As part of our Composer of the Month feature we asked Rhian Samuel to choose five pieces which might serve as an introduction to her music.
The one question that has dogged my life is, ‘Do you want to be known as ‘a woman composer’ or simply ‘a composer’?’. The answer is generally expected to be the latter, but I say that it’s pretty obvious that I am a woman and that to deny it would imply there’s something wrong with it, so I’m quite happy to be called a ‘woman composer’. My questioners often express surprise at this – sometimes they even ignore my reply! I’ve spent a considerable amount of time exploring the lot of female composers, deciding that our viewpoint is important (after all, it represents half the human race). It’s really taken my lifetime to bring many influential people around to this idea!
The pieces I’ve chosen to talk about are Clytemnestra, Tirluniau, A Garland for Anne, The Moon and I and Cwmdonkin Songs. Am I possibly allowed another one? If so, I’d like to include Little Duos for oboe and cor anglais. . .
Clytemnestra (1994) 27'
solo sop – 184.108.40.206. – 220.127.116.11. – bass guitar – timp – xyl – vib – mar – hp – perc (2) – st
I The Chain of Flame LISTEN
II Lament for his Absence LISTEN
III Agamemnon’s Return -- IV The Deed LISTEN
Commissioned by the BBC
I wrote Clytemnestra for soprano and orchestra to a commission from the BBC in 1994, and chose Della Jones as the soloist. Della was someone I’d known from youth orchestra – she was legendary for her musical ear. She was an opera star and also had a regal bearing – just what I needed for Clytemnestra. How did I choose this theme? Well, my son Gareth was studying the Oresteia for O-level (back then!). I read his paperback text and the introduction it contained. Aeschylus, the author, presented Clytemnestra as a complicated character: one who both loved her husband and hated him for the fact he’d sacrificed her only daughter for ‘fair winds for his fleet to sail to war’. When he returned from battle she killed him in revenge. The preface described her simply as a crazy, demented woman but I tried to show Clytemnestra as the grieving mother, as Aechylus had done. Sadly, for the first performance in Cardiff, there was only one review in the next day’s (British) national papers; this critic proclaimed I’d ‘failed to show what an evil woman Clytemnestra was’. (He didn’t like the New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, that I’d just co-edited, either, calling it ‘sexist’.) So Clytemnestra was put on the back burner. It wasn’t revived until 2016, when BBCNOW performed it again, with Ruby Hughes, soprano, at the Bangor New Music Festival, and it was later broadcast. Ruby – the amazing Ruby – made it her mission to get the piece recorded, and so it was, its CD gaining a huge number of glowing reviews and getting short-listed for a Gramophone Award in 2020. It’s been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at least nine times since then.
A Garland for Anne (2003) 10'
Written for the 70th birthday of the poet Anne Stevenson
I wrote the piano piece, A Garland for Anne, as a 70th-birthday tribute to Anne Stevenson, my poet friend, sadly now deceased, whose poetry I’ve set innumerable times and to which I’ve referred even more frequently in titles of instrumental pieces. A Garland for Anne consists of five pieces, ‘The Therapy of Moonight’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘On going deaf’, ‘Morning’ and ‘Four-and-a-half Dancing Men’. These are quite short and are of different challenging standards. The poems are all autobiographical – ‘Four-and-a-half Dancing Men’, for instance, refers to the paper cut-outs made by Anne’s young grandson: he proceeded to tear off the leg of one of his dancing men, so the music for this movement is very dance-like but rather irregular! The first piece, ‘The Therapy of Moonight’, was recently placed on the ABRSM Grade VII syllabus and I was delighted to get comments on it from far afield; I was even asked to give a talk to Chinese piano teachers about playing it. Some of them seemed never to have come across a piece written in any kind of ‘modern’ style – I referred these people to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos as a starting point. But I was touched at how willing they were to try new material so different from anything they’d come across before. The piece is now on Youtube in many varied performances and has had thousands of hits. Wonderful!
Tirluniau (2000) 24'
18.104.22.168. – 22.214.171.124. – hp – perc – str
Commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Promenade Concerts
Tirluniau (Landscapes) for full orchestra was commissioned by the BBC for the Millennium Proms. It’s a four-movement work, with a slow third movement and a fast last movement. The titles of each are places on Wales and Scotland and it’s meant to be evocative of landscapes. The first movement, which is built on lots of little fast-moving fragments, refers to the lichen-covered cromlech at Capel Ifan in Pembrokeshire, the second, with its faintly Scottish, rhythmic, ‘scotch snaps’, to the Old Man of Storr, on Skye. The third and fourth movements describe places near my home. My mother (Aberdare born and bred) taught at Tywyn School before the war and Castell y Bere, the ‘last Welsh castle’, in a beautiful spot below Cader Idris, was a ruin she often visited and later talked about. This music is quite sentimental, pastoral even. ‘Lights in the Bay’ evokes the view from my house on the hills above Aberdyfi, where I can see all the way down the Cardigan coast. At night time, the twinkling lights are a sight to behold. It’s very fast moving and requires brilliant playing, which it received from BBCNOW and from the orchestra of the RWCMD where it was played several years later.
