Harp Scrapbook (Llyfr Lloffion y Delyn)

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Length / year

22' - 1992

Instrumentation

harp

Performance history

First performance
Gregynog Hall, Powys
1992
Elinor Bennett - harp

London Premiere
Purcell Room, South Bank Centre
17th February 1994
Elinor Bennett - harp

Television Premiere
Aria, S4C (date TBC)
1st January 1998
Elinor Bennett - harp

Programme note

Le Tombeau de Boulez

Vanog

Miami Gondola

Rhythm Study

The Descent of Dumuzi

The Rise of Geshtinanna

The Two Sisters

'Harp Scrapbook' was commissioned by Coleg Telyn Cymru for Elinor Bennett with funds made available by the Welsh Arts Council, and composed between November 1991 and June 1992. Originally intended as three short pieces, it grew in the process of composition to its present form - seven miniatures each with programmatic titles:

1. Le Tombeau de Boulez

The title is a reference to the instrument’s associations with France and specifically to Ravel’s 'Tombeau de Couperin'. While this prelude is a tribute to one of the world’s most gifted living musicians, its title and musical style also comment sardonically on some of the achievements of modernism in art and architecture.

2. Vanog

"The country continues equally dreary and desolate, till upon turning the point of a rock, a scene burst upon the sight with the effect of electricity . . . so sudden, so instant is the transition from savage wilderness to a view romantic in the highest degree. A farmhouse called Vanog is situated on the western bank of the river, enveloped in wood, crowned by a majestic rocky hill . . ."

- L.G. Wood, The Rivers of Wales (1813)

Vanog now lies beneath the waters of man-made Llyn Brianne. The farmhouse being very remote there was no chapel nearby and the two families that lived in the valley used to meet on horseback in the open air for church services. I have imagined this scene in the present day - underwater - with the sound of the horses' hooves approaching and going away and a distorted plainchant, This strange narrative offers a surreal testimony to the environmental tragedy of the reservoir.

3. Miami Gondola

This piece was inspired by seeing a Venetian gondola in the Port of Miami in December of 1991. The weather was warm - 75 degrees - but in the nearby shopping mall were Father Christmases, snow and reindeer. The mall was quite empty. Pan Am had just closed, many thousands of people had lost their jobs and expensive goods were already on offer at sale prices.

The evocation in this piece is not satirical. With the exception of the last two chords (an hallucinogenic, pianissimo 'Oh Yeah!') I have attempted to capture the totally unselfconscious romantic irony of the original scene. This is, after all, reality. Or is it?

4. Rhythm Study

This brief study plays with groups of rhythms in 3's and 2's, syncopations, 3's against 2's and 3's against 4's. In its concentration on rhythmic devices and fast reiterated octaves it presents an unusual, virtuosic but nevertheless idiomatic challenge to the harpist.

5. The Descent of Dumuzi

This piece and the next form a pair. Through the simple musical device of a gradually descending (in the next piece ascending) bass line with commentaries in the upper register, the two compositions suggest a narrative based on Sumerian (Southern Iraq) goddess myths.

Dumuzi, the shepherd king, has grown rich and powerful on the strength of his rational intelligence and aided by the love of the goddess Inanna. In time, Inanna must descend to the lower world where she endures pain and torment. On her return Dumuzi, secure in his worldly position, is indifferent to the suffering she has experienced. In revenge Inanna casts him down to the lower world, ignoring his cries for help and appeals for mercy.

6. The Rise of Geshtinanna

Though Inanna is oblivious to Dumuzi’s pleas, one version of the myth has her earthly sister Geshtinanna intervening on his behalf. She leads him back up to the everyday world where she becomes his friend, companion and equal.

7. The Two Sisters

Gwendoline and Margaret Davies of Gregynog stand in relation to the culture and humanitarian ideals of Wales in the same way that, for example, the Bronte sisters do to English literature. During their lifetime their home was an important centre for conferences, music festivals and housed the renowned Gregynog Press. After their death the house was given to the University of Wales and their priceless collection of paintings to the National Museum.

I spent most of 1984 at Gregynog as Arts Fellow, and indeed, the first performance of most of the pieces in Harp Scrapbook was at Gregynog in July 1992 - hence this tribute. It is not an attempt to depict character but rather to recapture the feeling of peaceful serenity and quiet dignity of the house.

All the pieces of 'Harp Scrapbook' are based on the same set of ascending and descending notes - containing all twelve chromatic notes. Beyond the apparent diversity and varied influences is a personal musical diary with strong integrity and stylistic unity. I wish to express my thanks to Elinor Bennett for her collaboration during the process of composition. Her imaginative response to the work in progress led to valuable suggestions and technical refinements.

'Harp Scrapbook' is dedicated to Alan Cox.