• Elizabeth Maconchy
  • The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1978)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Stephen Wilkinson and the William Byrd Singers

  • alto fl/vla/hp
  • SATB
  • 16 min

Programme Note

Great Poetry does not always lend itself to musical setting, but much of the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, whom I regard as a very great poet, does to me suggest- almost demand- music. I have set three of his most lyrical poems- ‘The Starlight Night’, ‘Peace’ and ‘The May Magnificat’ for soprano and chamber orchestra, and more recently ‘Pied Beauty’ and ‘Heaven Haven’ for chorus and brass. But of all his poems the one that has haunted me most vividly, and which seems to me to cry out for music, is ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’. When Stephen Wilkinson asked me for a work for his William Byrd Singers, it was a welcome opportunity to make a setting of it for voices with alto flute, viola and harp.

Much has been written about Hopkins’s ‘sprung rhythm’, both by himself and by later commentators, but another rhythmical quality of his verse, very important for musical setting, seems to have gone almost unnoticed. This is the variety of pace- of tempi- within a poem, and particularly this poem. There are lines that hurry forward, propelled by an almost aggressive alliteration, followed by lines of slowly drawn out syllables. And, of course, in music the two things can happen at the same time- something music can do that words alone cannot.

The St Winefred’s Well of Hopkins’s poem is, I am sure, one with a spring bubbling up into a little pool (not a bucket –and-chain affair). The watery music of the spring and the echoes sounding from the rocks round the well have suggested the musical ideas: as in the poem, the echoing of voices chimes all through the piece.

THE LEADEN ECHO introduces these two elements at once- the watery sounds and the echoing of the women’s intertwining voices. The men enter with more sinister words ‘O no, there’s none’, and the women affirm ‘No, nothing can be done to keep back beauty from vanishing away’. THE LEADEN ECHO ends ‘So the beginning to despair, despair, despair’; but a solo soprano voice answers ‘spare’, leading to THE GOLDEN ECHO, with its happier mood- ‘Somewhere, elsewhere, I do know such a place’. The ideas contrast, combine, and intermingle, now racing along, now lingering, while echoes chime through the texture all the way. Finally the voices recede into the distance: ‘follow, follow, we follow-yonder, yonder, yonder’.

This piece was commissioned by the William Byrd Singers with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The first performance was given by the William Byrd Singers with members of the Lontano Ensemble and conducted by Stephen Wilkinson on 25 November 1978.

Elizabeth Maconchy

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