The Moon and I (1994) (Tabitha Hayward and Anne Stevenson) 15'
medium voice and piano
I Moonrise (Anne Stevenson) LISTEN
II Philomela (Tabitha Hayward) LISTEN
III The Moon (Tabitha Hayward) LISTEN
IV The Moon and I (Tabitha Hayward) LISTEN
Commissioned by the Ludlow English Song Weekend
The Moon and I is a song cycle to poems by Anne Stevenson and Tabitha Hayward. It’s one of about 20 song-cycles I’ve now written, many of them to texts by Anne. Tabby is a poet I discovered about 10 years ago, while she was still an undergraduate at Oxford University. The theme of ‘the moon’ is one that I’ve always been fascinated by. My early The Hare in the Moon (a Japanese folk tale) was written in the States and has become one of my most frequently sung pieces; others are the song-cycle, Moon and Birds (Stevenson and Emily Dickinson) and the solo baritone piece, Moon over Maenefa (Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Moon and I was commissioned by the Ludlow English Song Weekend and performed there by Katharine Rudge and Iain Burnside; it was recently repeated at the Machynlleth Festival by another fine singer, Lotte Betts-Dean, with the Welsh accompanist, Jâms Coleman. The last piece is very tonal and rather like a folk song, while the second is not about the moon at all, but sung by Philomel of the Greek myth. I included it because I liked it: it was quite different from the others, and thus Philomel became the ‘I’ of the title.
Cwmdonkin Songs (2023) c. 10'
medium voice and piano
I For as long as forever is
II The Clown in the Moon
III Mr Waldo's Song
Cwmdonkin Songs is one of my most recent pieces. It was premiered last November at York as part of the Dylan Thomas project, created to coincide with the publication of a new biography of the poet. Five composers took part. I chose three contrasting poems by Thomas, a quite complicated one from his middle period, ‘For as Long as Forever is’, a very early, sentimental one, ‘Clown in the Moon’, and a rollicking, end-of the pier song from Under Milk Wood, ‘Mr Waldo’s Song’. I’d never set any Dylan Thomas poetry previously and became fascinated by the poet, particularly his relationship with the Welsh language of which he professed no knowledge. But this isn’t exactly true and, anyway, I feel strongly that he was affected by its distinctive sonorities. (Both his parents were fluent Welsh-speakers.) I’m currently writing an essay on the Dylan Thomas Project for a book to be published soon. I’m a bilingual person and feel that my interest in poetry, especially, derives from my interest in language itself. Hence so many vocal and choral pieces!
Little Duos for Oboe and Cor Anglais (2020) c. 7'30
I Morning Glow
LISTEN (at 8'39")
I’m adding another piece here because I don’t want to give the impression that I care about vocal music more than instrumental. While singing is a major part of my background (as is conducting choirs) I also played the oboe in youth orchestra and the obligatory – for any musician – piano and I love woodwind music in particular. I’ve written three sets of Little Duos – for two clarinets, two bassoons and oboe and cor anglais. My inspiration for all of them has come from Bartok’s two-violin duos as well as Birtwistle’s Duets for Storab, though I don’t think they sound like either of these sets of pieces. What I enjoy is the interplay. While I desisted for a long time from writing for the solo oboe (I felt too close to the instrument), the Tailleferre Ensemble, who’ve been great supporters of my music, inspired me to write the duos for oboe and cor anglais. It’s a lovely challenge to write for two instruments that are close yet also different, so I tried to bring out these characteristics. The first movement, ‘Morning Glow’, is quite lyrical, while the last movement, ‘Sentries’, was inspired by a pair of male pheasants strutting around outside my window, showing off to each other. The Tailleferres have now put the three pieces on disc and the middle movement, ‘Whispers’, seems to have become very popular. The background is a ticking sound that passes from one instrument to the other, while there’s also a melody that begins by exploiting the low sound of the cor. Gradually the ticking sound on the two separate instruments overlaps and then dies out. It’s basically fun.