Commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Proms and first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner in the Royal Albert Hall on 10 August 2008.

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  • soprano
  • 28 min

Programme Note

Ted Hughes’s visionary book Gaudete is something of an enigma. Part film scenario, part novel, part poetry collection, it passes through a series of different states and modes of expression, from the hallucinatory prose-poem of the Prologue, through the interconnected narrative poems of the text’s main body, to the Epilogue, which consists of a short prose introduction followed by forty-five short poems – some of the most abstract and dense in Hughes’s entire oeuvre. Despite the relative directness of the narrative section’s style and form, the Epilogue poems – and indeed the book as a whole – do not yield their meanings easily; one might even describe them as abstruse. Their power lies in the ability to communicate, through sudden and powerful images that confront the reader with shocking clarity, the most profound, surprising and elemental propositions: the paradox of man’s synonymy with, and separateness from, nature; the Pantheistic equivalence of nature and God; the necessary violent acts of birth and death, their distinctions blurred into a single, continuous cosmic event.

The poems repeatedly allude to religious rituals, violent events, symbolic animals, and to the quintessential objects of life and nature: blood, sun, sea, mountains, fire, earth, wind, voice, trees.

The language of Gaudete has been criticised for being too heavily loaded, too full of imagery. But Hughes understood that in order to convey the spirit of something ancient, something that could not be understood in everyday human terms, a modernist, complex and sometimes fractured language was appropriate. And why not an archaic style? Because truth is discovered in the unfamiliar. Furthermore, the difficulty of some of the language – with its sudden juxtapositions and gnomic statements and questions – identify whatever truths are discovered as being outside time: universal rather than rooted in some forgotten past or foreign country. The rich, complex imagery of the Gaudete poems gives rise to the feeling that some secret knowledge – albeit a deeply human one – is being passed on. It asks to be decoded, examined from different angles, pulled apart and re-understood.

In a sense, these are the functions of my musical settings from Gaudete. Before beginning work on the piece, I spent several months periodically re-reading and studying the book, finally selecting eight texts, all but one of which are taken from the Epilogue (“Distance blues beyond distance” is extracted from the narrative text, and strikes me as a sort of rupture in the story, hinting at the greater abstraction of the Epilogue). I do not feel it is necessary to outline here the plot of the book – selections from the Epilogue are often published without any explanation of their relationship to the main text of Gaudete – and do not wish to prejudice unduly the listener’s own interpretation of either music or text by reading too much into my selection and ordering of the poems. Suffice it to say that I considered several possible configurations before the musical and poetic flow dictated the current form, and I have not ruled out the possibility that this sequence may be added to at some point in the future. It should also be borne in mind that at the time of writing I have not yet heard the piece (except in my imagination!) and am reluctant to make claims for the effects of my choices until I have had them confirmed! One thing I can say, however, is that I cannot imagine the final text “I said goodbye to earth” being anything other than a closing statement: it is by far the longest text setting and its ‘otherness’ from the rest of the piece should be palpable to the listener.

To outline the piece briefly: there are three long sections or movements, each of which is divided into three or four subsections. The first section begins with a wordless evocation of elements of the prose section of Hughes’s Epilogue, and continues with complete settings of “What will you make of half a man” and “Your tree – your oak” often employing a reduced-size orchestra. In the second section “When the still-soft eyelid sank again” gives rise to an orchestral interlude interposed with the fragments of text “Distance blues beyond distance” and “I saw my keeper/Sitting in the sun”. The third section begins with contrasted settings of “Collision with the earth has finally come” and “The dead man lies, marching here and there”. The latter tumbles into incomprehensibility leading to a short but monolithic (and very loud) meditation on death, which constitutes a tribute to the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, before finally arriving at the song “I said goodbye to earth”.

I would like to express my gratitude to the publisher and copyright holders of the texts for permitting me to set them.

© Stuart MacRae, 2008