• Owain Park
  • Footsteps (2016)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Tenebrae with generous assistance from Arts Council England, PRS for Music Foundation, Santander Discovery Foundation Grant, Britten-Pears Foundation and The Fidelio Charitable Trust

  • unaccompanied mixed choirs
  • 17 min

Programme Note

The narrative for Footsteps is a fusion of texts by eight different authors, five of whom contribute to the introduction of the work. On Leaving by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda is a sonnet reflecting on the author’s moving from Cuba to Spain; “Sea Pearl” could be describing the author’s homeland, but here, when fused with “the wanderer’s guiding star” (E. Brontë) alludes to the moon. Longer phrases which rise and fall in the upper parts of the semi-chorus are imitated more quickly in the main choir.

After the introduction, the narrative changes to the first person. The Sun originates from Sanskrit Poetry, compiled around 1100 by a Buddhist scholar, Vidyakara, and was written up to 400 years earlier. After an energetic first set of statements from the main choir, the first line, “I praise the disk of the rising sun” is passed around the upper voices in quick motion as “Where every bird is bold to go” (E. Dickinson) is sung to slower rhythms in the lower voices. There is a sudden change in texture for “The foreigner before he knocks”, as the movement stops and two parts are left hovering above, highlighting the last line of the stanza, “Must thrust the tears away” in the lower voices. An alto soloist introduces the “Time to leave” section, accompanied by a drone in the lower voices. The simple, direct melody is imitated by the semi-chorus, joined by high sopranos sirening above the tune.

The semi-chorus now take over and lead us into Autumn. The traveller is slightly disturbed by the wind (reflected later in the piece by the fallen cherry blossoms), being alone and exposed to the elements. After this gentle lull, a mini-fugue inspired by Walton opens the first verse of Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Year’s Awakening. References to the “pilgrim track” and “belting zodiac” give this forward momentum, which only later becomes questioning. Repeating rhythms on a single pitch return, around which three-part harmonies weave.

Then, sudden outbursts represent rays of sunshine bursting through clouds. The repeating rhythms come to rest by heading downwards to reside on a mixed major-minor chord. As Gabriel Crouch notes about Path of Miracles, “The insistent discords of the second movement reflect...the hardships of the road”. These chords are briefly used in a short quotation before reverting back on “tinct of spring”. The questioning lone countertenor concludes this section, with an unresolved melody that contains the opening of the main fugue theme. The semi-chorus bid “Farewell” to Autumn with an interjection comprising sad, romantic harmonies.

The devil’s interval of a tritone outlines the melody for the next section, as the wind returns. Counterpoint builds up from the low basses, capturing the weather in flowing compound time quavers. A more gentle section ensues, with lilting leaves gently falling, as the tritone transforms from a pivot point to the raised fourth in a major scale. The chords are not grounded as root positions, and so the harmony is not allowed to completely settle until the open fifth on “midnight”. As the moonlight shines on St. Paul’s, the melody reflects the earlier part of the work, with the interval of a seventh prominent alongside distant non-harmony notes.

The second “Time to leave” section is in a lower key than the first, and is initially sung by a bass soloist over a low bass drone. The semi-chorus repeat the material, with the sopranos extending upwards before retreating to a new harmony for “The cherry blossoms”, a particularly evocative and beautiful text, tinged with sadness. Four-part chords with a descending contour in the main choir are refuted by an upward-moving soprano soloist, who concludes with her own rendition of the main theme.

As the work begins to come to a close, the music for the “Holy paths” pays homage to John Tavener and his work The Veil of the Temple – its scale and scope with unrelenting praise for the divine. A little of his language features in the climax of this section, as parallel chords with consonant scalic melodies form the bedrock around which flow quavers in contrary motion. Unworldly harmonies for “ceilings of diamonds” lead into the recapitulation, as the “pearl bowers” transform to the “sea pearl”. As the opening ideas return, the sonorities are slightly different with the use of D major in addition to the white notes of C major. A lyrical soprano melody over the top of the previous texture leads into the final few phrases, with the harmony evoking the unfinished dominant seventh as the footsteps are left continuing.

© Owain Park, 2017

Texts by
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Emily Brontë
John Burroughs
Emily Dickinson
Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda
William Sydney Graham
Thomas Hardy
Sir Walter Raleigh
Princess Shikishi

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