Solstice: Seven Poems of Don Maclennan (2004)

for tenor, horn and strings

  1. The Well
  2. Blue
  3. Self-Knowledge
  4. Poetry
  5. Ownership
  6. Reduction
  7. Envoi
Dedicated to Don Maclennan and Musa Nkuna
Commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts
Parts on hire
Bardic Edition Score BD in preparation
Duration: c. 19'00"

Programme note

I first met Don Maclennan during a short stay in Grahamstown in August 1997, when I was visiting composer in the Department of Music at Rhodes University. The first book of his poetry I encountered was Solstice: it was launched a few months after my visit and Christine Lucia sent me a copy in London. I was struck by the spareness of the writing complemented by the richness of thought that lay behind it. Although as a composer one is always looking for verse that might be set, I realized at once that I could never 'set' this poetry; it was definitely in no need of a composer's hand. When Musa Nkuna requested a work some years later, it was nevertheless to Don Maclennan's poetry that I turned, and from Solstice that I eventually chose seven poems that I loved most. My concern was providing a setting for the poems rather than 'setting' words, and as by now I had a composition called Tenor and String Quartet -- a wordless piece also written for Nkuna -- under my belt, I took the opportunity to plunder it, and so The Well, Ownership, and Envoi have their musical origins in this work. I added words to this existing music with little adaptation, a process that does not draw attention to the cadence of words in the way earlier composers have done but allows the words to speak for themselves. Self-Knowledge, quotes some phrases from the 2nd movement of my String Quartet No 1. (Don was at the premiere in Grahamstown and told me afterwards how the 2nd movement had worked for him, while the first hadn't.) Poetry revisits a tenor aria from the first scene of my opera Searching for Salome. Reduction is indeed a reduction: the piano takes a break and we have a duet for tenor and horn, with the vocal line based on a uhadi bow song and the horn standing in for the uhadi bow. Blue came 'out of the blue' and, unusually, only uses the 1st verse of the poem. There are few classical models for horn, voice and instruments: Schubert's Auf dem Strom is the most significant; but Britten's Serenade takes the medium into a new realm. I studied them both very closely as I worked on mine, and gave the horn an important role both in duet with the voice and as a soloist, in much the same way Britten did. After pausing for breath in the fourth song, the horn launches into what is effectively a mini horn concerto, with occasional lines from the voice; and in the final song, the horn again has a considerable solo role. The final ordering of songs was dictated by musical structure rather than poetic narrative. It is my journey through the book, pausing at certain points to reflect musically on particular poems. I must have been struck by the way they are about music, poetry, or the artist.

Solstice: Seven Poems of Don Maclennan was composed between January and August 2004 in Johannesburg. It was commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts for Nkuna and Trio Capricorn of Cologne and is dedicated to Don Maclennan and Musa Nkuna. The poems are taken from Maclennan's Solstice, published in 1997 by Snailpress in association with Scottish Cultural Press, and used with the permission of the poet. The premiere of the chamber version was given on 15 August 2008 in the Musaion, University of Pretoria.

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Audio excerpt: Blue - No 2