• Giles Swayne
  • The silent land (1996)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Phyllis Lee for the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

  • 40-part choir
  • cello
  • 20 min
  • Giles Swayne
  • Christina Rossetti/Dylan Thomas
  • Latin, English

Programme Note

The Silent Land is scored for solo cello and choir in 40 real parts. I have followed the example of Tallis’ Spem in alium by dividing the voices into eight five-part choirs; unlike Tallis, however, who uses the line-up SATBB in all eight choirs, I have varied the choirs as follows:

CHOIRS 1 & 2: SATB + solo Soprano
CHOIRS 3 & 4: SATB + solo Alto
CHOIRS 5 & 6: SATB + solo Tenor
CHOIRS 7 & 8: SATB + solo Bass

Each of the choirs, therefore, has an ‘extra’ voice - giving, across the eight choirs, a semichorus of eight solo voices consisting of 2 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses. The other thirty-two parts may (and if possible should) be sung by two or three voices per part. So the vocal strength will be 40 (32 + 8), 72 (64 + 8), 104 (96 + 8) or 136 (128 + 8).

The eight choirs are spaced out as far as possible, to create separation; the ideal would be a wide semicircle. The semichorus should stand downstage of the main choirs, each soloist positioned in front of the choir of which he/she is part; this forms a smaller semicircle within the larger one. The solo cello and the conductor are placed at the centre of the whole.

The words of The Silent Land are taken from the Latin Requiem Mass, two poems by Christina Rossetti, and one couplet from Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night….
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Requiem aeternam dona eis … et lux perpetua luceat eis.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me.
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree.
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet
And, if thou wilt, remember;
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain…

Remember me when I am gone …into the silent land.
Yet, if you should forget me, do not grieve…
Better by far you should forget, and smile,
Than that you should remember … and be sad.

Requiescant in pace.
Requiem aeternam dona eis.

The Silent Land was commissioned by Phyllis Lee for Clare College, Cambridge, for performance by Clare College choir (considerably augmented) under its musical director Tim Brown. I first met Phyllis Lee (then Phyllis Hepburn) when I went up to Trinity, Cambridge as an ignorant eighteen-year-old freshman. She taught me the piano while I was at Cambridge, played viola in the Trinity orchestra (which I joined as a flautist, and later conducted). We lost touch for twenty-six years, but met again in November 1994 at a concert in John’s College, Cambridge, where a piece of mine was being performed. Tim Brown was also in the audience, and the idea of a piece for Clare choir took root. Phyllis had just lost her second husband, Hardy Lee, and I decided to write a piece in his memory. For some time I had been thinking of writing a version of the requiem which omitted God, punishment and reward, and concentrated on loss and the acceptance of loss. I had been intrigued for years by the technical challenge of writing for 40-part choir - I see Tallis’ Spem in alium as a perpetual challenge, and had long planned to write a piece for similar forces. The idea of using a solo cello came out of the Requiem words: the cello represents the dead person’s soul (as only a cello can), the semichorus the bereaved family, and the thirty-two-part choir the grieving community. The piece could be represented visually by a point (the cello) at the centre of two concentric semicircles - which is how it should be presented in performance.

© Giles Swayne

Listen

The silent land, Op. 70
Stabat mater, Op. 95: Stanza III-IV - Chant III - Muslim blessing of the Dead
Stabat mater, Op. 95: Motet I - Death of the son
Stabat mater, Op. 95: Jewish blessing of the Dead

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