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Composer of the Month

Remembering Hilary

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Rhian Davies (l) with Hilary Tann (r)

Interview with music historian Dr Rhian Davies


The work of Dr Rhian Davies has helped to restore several composers to the repertoire, and, in her role as Artistic Director of the Gregynog Festival, she has championed the music of Welsh artists including Hilary Tann. They were close friends and collaborators for 25 years and Hilary stayed with her whenever she came home to Wales. Prior to Hilary’s untimely death in February 2023 the pair had been planning to undertake in depth interviews and go through the manuscripts together in preparation for a book.

"It’s still something of a shock, even a year on, that Hilary is no longer with us," says Davies. "I was in a very privileged position in that I heard so many of the pieces in real time and attended a number of premieres with her. I have an amazing archive of scores and recordings which she was always so generous to bring. It was a very important personal and professional relationship."

Home ties

Hilary Tann was born in the Rhondda in 1947 and after graduating from Cardiff University, she went on to study at Princeton University before making the Adirondack Mountains of New York State her permanent home where she worked as a composer as well as a professor at Union College in Schenectady. Despite living in America for most of her life, Tann felt a powerful connection to the country of her birth. "Hilary felt profoundly Welsh and would always begin her biography with the words 'Welsh composer Hilary Tann'. Hers was an unusual Welshness which didn’t rely on the more conventional expressions of this such as the use of the harp or folk songs (although there are a few instances of this in her music like From the Song of Amergin which is scored for flute, viola and harp and With the Heather and the Small Birds which begins by quoting ‘Ym Mhontypridd mae ‘Nghariad’). Instead, hers was a more visceral and literal connection with the landscape and the geology. The moorland above Ferndale where she grew up and where she had walked with her parents is a very bleak and barren landscape which explodes into colour with wildflowers at certain times of the year. The geology – the granite and the lichen upon on it — was essential to who she was. Perhaps this took on a more romantic and mystical quality the longer she was in exile, but this was where her Welshness resided and so many of her compositions evolved out of that landscape. RS Thomas was the perfect counterpoint to this — he was the poet of the moorland and that’s why The Moor is such an iconic work. Everything comes together in this — Thomas’s poem and the fact that it resided in what was already a spiritual landscape for her."

Word play

RS Thomas was one of the many poets set by Tann who had a lifelong love of poetry and was herself a published writer of haiku. "Hilary showed an extreme sensitivity and taste in the selection of poetry that she chose to set and so many of the poems were also jumping off points in terms of the genesis or the titles of many of her compositions. However, it surprised me that for someone who was so responsive to poetry and was such a fluent communicator, Hilary was quite nervous about word setting. She had regarded herself very clearly from the beginning as an instrumental composer so when I had the opportunity to commission her on behalf of the Gregynog Festival, I deliberately asked her to write a choral piece. It was partly to honour the heritage of the Gregynog Choir — we were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the festival — but I also wanted to nudge her and give her the opportunity to fledge her wings a little more in that respect. The piece that resulted was Paradise which is an absolutely magnificent work."

Distinctive style

For Davies, Paradise is a fine example of Hilary Tann’s mature work which displays clearly identifiable qualities: "Hilary’s impulse was always the melodic line — she described this as the 'landscaped line' — which was inspired by the solo instrumental traditions of Japan. Hilary had studied the shakuhachi which was her way into Japanese culture really and the control and discipline that that takes. This Japanese element comes through most strongly in the construction of the pieces, the sense of form. She was very interested in the juxtaposition of different time frames that she observed in Japanese tradition."

"There are many pieces just for single instrument such as The Cresset Stone and Kilvert’s Hills and she was very comfortable in these extended soliloquies. The natural extension and development of this was into counterpoint and the lyricism, craftmanship and fastidiousness and integrity – she took everything so seriously and polished it so finely. So, there was this formality, discipline, and proportion. Hilary would often speak about Japanese garden and temple design as a model, and I think this was obviously a rather different philosophy for a Welsh composer to follow."

