• Emily Howard
  • Threnos (2015)
    (for two voices)

  • Peters Edition Limited (World)

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust through an Artist in Residence grant.

First performed on 1st November 2019 by the BBC Singers at St Giles Cripplegate, London.

  • 2voc
  • Voice, Voice
  • 7 min

Programme Note

In this extraordinary three-part song for bass and soprano voices, Howard creates one sonic character from two voices, developing a joint musical language that explores the extreme registral differences of the two voices, often turning them upside down, in order to express emotional drama.   

Says Howard,  
‘I was thinking of Shakespeare’s line: “two distincts, division none” [The Phoenix and the Turtle]: I’ve been fascinated by the sound of the falsetto bass above the soprano; when the two voices are close to one another they sound tortured, and then this tension relaxes as they move into their own natural registers.’ 

There are no lyrics in Threnos, but the singers intone an irregular rotation of vowel sounds. Part One is marked ‘a violent upheaval, fast, urgent, intense, continuous’: both singers intone pitches that bend up and down (by a quarter to three-quarters of a tone), contrasted with utterances flaring with vibrato of varying intensity in music ‘without measure’, the singers deciding on the precise length of notes. In Part One, urgent voices clash and careen in a rush of alarms, tension building with the slow winding-up and unwinding of microtones, pure tones so strikingly contrasted with florid vibrations, we could be hearing four voices.

In Part Two, now marked ‘less urgent, less intense’, a mournful purity seeps in, the voices posing plaintive questions in contrary motion. In Part Three, barlines and a naked consonance arrive, the bass singing above the soprano in organum-like unity, a shared rhythmic flourish suggestive of hope. It’s as if we have finally arrived at the beginning of music. After an intense dissonance, each voice returns to its farthest corner. 

Helen Wallace © 2016


Threnos recorded by Lucy Goddard, Simon Whiteley (NMC)


Extracts from Score



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