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After completing three pieces in the space of one month – Faerie Tales, Xocolatl and Black Wings – I feel a bit restless. This is not helped by the fact that I was made redundant from my day job, and therefore have loads of spare time on my hands before I work out what my next job will be – hopefully it will not be another boring office job. In the meantime, I have agreed to write a few articles on neglected/lesser-known British composers for the British Music Information Centre. The first composer to be featured is Elizabeth Maconchy.

I recalled attending a lunchtime chamber music concert at Imperial College when I was a student there which featured three 20th century string quartets – Britten’s 3rd, one of Shostakovich’s and Maconchy’s 4th. I did not care much about the Shostakovich’s (at least at the time), and thought the Britten’s was rather mild compared to the Maconchy’s. It was the first time I heard Maconchy’s music and I had not ceased to be amazed by her music ever since. I managed to get hold of the scores of some of the string quartets – 13 in all, and the recordings of the complete set is still available on CD. I have just spent a few days listening to pieces by her which are unknown to me. As a result, I am even more puzzled than before by the neglect her music has received. Maybe it is time to make changes.

I also discovered that one of my older pieces, Calendar of Tolerable Inventions from Around the World for wind quintet, is going to be broardcast on BBC Radio 3 this Saturday. If you are interested, tune in.

Amid the composition of Xocolatl, I took some time off to complete a song cycle which was long overdue – after two years of complete silence, I found myself finding my way around the music just the way I was when I first started composing – exciting, uncertain and very frustrating at times.


The idea of Faerie Tales, scored for counter-tenor, tenor and piano, came to me when I discovered one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser known writings. Deaths in the family as a result of the First World War, most notably those of his son Kingsley and his brother Innes, drove Arthur Conan Doyle into depression. He found solace in spiritualism – although his interest in it went as far back as the 1880s – and its alleged scientific proof of existence beyond the grave. The Coming of the Fairies (1922), his book-length account of the Cottingley fairy pictures, is one such efforts.


No actual text from the book is used in the song cycle; instead, one of Conan Doyle’s late poems titled Fate (in parts describing things heard and seen during a séance) is interwoven with poems/writings by Wilfred Owen, Rudyard and John Kipling, Shakespeare, John Keats and J. M. Barrie to conceive a meditation on grief and make-believe.


At first glance, this collection of writers might seem a bit odd. But after reading the last letter John Kipling wrote to his father before he was killed (or believed to be, as his body was never found) in action at the battle of Loos in September 1915 and Rudyard Kipling’s grief-drenched poems written after this event, most noticeably My Boy Jack and Epitaphs of the War. I felt the dynamic between the Kiplings was not dissimilar to the Conan Doyles, and in turn, something I can relate to.


As for the Owen, I chose his The Parable of the Young Man and the Old for two reasons – one, his death and Kingsley Conan Doyle are less than a month apart, two, since the premiere of Faerie Tales is paired with Britten’s splendid Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, which serves as the prototype to his setting of the same Owen poem in the War Requiem. Intimidating it may be, but I saw no better choice of text.


And Shakespeare, John Keats and J. M. Barrie? Well, a song cycle titled Faerie Tales with no mention of fairies can easily be considered as mis-selling, don’t you agree?

August 2008
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