• Giles Swayne
  • The Owl and the Pussycat II (2003)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the IAPS Orchestra Trust

  • piano
  • SSAA
  • 6 min
  • Edward Lear
  • English

Programme Note

Giles Swayne: The owl & the pussycat op.90

Edward Lear’s poems have always fascinated and me: his brand of the absurd (an entirely necessary escape from his unremittingly hard life) presents the composer with almost infinite poetic possibilities – the dream-world is so much richer and freer than the day-to-day. I first set this poem when I was a student – for tenor, wind quintet and piano. That version, though pleasant in a bland and Brittenish way, in no way caught Lear’s wit and wisdom. My second version, written in 1993, was scored for narrator (who also sings the Owl’s love-song) with a small group of instruments. That version was first performed in Accra, at a concert in the house of the European Union’s delegate to Ghana.

So here I am again, in somewhat different surroundings, setting this extraordinary little drama to music. The new version is scored for treble voices and piano – not a rum-ti-tum piano accompaniment, but a proper solo part with flashy bits. The voices are divided into two groups: about two-thirds make up the Chorus, which functions as narrator. The remaining third are the Semichorus, which represents the protagonists – Owl, Pussycat and Pig. Each group is divided into two parts (upper and lower voices).

The piano introduction sets the scene with a rolling movement which makes even me feel slightly seasick. The pea-green boat sets sail over a glassy sea; the Owl clears his feathery old throat and pours forth his love-song to the accompaniment of "plom, plom, plom” while the Pussycat miaows in coy delight; they sail away for a year and a day (seasickness again) and arrive at the land where the Bong-tree grows, accompanied by an impressively avant-garde explosion from the piano; we hear the Bong-fruit chiming gently like bells in the tropical breeze; we hear the grunting of Sir Pig (which should be executed with verisimilitude and relish); when he hands over his nose-ring (with the words "Oi will!” – he is an Old Kent Road body-piercing pig) Owl and Pussycat dance away with a waltzing send-up of poor old Mendelssohn’s Wedding-march; and as they dance by the light of the moon, the waltz works its way up the piano until it falls off the end – and the end of the keyboard is of course the end of the piece. Happy endings for Owl and Pussycat: I hope the capital of Wessex will be happy with it.