3 o Ganeuon Byrion (3 Little Welsh Songs) 5' - baritone / soprano and piano
Cane fires from the cabin of a plane 5' - mezzo-soprano and piano
3 o Englynion y Misoedd (3 Calendar Songs) 7' baritone and piano
A Moment 1.5' - duet for mezzo-soprano, baritone and piano
I absolutely love writing vocal music — there’s something so incredible about fusing music and words that excites me beyond compare. Great art rarely exists in a vacuum; writing songs allows me collaborate with poets and writers (alive and not!), singers, instrumentalists, directors… the list goes on. It’s a chance to learn from, discuss with, and challenge creatives across many different fields. For me, song-writing is a sort of ‘compositional escapism’ — an opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes, to conjure a new landscape, and to read further and wider than before.
The tenor Peter Pears wrote in 1965 that a successful song composer “should court [their] text, designing a musical structure compliant to [their] purpose while according the words the care of the poet whose art they first were” — I aim for each setting of a poem or text to be bespoke and tailor-made to suit the original text, whilst leaving room for both my own personal expression, and that of the performers too.
Listed here are some vocal pieces of mine that I’m particularly fond of, with an included commentary of my personal interpretation of the text, a brief introduction to the music, and any details about the work that give some contextual insight. If you would like to find out more, or just have a chat about song-writing, text and music, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
3 o Ganeuon Byrion (3 Little Songs)
for baritone & piano / soprano & piano 5'
The first performance was given by baritone James Atkinson and pianist Gamal Khamis at the Ludlow English Song Weekend Preview Concert in February 2020 at a private concert in Marylebone. I am so grateful to James and Gamal for bringing these songs to life, especially since this was James’ first time singing in Welsh — it was a triumph!
I prepared a new version of the songs for soprano Esyllt Thomas and pianist Zoe Smith for the National Eisteddfod 2020’s online #encore series, which is the recording I’ve included in this article. Hearing the songs performed by Esyllt and Zoe was so inspiring for me, and I look forward to writing something new especially for them soon.
The three texts are englynion, perhaps the Welsh-language equivalent of the haiku - these poems are very compact, each only four lines long, but they are packed full of vivid imagery and beautiful symbolism. Each poem features a shared rhyme at the end of each line, and the language is very playful with words smashed together to form new ideas.
The first song, ‘Autumn Colours’ features a very slow moving, treacle-like harmonic soundscape; close harmony in the piano overlaps with the voice in a warm interplay…the cycloramic shifts in colour of the leaves, the sky and the land represented in subtle shifts of tonality. The voice briefly glows at the peak of song, a strong fanfaric statement as the ‘last flickers of the fire’ fade away.
In the second song, ‘The Hawk’, the voice floats on top of a spiky piano accompaniment — much like the hawk twisting through the thorns. After a scurrilous introduction, the music broadens; the piano embodies the velocity of the bird, whilst the voice builds to the climax of the piece. After a percussive crash in the piano, the final words of the piece toll out over a winter landscape; ‘there is no song where he lands’.
The final song, ‘Twilight’, is the most intimate. The piano maintains a familiar, cradle-song pattern throughout, gently rocking back and forth whilst bells toll high and low in the background. The voice describes the silence of the misty scene in the same lullaby manner, affected with lilting, longing melismas. At the end of the song, the swaying motif fades out as if slowly pulling out of focus.
What I most enjoyed about writing these songs was creating an immediate atmosphere that suited each text. Since the poems are only four lines long, I had to be extremely economical with musical material else the work would become thematically bloated. What emerges is a 'spinning out' of simple gestures, almost as though the sound shapes are refracted through a multi-faceted crystal.
1. Lliwiau’r Hydref
Liwgar deg lygredigaeth,
Tywyn ôl y tân a aeth,
Amryliw wisg marwolaeth.
- Henry Lloyd (Ap Hefin)
2. Yr Hebog
Hed hebog fel dart heibio, -
a'i wguf Lygaid yn tanbeidio ;
Drwy y drain y dyry dro:
Nid oes gân lle disgynno.
- Eliseus Williams (Eifion Wyn)
Y nos dywell yn distewi, - caddug
Yn cuddio Eryri,
Yr haul yng ngwely'r heli,
A'r lloer yn ariannu'r lli.
- Walter Davies (Gwalter Mechain)
1. Autumn colours
Colourful, beautiful corruption —
Blush of death,
The last flickers of fire are gone,
Multicoloured robes of death.
2. The Hawk
A hawk flies past like a dark — with his
Glowering eyes burning fiercely;
Through the thorns he twists and turns
There is no song where he lands.
Silence brought by the dark night
Eryri’s mountains veiled by mist:
The sun in the bed of brine,
The moon silvering the water.
Cane fires from the cabin of a plane
3 songs for mezzo-soprano and piano 5'
3 o Englynion y Misoedd
3 calendar songs for baritone and piano 7'