Commissioned by Michael Estorick

  • 1(pic).1(ca).1(bcl).ssx.1/2100/perc/hp/str
  • countertenor
  • 19 min

Programme Note

Merciless Beauty is a setting of seven songs about love, for countertenor and orchestra. The poets are Kit Wright, anon., Chaucer and Blake.

The unique voice of James Bowman was a major influence on the choice of poems in this work and, inevitably, on the character of music they are set to. There is a warmth and intensity in Bowman’s singing that marks him out from other "falsettists", and Burgon says that he has endeavoured to write a piece that would give the singer maximum opportunity to exploit these rich qualities.

1. Western Wind. (anon.)
An ostinato and a high saxophone line accompany the voice in this (medieval soldier’s?) lament for his distant love.

2. Letter to Anna, pregnant. (Kit Wright)
Another poem about separation that concludes with a resigned but generous acceptance. The music mirrors this mood in timbres that are icy and penetrating, but which soften with the concluding lines.

3. The Sick Rose. (Blake)
An ostinato that slowly unfolds through a shifting tonality, underpinned by a dark and menacing bass line reflects the sinister message of Blake’s famous poem.

4. Tune for an Ice Cream Van (Kit Wright)
A lover seeks his lost love through the many boroughs of London. Like Auden and Larkin before him, Kit Wright employs a simple ballad format to create a world unexpectedly alien and remote, where what should be familiar and comfortable is threatening and dark. A melody first played by a solo cello accompanies the voice throughout, with interjections from the Ice Cream Van’s tune, and fleeting quotes from another famous winter journey.

5. Merciless Beauty (Chaucer)
The subject of Chaucer’s poem is the paradox of the lover being slain by what he adores - ‘Your eyen two will slay me suddenly’ but then ‘your word will healen hastily my heartes wound’. This perilous state is portrayed musically by the contrasting fortissimos of the horn’s recurring motif with the more optimistic comments by the saxophone and woodwind. The sustained nagging of a repeated F sharp binds the conflicting states together.

6. Iron City Love Song (Kit Wright)
Another poem about the longing to be reunited with the loved one. The motif heard on the flugelhorn at the outset (itself a quote from a famous parting scene) forms the basis to the accompaniment to this song. The saxophone melody is the other thematic element in the accompaniment to this setting.

7. Campionesque for Anna (Kit Wright)
Another ostinato forms the background to this conciliatory song, although the sometimes wayward bass line occasionally undermines the implied security of the words.

© John Candover 1997

MERCILESS BEAUTY was commissioned by James Bowman and The Michael Estorick Foundation. Texts:

1. Western Wind (anon. 16th century)
Western wind, when will thou blow
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

2. Letter to Anna, Pregnant (Kit Wright)
When I consider
By the frozen river
How we two shall never
Down some of these days
Meet in loving
Upon the ungrieving
Bank in forgiving
New-made rays

Of April sunlight
When touch is leaf-light
And love is outright
And darkness done,
Then I remember
Times without number
The cold I shouldered
To block your sun.

And I apportion,
By this sad station
Where ice to the ocean
Flows downstream,
All blame attendant
To your correspondent,
Sorrow his tenant,
Drowned that dream.

The hawthorn crouches
In the black wind’s clutches
And snags and scratches
The last of light
That is dying over
The winter river
That sails forever
On out of sight.

I’m sorry, darling,
I hope the unfurling
Bud in your sailing
Body may
Beyond shores woeful
Wake you joyful,
Wake you joyful
Some sweet day.

3. The Sick Rose (William Blake)
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

4. Tune for an Ice Cream Van (Kit Wright)
And after many days he came
To seek his love in Kensington

Whom he had wronged in Hanger Lane
And lost in Kew. Then all around

The Brompton Cemetery the trees
Shook candid blossom in his eyes

That sought her everywhere. The ground
Betrayed no footprint. She achieved

No mention on the wind that splayed
His hunger down the Goldhawk Road

Past Hammersmith. Yet this thing stayed:
Her absence, in a glove-shaped cloud

Trailing the river, curling back
Past Fulham Broadway. Round he went

Till there at Parsons Green he slowed
His steps, and sat, and cried aloud:

‘Down all the skies and miles of eyes
There’s no one knows her now!’ The day

Darkened him into Chelsea. When
He crossed the river it was night.

Upon his journey two stars leant.
Which her, no knowing. Still he sent

Steps echoing through Clapham, gone
Too far between two stars to know

He travelled by his own sad light
And there was nowhere else to go.

At last, his strength and spirit done,
He whispered to his sons her name

And how it was, and how he came
To seek his love in Kensington,

Her whom he wronged in Hanger Lane
And lost in Kew. Aggrieved he lies

And still it falls, and still they come,
The desperate blossom in their eyes.
5. Merciless Beauty (Chaucer)
Your eyen two will slay me suddenly;
I may the beauty of them not sustain,
So woundeth it throughout my hearte keen.

And but your word will healen hastily
My hearte’s wounde, while that it is green,
Your eyen two will slay me suddenly;
I may the beauty of them not sustain.

Upon my truth I say you faithfully
That ye bin of my life and death the queen;
For with my death the truthe shall be seen,
Your eyen two will slay me suddenly;
I may the beauty of them not sustain,
So woundeth it thoughout my hearte keen.

6. Iron City Love Song (Kit Wright)
Pittsburgh civic
Fountain, flow

Down below
The Pittsburgh Hilton,
Roll on in
To O-hi-o.

I am thinking
Of my darling,
Miles and miles
Away from me.

All I see,
Dark fork of rivers,
Now she goes
By E-ri-e.

I am dreaming,
Of the sea

Where the waters
Leap together.
In her arms
I soon shall be.

7. Campionesque for Anna (Kit Wright)
When I lay down where I had lain with you
Some many nights, beloved, of the days
Lit by your sun, I dreamed all touch untrue,
Error my star and darkness all my ways
Till where I lay, I lay again with you.

Till where I go, I go again with you
Through all the days, beloved, and the nights
By your sweet self illumined, I can do
Not one good thing: not till your beauty lights
Me where I go, and go again with you.


Merciless Beauty: No. 1. Western Wind
Merciless Beauty: No. 2. Letter to Anna, pregnant
Merciless Beauty: No. 3. The Sick Rose
Merciless Beauty: No. 4. Tune for an Ice Cream Van
Merciless Beauty: No. 5. Merciless Beauty
Merciless Beauty: No. 6. Iron City Love Song
Merciless Beauty: No. 7. Campionesque for Anna


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