Kilvert’s Hills is the product of a self-identified ‘nature composer’ but does Davies think that Tann’s music reflects contemporary anxieties about the climate emergency? "Hilary was, of course, very concerned with the environment and this is evident in pieces like A Sad Pavan Forbidding Mourning which is dedicated to the memory of the Welsh naturalist Gruffydd Llewellyn. There were sketch books and pressed flowers at home and Hilary was imbued with this love of nature. Several works are dedicated to her parents who were very keen walkers and naturalists, and she particularly missed her mother who was a botanist and member of the Glamorgan Wildlife Trust. Her first real American score Adirondack Light is bound up with the idea of regeneration of post-industrial landscapes and had one eye on the climate impact. Hilary hadn’t felt entirely at home in the US until she realised that she could draw on the parallels between the mining valleys of home and the logging landscape of the Adirondacks."

Pantheon of Welsh composers

With such an intimate knowledge of her music, where does Davies think that Hilary Tann ranks alongside composers such as Grace Williams and Alun Hoddinott? "She’s obviously right up there, right at the forefront but it may be difficult for people here to realise that. There was always a sense that Hilary had chosen to leave Wales — during the 90s when I made a series of television programmes about Welsh composers, I was told by a commissioner that there would be no interest in Hilary as she lived abroad. I think Wales has a lot of catching up to do — her music is represented on about 60 commercial CDs including several dedicated solo discs. Shakkei, her concerto for oboe, has enjoyed performances in Bangkok, San Francisco, Beijing and Buenos Aires which gives a sense of how Hilary is regarded outside of Wales. However, her profile in Wales which meant so much to her, is perhaps not as high as it deserves to be. All credit to the festivals like Vale of Glamorgan and particularly Presteigne that commissioned her over the years but, because Hilary lived and worked overseas and enjoyed a truly international career, many of the scores were inspired, commissioned, and premiered elsewhere."

Where to start

Rhian Davies’s deep affection and respect for the music of Hilary Tann as well as her firm belief that it should be heard by a wider audience is very clear, but which five pieces does she think should be better known?

"I’m helped in answering this by Hilary, who was once asked to name three pieces to represent her career, the first of which is Nothing Forgotten. I think I understand why – it’s an Adirondack piece, it’s a chamber instrumental piece and it’s beautifully crafted."

"In terms of a larger, orchestral piece that spoke of her Japanese experience, Hilary nominated From Afar. She felt that this had been particularly well performed by a South Korean orchestra, the KBS Symphony, and it was also a breakthrough moment for her when BBC NOW played it in 2000."

"Finally, Hilary listed The Moor – I think this lies at the heart of it all really. It’s got that sense of improvisation, allusions to plainsong and psalms and hymns, and demonstrates a complete unity between poet and composer which came over so strongly when the BBC Singers performed it recently."

"To Hilary's list I would like to add In the First Spinning Place. We really need to include a concerto (I think the concerti are some of her strongest works) and this gives us Dylan Thomas as well. It also gives us the saxophone for which she wrote so effectively. This piece edges out some of the others for me in the unconventional way in which she treats Thomas’s poem Fern Hill – the beautiful phrases she abstracts from it for the movement titles and the way the whole work is constructed, its ebb and flow and bravura. It really proves what she could do as an instrumental writer and as an orchestrator."

"For the last choice, I would like to nominate the string quartet And the Snow Did Lie because I know how proud she was of having written this. As with her choral music, it took her a while to feel confident in the medium. It also marked a change in direction in terms of the importance of a visual stimulus. Imagery was becoming more important to her, and she loved the set of lithographs by André Bergeron which she owned and which inspired the score."

The Art of Music: Branding the Welsh Nation by Peter Lord & Rhian Davies is available from Parthian Books

▶ Composer of the Month: Hilary Tann

▶ Composer of the Month

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