Landscapes

 

In January 1985 Bob Devereux, with whom I had already collaborated on two operas and the cantata 'Seascape', visited me from his home in Cornwall to discuss the commission I had received from the Huntingdonshire Philharmonic. I knew that I wanted to write a work that in some way focussed on the landscape, people and wildlife of the Fens, so, on a bright frosty day, I took Bob on a long drive around the Fens. We stopped to look at the birds on the Ouse Washes near Welney, and were both deeply moved by the penetratingly bright light, the beauty of the landscape in which the long arc of the horizon melted into the skyline, and, far away, the glory of Ely Cathedral crowning the view. As we drove home in the late afternoon we stopped by a bridge to wonder at the setting sun reflected in a dyke.

 

By the time we reached home we had a clear idea of the work's final overall shape, and in my visitor's book Bob wrote, the next day, the first few lines of the libretto.

 

So, on one level, the work is 'about' the Fens - about its wildlife, its people, its architecture and the land itself. But, on another, far more important level it is about the world we live in and our relationship to our environment. Though the setting is the Fens, the themes are universal and transcend local boundaries.

 

The actual composition of 'Landscapes' had to wait until the summer of 1986, and was completed by the end of October. The work falls into five movements, of which only the first, third and fifth are choral. The second and fourth are for soprano solo, taking the subject of birds as their theme.

 

The first movement is the most extended. After a gentle, atmospheric introduction, the music builds into a livelier, and more complex texture as it describes the early inhabitants of the Fens eking out a living from the watery landscape around them. A dramatic orchestral interlude leads to a marchlike section describing the draining of the Fens and the conflicts which that inspired. This was a subject I had already treated in the children's opera 'The Split Goose Feather' of 1978, and at the climax of this movement I quote from the opera. The reflective epilogue returns to the music of the opening.

 

The second movement is a scherzo for soprano solo and orchestra. The subject is the rich birdlife of the Fens, and this is reflected in music which makes increasing use of birdsong-like motifs in the woodwind, and reaches a climax in which the orchestral birdsong is overwhelmed by the sounds of real birds on tape.

 

The central movement is a ternary form structure in which the outer sections reflect the struggle of the ancient Fen people, while the peaceful contrasting middle section takes the listener into the tranquillity of the great Cathedrals and Abbeys of the Fens, where the monks can be heard chanting plainsong.

 

In the fourth movement, a recitative-like piece for the soprano, we return to the subject of birds, but whereas the second movement was concerned with land birds, this celebrates the diverse wealth of water birds, especially the swans and geese. This is a wintry scene, and once again the orchestra is used in a deliberately colourful way.

 

The final movement is built up from a variety of images - the dry earth blowing in the wind, ghosts stirring, lapwings flying and the sound of the water pumps giving the night a heart beat. In the end these disparate elements give way to a long rich peroration for soloist, choir and orchestra, recalling the music of the opening of the whole work.

 

Christopher Brown 1990