Under Alter’d Skies (2017)

For Tenor and Piano   20 minutes

These three intense settings for mezzo-soprano and piano of poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca (in English translation by Gwynne Edwards) were composed for Buddug Verona James and premiered by her throughout 2011.When James Gilchrist invited me to contribute a companion to Dichterliebe as part of his ‘Schumann and the English Romantics’ project, I searched in vain for an English poet who could match Heine’s brevity: several of the songs in Schumann’s cycle are no more than a couple of quatrains in length.  The mercurial contrasts and changes of mood are part of the cycle’s allure.  However, I was also searching for a narrative counterpart to complement an underlying theme of lost love in the Schumann.  Written and published during Heine’s lifetime,Tennyson’s In Memoriam (originally entitled The Way of the Soul) explores this theme; but while Heine’s poet only dreams that his beloved lies in her grave, Tennyson’s long poem, written over sixteen years, takes its inspiration from the real death of his dearest friend.

Tennyson met the promising young poet Arthur Hallam in 1828 when they were both students at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Hallam was eighteen, Tennyson two years older.  During their three years of intense friendship, Hallam fell in love with Tennyson’s sister Emily, and they were engaged in 1830.  Then, two years later, while travelling around Europe with his father, Hallam became ill and died in Vienna of a cerebral haemorrage.  He was 22.  His body was sealed in a coffin and sent home to England by sea.

Under Alter’d Skies follows the poet’s journey through grief, setting seven of the one hundred and thirty-three cantos of In Memoriam. The first three songs come from near the beginning of the sequence. Fair Ship appears as canto IX, but may have been the first Tennyson wrote.  In anguish, the poet pictures the ship bearing ‘my lost Arthur’s loved remains’ home to England.  Calm is the Morn (XI) surveys a serene landscape contrasting with the poet’s feelings, and returns to the image of Arthur being borne home: ‘And dead calm in that noble breast/ Which heaves but with the heaving deep.’  Inner turmoil finds outer correspondence in Tonight the winds begin to rise (XV).  From later in the sequence, a ‘doubtful gleam of solace’ appears in With weary steps (XXXVIII).  But there is still bleak disillusion and despair in Be near me (L), and although in Peace, come away (LVII), the poet attempts to turn away from grief,

Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,

One set slow bell will seem to toll

The passing of the sweetest soul

That ever look’d with human eyes.

Only in Thy voice is on the rolling air (CXXX), nearly the last canto of the long poem, does he find a kind of peace, feeling his lost love all around him.

Poems from In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffman, president of the Fondation Hoffman, a Swiss grant-making foundation

First performance: 2nd November 2017, James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbrook (piano), Wigmore Hall, London.