Journeymen - Michael Stimpson (RVRCD76)

String Quartet No. 1 (Robben Island)

I.          Chorale 1
II.          Agitated and violent
III.         Lilting, but with edge: Restless, quasi-dance
IV.        With some panic: From afar
V.         Majestically: Joyous 
VI.        Chorale 2

Robben Island had for a number of years been a symbol of great suffering and suppression of basic human rights. But when I came to visit the island around Christmas of 1998 (after the breakdown of apartheid), having already begun this quartet, I realized that Robben Island was also a place of beauty and mystery, and of course immense inspiration. I appreciated also that it is simply a piece of land, only temporarily abused since its formation.

So the quartet needed to reflect characteristics as well as events, and thus the piece emerges only gradually, almost like the island appearing out of the mist.  If it feels uncertain and edgy, then all the better. The second movement had a working title of ‘the road from Natal’, where Nelson Mandela was arrested before his final trial. It is violent, a siren wails in places, although on occasion the chasing has odd elements of farce. For the opening of the third movement I had in mind the misery of being transported to the island, tired, battered, and full of fear and trepidation. A later section is marked ‘Restless, quasi-dance’, and this relates to the earlier history of the island - for some time it was a leper colony and I wanted to convey a lifestyle and mental energy that would be so strange and difficult to comprehend by those on the outside. It draws to a close with more reference to modern times, a confrontation of imprisonment and a theoretical slamming of a cell door gives it a dramatic finale. The fourth movement had a working title of ‘isolation’ and I have used pizzicato chords to symbolize a heartbeat that both stops and runs into panic. An equally nervous ‘pacing up and down’ can be heard in the second violin, viola and ‘cello. This movement gives way to a re-emergence of the opening chorale, but this time with a little offbeat, reggae-like rhythm in the pizzicato first violin. Here I had in mind the hub of ‘real-life’ that was so near to the islanders, and yet so far. And then a fifth movement that had a working title of ‘spirit’. Being marked ‘Majestic: Joyous’ it speaks for itself, and is a celebration of one of the major successes of the twentieth century, the breakdown of apartheid. The work draws to a close with an ornamented version of the original chorale, but this time it finishes with a closer reference to the national anthem of New South Africa.

In programme notes I usually shy away from too much structural analysis, I think I have been worn down by the dominance that the ‘analysis of what someone has done’ takes over the ‘act of creation’. But I will mention here the opening motif of the national anthem of South Africa. I first hid this in a second subject of a Sonatina for guitar (Ricordi) some years ago. It was no coincidence that I settled on this on the afternoon that Mr. Mandela walked from Robben Island. I later experimented with it in a student piece for orchestra, and both of these gave me the preparation for this larger scale work. The rising third of the opening to the national anthem forms the basis of this quartet, as does the three-note response. But in this piece it is not the structure that is important, it is the human element. Yes, this is a tribute to one man, but to the spirit of many others as well.

Michael Stimpson

A Walk Into War
(Tenor and piano quintet)
(Words: Laurie Lee)

  1. Introduction and Departure
  2. Southampton
  3. London
  4. Vigo
  5. Dance
  6. Sunstroke/ To the Sea
  7. Execution
  8. Bombing
  9. Conflict and Home

A Walk Into War for tenor and piano quintet is based on two books by the English writer, Laurie Lee. The first, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is an account of Laurie Lee leaving his village in Gloucester, walking through Wiltshire and the South before working a year in London and travelling to Spain.  Laurie Lee left Spain at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, but returned to fight some time later. The account of this is given in a later book, A Moment of War.

This piece has three main sections. The first, an English phase, is concerned with Laurie Lee’s departure from his village, making his living by busking, and working in London. Laurie Lee was just 19 years old (‘still soft at the edges’) and these years were the 1930’s; hence at times there exists a layer of apprehension to the lighter quality.  A Spanish section sets some of the dominant aspects of his long walk through Spain, a period of his book which captures so beautifully his own youth and naivety, and the ‘unspoilt’ feeling of Spain at this time. The third and final portion of this piece takes as its basis his return to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Subsequent analysis has brought some controversy to Laurie Lee’s account but his writing still remains one of the most evocative and important descriptions of this period of history, not least because he writes so easily about the contradictions of war - optimism and desolation, organization and confusion.

I have constructed this libretto from the two books and with the exception of one or two minor alterations all the phrases are preserved in their original form.  Some deliberate musical references have been made, chosen because their première occurred in the year in question. These include Vaughan Williams and  Walton, as well as allusion to Spanish structures of particular regions.  A Walk Into War  was commissioned by the Allegri String Quartet and supported by Southern Arts for its première at the Salisbury Festival 2002 with guest artists  Paul Agnew (tenor) and Daniel Tong (piano).

Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee was born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in 1914, and was educated at Slad village school and Stroud Central School. At the age of nineteen he walked to London and then travelled on foot through Spain, where he was trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War. He later returned by crossing the Pyrenees, as described in his book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. In 1950 he married Catherine Polge and they had one daughter.
Laurie Lee published four collections of poems: The Sun My Monument (1944), The Bloom of Candles (1947), My Many-Coated Man (1955) and Pocket Poems (1960). His other works include The Voyage of Magellan (1948), a verse play for radio; A Rose for Winter (1955), which records his travels in Andalusia; The Firstborn (1964); I Can't Stay Long (1975), a collection of his occasional writing; and Two Women (1983). He also wrote three bestselling volumes of autobiography: Cider with Rosie (1959), which has sold over six million copies worldwide, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) and A Moment of War (1991), which are also published by Penguin in a single volume entitled Red Sky at Sunrise (1992).
Laurie Lee died in May 1997. In its obituary the Guardian wrote, 'He had a nightingale inside him, a capacity for sensuous, lyrical precision', and the Independent praised him as 'one of the great writers of this century whose work conjured up a world of earthy warmth and beauty'.

Copyright © Penguin Books

A Walk into War detailed notes

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