Dolbadarn Castle (Castell Dolbadarn)

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Length / year

12' - 2004


cello and harp

Performance history

West Wales Arts Centre, Fishguard
12th March 2004
Nicola Thomas - cello
Elinor Bennett - harp

World Premiere
National Library of Wales
12th June 2004
Nicola Thomas - cello
Elinor Bennett - harp

Programme note

At first sight the commission to write a short work for cello inspired by the painting of Dolbadarn Castle by J.M.W.Turner seemed interesting and relatively straightforward. It certainly proved interesting but the realization of the work was not as easy as it first appeared it might be. In particular, I was keen to reflect the structure as well as the atmosphere of the painting. Turner is, of course, arguably the greatest of British landscape painters but his work is already atmospheric and impressionistic. Although music can well amplify these qualities I was keen to relate to the subject matter on an additional, more structural, level.

What this level might be was not immediately clear. The clue came, however, at an exhibition of another painter – a superbly curated exhibition of the work of Vuillard, which I was fortunate enough to see in Montreal. As well as preparatory drawings for paintings there were sometimes two or three versions on the same subject. Although there is only one painting of Dolbadarn Castle by Turner I decided to take this approach - drawn from the visual arts - in writing the music.

I began with a set of thirty six chords like a sketch or outline for the composition. Having divided the chords into three equal groups, I composed a study with first twelve chords. I then replicated the exact rhythms, dynamics and all musical features of the first section using notes derived from the other two sets of chords to create three separate ‘studies’ to be performed as a whole without a break. Though this sounds like quite a technical approach the result is, I believe, clear to the listener. Each section begins quietly in a low register, builds to a climax and dies away - like an image seen from dawn to dusk. Three pictures of the castle emerge, each with the same essential features but viewed, as it were, at different times and in different weather conditions. The beginning and ending of each of these ‘images’ can be clearly perceived. The modal nature of the music also helps to define the qualities of both the piece and the painting - simultaneously, sombre, tranquil and majestic.

Because of the particular nature of the musical construction, I was very keen that the music for the two instruments be as dramatic and idiomatic as possible, and I am grateful to Elinor Bennett (harp) and Nicola Thomas (cello) for their help in the final editing of the piece.