Commissioned by The Bach Choir

Unavailable for performance.

  • Bar[Mz] + SATB; 2+pic.2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/
  • SATB
  • Baritone/Mezzo-soprano
  • 20 min

Programme Note

While British people are famously reluctant to discuss the subject of death, I find myself singing about it professionally a great deal. When I was asked by the Bach Choir (of whom I am a patron, and with whom I have sung the St Matthew Passion, for instance, in their iconic Easter week performances on several occasions) to write a piece that would sit alongside Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, it was clear that death would be our focus. The new piece would be performed before the Elgar, a ‘prequel’ of some sort, and would involve the same choral and orchestral forces used by Elgar.

Putting aside any natural feelings of inferiority in comparison with such an iconic and established masterpiece, I noted the interaction between the priest and the chorus that is the first solo moment for the baritone in Elgar’s oratorio and decided to take this as my starting point. Leaving Elgar and Cardinal Newman to explore one soul’s journey into the afterlife from a religious, doctrinal perspective, I wanted to stay with those left behind and examine the loss and grief that remains with the living, people of any faith or no faith at all.

I asked the Bach Choir if any of its members would be willing to talk to me about their personal experiences of bereavement, recent or otherwise. I was overwhelmed by the response, deeply moved by the stories and testimonies that I received. I realized immediately that fashioning some sort of libretto from these personal, tender, honest accounts was beyond me and I was grateful and relieved in equal measure when Rommi Smith, with whom I have collaborated before, agreed to join the project and create the text. She met with members of the Bach Choir and people from within her own immediate networks who shared their experiences of bereavement, as well as palliative care staff and an oncologist – all with much experience of end-of-life care. 

As her conversations progressed, Rommi became aware of references to winter in one of them, which led her to reflect on the seasons as a way of organizing the text. This led her to write four poems that follow the seasonal pattern of the year, starting with the fall of Autumn, sinking into the depths of Winter before lifting into something more positive with Spring and then Summer. Into her text she has woven various elements, tiny threads from her interviews, including, for example, a memory of a children’s book, the rhythms of which she has referred to in the final movement. For my part, I have chosen to add a sound effect that begins and ends the piece; this is from a hospital recovery room, which was specially recorded for me by a choir member. This room is where we wait for death to happen, where we say our goodbyes, and where we leave the body and soul on their final journey. Hence the title – we find ourselves in this piece on the Cusp.

In my own conversation with an end-of-life-care nurse, I asked her what she would want people to take from hearing a performance of Cusp. She, who spends her life dealing with the dying and with the families of the dying, told me what an immense privilege it can be for her to be allowed to share these moments with them. She said that she wished people would have the courage to talk more about death with the people they love; to acknowledge it, plan for it, accept it as part of life. I hope this piece helps people with that conversation.

Roderick Williams
March 2024



What sits at the heart of Cusp is a set of informal research conversations with people about death and dying. Conversations are part of my longstanding practice as a writer. For more than twenty years I have talked with people about what they know, believe and feel and it has informed how I write and understand. Everyone is an expert in what they experience and how they experience the world. 

Why the title Cusp? Cusp describes a transition between two different states; to be ‘on the cusp’ describes being at a moment of change. And, if there is anything death has, personally, taught me, it is that it is one of the greatest bringers of change – literal and metaphorical – that there is. Who are we after a loss? How do we respond to, or fill, the shape of a person’s absence? In what ways does a person ‘return’ to us after their death? These are all questions that were part of those intimate conversation-spaces for this project; spaces in which I felt privileged to listen and then, subsequently, to write in response to The Dream of Gerontius – the iconic and beloved work of Elgar and Cardinal Newman.

What lies behind the text for Cusp are intertextual references to the research conversations and to my reading inspiration throughout the writing process. I was determined that every single person from the Bach Choir, and from my own networks and contacts, who so kindly gave of their time in speaking with me for the benefit of this project, would recognize something of what they shared in the final text. Everything from the references to sweet peas (in Autumn and Summer), to the image of cycling down a hill (in Summer), to the repeated references to cups of tea, owes itself to a story of loss shared with me.

In addition, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 informs the image of dying or ‘yellow leaves’ in Autumn (cast as the season of decline and impending death); my love of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (and his naming of people by their roles within a small community – what better description of a hospital or hospice) informs my text in Winter; and, of course, Cardinal Newman’s text was the ghost text accompanying me, as I wrote alongside it, daunted and inspired. In Cusp, you find reference to various images within The Dream of Gerontius: hands; hearing singing; and Newman’s ‘dip thee in the lake’ in Cusp becomes a more secular, yet animistic image of dipping one’s fingers in the earth to plant new life, as a way to assuage grief. 

I am immensely grateful to Roddy for inviting me to collaborate with him again – and on this precious project for the Bach Choir; it has been a life-affirming process. My deepest thanks and gratitude to the following people for conversations with me about death and dying:

Dr Kate Cardale, consultant oncologist; Katy Preer, palliative care nurse; Amanda Barron, Heather Lloyd and another Bach Choir member who did not wish to be named; JoJo Kelly; Jason Hird, Annette Morris – and to NH, who is braver than she knows.

Rommi Smith
March 2024