• pf/vn.vc
  • 9 min
    • 6th November 2021, Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Shelter Island, NY, United States of America
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Programme Note

Winner of the 2006 International Robert Helps Composition Competition.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad's piano trio My Fleeting Angel (2006), which won her the $10,000 Robert Helps Prize and a residency at the University of South Florida, is one of her best- known pieces.It is based on a fairly complex short story by Sylvia Plath entitled The Wishing Box about a husband and wife with entirely different dream-lives. The husband, Harold, incessantly has colourful, inventive, pleasant and significant-seeming dreams both while asleep and in waking reverie. The wife, Agnes, used to have a fertile dream-life as a child but now dreams only infrequently and always ominously. Harold’s delight in his dreams comes to infuriate and alienate her and she declines into a life of sleepless depression, eventually killing herself with an overdose. The ‘wishing box’ of the title was a device from her childhood dreams that granted whispered wishes if its handle was turned, and in death it seems that she has returned to the dream-country where the wishing-boxes grew on trees, and where she waltzed with a ‘dark, red-caped prince’.

My Fleeting Angel is patterned in three fairly short movements reflecting three junctures in the story. The first movement evokes one of Harold’s dreams in which he sees a desert of reds and purples, the grains of sand like rubies and sapphires, through a remarkably atmospheric use of ‘colour-harmony’, with the strings’ chords based on a pedal G standing for red and the E flat tonality of the piano part conveying the deep blues and purples of sapphires. Lusingando (coaxing, caressing) is a frequent expression-mark for this music, which stands as a brief, vibrant foray into the realm of Scriabin’s or Messiaen’s synaesthesia, and the melancholy sound of the cello’s harmonics, in octave unison with the violin, is a motif that will recur later.

Essentially the movement is a prelude to the central, scherzo-like Allegro spiritoso, which begins with a scurrying introduction but soon evolves a frequently recurring tremolo-like figure that is intended to represent the sound of the wishing box’s handle being turned. The movement becomes a headlong, exciting moto perpetuo in constantly-changing (Bulgarian) rhythms, building eventually to a grandioso climax and then subsiding into quietness with a hint of the waltz-rhythm that will dominate the Allegretto eleganza finale. Here a sinuous and, indeed, elegant waltz-tune eels its way across a dream dance-floor in piano octaves, with a dance accompaniment from the strings, and then in counterpoint with them. The eerie harmonics return, this time in the violin. The waltz turns darker and the harmonics become adjuncts to its rhythm, the dance eventually expiring in a playfully spectral coda.

Frances-Hoad has suggested that this waltz-finale represents ‘the confusion of emotions’ that a reader is likely to experience on coming to the end of Plath’s story, and certainly its atmosphere is ambiguous and intriguing, both bittersweet and almost humorously macabre. But I think we would conclude, having listened to My Fleeting Angel, that a knowledge of the story is not absolutely necessary to enjoying a work at once so phantasmagorical and tightly-structured, so assured in all its aspects and hinting so elegantly at a complex web of experience.

© Malcolm MacDonald