybounden for their famous Christmas Eve Carol Service in 2017, and the poet David Broadbridge came up with a vivid and piquant slant on the original Adam story. I found it very pleasing to set this to music. Do you have any specific hopes about how people might experience this piece? I would hope that my piece would elicit an immediate emotional response from listeners of all types, and not just modern music aficionados. It follows therefore that only the conductor and the singers need to be aware of (and grapple with!) its many technical challenges. What music are you enjoying at the moment? I’ve been looking at some scores of medieval music, including pieces by the wonderful Matteo da Perugia – also, this morning, I’m listening to something very different, Oscar Peterson’s C Jam Blues. Which of your pieces would you say sums you up as a composer? And why? I hope the piece that might sum me up could be the next one I write. I’m quite self-critical, so my answer to your question reflects an ongoing effort on my part for improvement and an increased refinement, both technically and expressively. I suppose my most popular piece is the Brangwyn Festival Overture, since it was recorded quite a long time ago on the Vienna Modern Masters Label by the Polish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra of Krakow. (Not many performances in Wales, though.) For more on Richard and his work, please visit his page on our composer database.
★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine (February 2017)
Morfydd Owen was born om the Welsh valleys in 1891. Like many of her peers she sang and played piano, but it was her precocious talent as a composer – and her beauty – that dazzled audiences in London. Sadly, having met and married within six weeks Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, her once-prolific output tapered off, and she died in mysterious circumstances following surgery in 1918, aged just 26.
Inevitably, Owen’s tale is ripe for romantic fantasy as well as regret. But leaving aside the odd tautology of its title, on the basis of this sensitively recorded disc from Tŷ Cerdd, a recent resurgence of interest in her music proves justified. Pianist and researcher/editor Brian Ellsbury joins forces with Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas to offer a poignant collection of songs and piano pieces spanning Owen’s tantalisingly promising career.
Many of the works have only recently been unearthed, and the E minor Piano Sonata, for example, is patchy juvenilia. However its wild contrasts are honed to quixotic perfection in the songs, which reveal Owen’s expertise in subtly chromatic, sometimes Slavic-tinged vocal miniatures. Best known, but not necessarily most affecting, is the sole Welsh-language example, Gweddi y Pechadur (The Sinner’s Prayer). If Manahan Thomas’s voice is occasionally tremulous, her delivery is passionate, and the combination serves to underscore the paradoxical strength and fragility of Owen herself.
BBC Music Magazine February 2017
USA Welsh magazine, Ninnau (March 2017)
This newly released and eagerly awaited CD includes 10 world premiere recordings, 6 piano pieces and 4 songs. In her writing for piano, Morfydd was obviously processing various contemporary influences into her own style. Selections such as ‘Rhapsody in Csharp minor’, ‘Tal y Llyn’, ‘Little Eric’ and ‘Minuet and Trio’ do tend to be in the prevailing style of sentimental Edwardian parlour music, but other pieces show a more adventurous spirit at work. The influence of Rachmaninov may be distinctly heard in the Allegro Vivace movement of the Piano Sonata (1910) and possibly that of Scriabin in ‘Glantaf’ (1914), which explores bi-tonal harmony. Brian Ellsbury considers ‘Maida Vale’ (1912) to be similar in style to the music of Erik Satie. The early Piano Sonata (1910), written while Morfydd was a student in Cardiff, remains unpublished; but she re-cycled its first 25 measures into the Prelude in E minor ‘Beti Bwt’ which was published in 1924.
It is in her songs that her own musical personality emerges most strongly - from the ineffable tenderness of ‘Mother’s Lullaby’ (1914) to the deeply felt ‘God made a Lovely Garden’ (1917) and the highly chromatic ‘Speedwell’ (1918), recorded here for the first time, as are ‘Violets’ (undated), Daisy’s Song (1911) and ‘The Land of Hushabye’ (1916), all of them lovely. ‘To our lady of Sorrows’ (1912) and ‘Tristesse’ (1915) a French-language setting of poetry by Alfred de Musset, have an almost unbearable poignancy. Even an apparently simple setting, like ‘The Lamb’ (1914) has a quite extraordinary depth, with complex and subtle chromatic harmonies that seem to be a musical language quite her own. Of course, her most famous piece is here, ‘Gweddi y Pechadur’ (1913). The insertion of the ungrammatical article into the title is Morfydd’s own, and may have been intended to make her setting of this heartfelt sinner’s prayer a particularly personal one. Even in an age less God-fearing than the one it came from, this piece retains its power to be deeply affecting. It’s clear that Morfydd’s genius is in word-setting, whether in Welsh or in English, and that her untimely death at the age of 26, in circumstances not yet fully explained, is an enduring tragedy. Her orchestral music, yet to be committed to disc, is also powerfully idiomatic.
These two fine artists had extensive experience of performing Morfydd’s music together before they went into the studio at Tŷ Cerdd to make these recordings. They understand it, and do it supremely well. I can only recommend this CD wholeheartedly to all of you who are reading this review. The CD can be ordered directly from www.tycerdd.org/
Keith Davies Jones