Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed by Laura van der Heijden and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth on 18 May 2023 at City Halls, Glasgow.

Unavailable for performance.

  • vc + 2+pic.2.2.2+cbn/4.2+pictpt.2+btbn.1/timp.2perc/hp/str
  • Cello
  • 18 min

Programme Note

My Cello Concerto is a 20-minute work in three movements played without a break. Tonight’s cellist Laura van der Heijden and I had many discussions about the piece before I began composing it, and it was her idea that the concerto be related in some way to the environment. The work ended up taking inspiration from three disparate aspects of the natural world: the imaginary flight of a swift; phytoplankton (algae) in the ocean; and volcanoes.

As I began to write this concerto, I was coming to the end of a Visiting Research Fellowship in the Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford, where I’d had the privilege of getting to know academics from a wide variety of fields. My time in college had been incredibly productive, and it often felt as if every conversation I had there provided ideas for a new piece. Over coffee one afternoon I asked Professor Thomas Richards, an expert in Evolutionary Genomics, if he could think of any current climate change research that might give me ideas for a cello concerto. He told me about ocean experiments that were aiming to make phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) ingest a greater proportion of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Phytoplankton ‘blooms’ are already responsible for a large percentage of the world’s carbon absorption: these accumulations of microscopic oceanic plants can cover hundreds of square kilometres, and their beautiful green, blue and white swirls can be seen from space. They feed off sunlight and carbon dioxide as they expand, and take carbon with them when they die and sink, to be stored safely on the ocean floor. This incredible natural process inspired the second movement of my concerto, where thinking about how orchestral harmonies might grow, change and fall provided the main musical material.

The Oxford University Natural History Museum has a nesting site for European swifts in its tower, and this colony has been the subject of a research study since May 1947, making it one of the longest continuous studies of a single bird species in the world. I became fascinated by this awe-inspiring bird: once fledged, it spends the vast majority of its life on the wing, only stopping to breed. In Charles Foster’s 2021 book The Screaming Sky I read an account of a First World War pilot who, flying at night in a full Moon over Vosges, ran into a flock of swifts: ‘black against the white cloud beneath, they seemed motionless. They ignored the plane … space and time had both lost their usual significance; the laws of motion were suspended’. Swifts even sleep on the wing, supposedly closing one eye, and half of their brain, at a time. In my concerto I think of Laura/the cello as a swift, flying over land, water, and through the air. Much of the third movement was inspired by an observation by Robert Macfarlane in his 2013 book The Old Ways that the ‘air must be honeycombed, with transparent tubes down which the swifts were sliding, for surely nothing else could account for the compressed control of their turns’.

The final extramusical spur for this work came from Earth on Fire (2009), a beautiful coffee table book about how volcanoes shape our planet, by photographer Bernhard Edmaier, that I picked up in a charity shop. Vibrant, violent photographs of both active and extinct volcanoes joined the images of tenacious swifts and blooming phytoplankton in my mind, and my concerto gradually took shape, taking an entirely unrealistic, highly anthropomorphised journey of a swift around the globe as its inspiration. The effect that volcanoes have on gravity influenced how the harmony pulls and circles in the first movement. At the central point of my second movement, I imagined a swift circling cathedral-like cooled-lava basalt pillars in slow motion (listen for a repeated chord, with vibraphone and tubular bell). The work ends with my cello/swift being joined by the entire flock, as the Oxford swift colony again returns to roost.

Of course, none of this need matter when listening: my concerto is also inspired by Laura’s wonderful playing, her character and my desire to write a piece that is rewarding to play and listen to. I wanted the Glasgow Season 22/23 Programme 7 work to be replete with soaring melodies, with a slow movement that gives the soloist the opportunity to fully communicate their musicianship, and a finale that joyously showcases their virtuosity. Nevertheless, I hope this account gives an insight into my compositional process, and that you enjoy the premiere of my concerto.
– Cheryl Frances-Hoad


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