Music Monday: Beamish: Symphony No. 1

[Before getting to the post proper, I’m once again going to plug my Kickstarter — we’re so close to the finish, but we need your help to get there! $5, $10, any amount really does help! Donate and spread the word to help a young artist make great music!]

Evidently Sally Beamish (b 1956) once physically collided with Peter Pears. Pears was singing the title role* in a production of Peter Grimes, a production in which Beamish’s mother was playing in the pit. Beamish, who was eight at the time, got turned around backstage after the show, and wound up running into a “big, scary figure” who turned out to be the great English tenor. Still, she was so taken by the storm music in the opera that, upon returning home, she immediately got out some staff paper and began scribbling ideas down.

After that, you might think she’d focus intently on composition and make that the center of her career, but her actual life path played out somewhat differently. Until around 1990, she made a living as a professional violist, performing and touring with groups in London. But then her viola was stolen and she moved to rural Scotland, and she decided to dedicate herself full-time to composition. (This is also striking for its reversal of the normal direction of migration; many people have moved from rural areas into big cities to pursue compositional opportunities; Beamish may be the only person I know of to have done the reverse.) Shut out of the academy by the last gasps of the integral serialist stranglehold (I haven’t been able to determine this with absolute certainty, but it sounds from many of her bios that she never went to school for composition and largely taught herself), she forged her own career by working directly with musicians — she’s very committed to the ideal of a composer working closely with the community they’re in. As such, she’s managed to produce a remarkable body of work over the past quarter century, much of it commissioned directly by working musicians.

Many of her larger works, of course, were commissioned by correspondingly larger groups, including her first symphony, the work featured today. The commission came in 1992 from Reykjavik, and it was her very first orchestral work, which is astonishing given its finesse and accomplishment. The internet has been reluctant to yield up further details on the work’s origin. According to many reviews, the CD has excellent liner notes, so excellent that the reviewers aren’t even going to bother repeating any of the information there, with the result that those of us not in possession of the physical disc are left rather in the dark. I’ve been able to gather that it incorporates a traditional Scottish bagpipe tune as well as a paraphrase of a setting of Psalm 104, but beyond that, I only know what I can hear.

It opens with a miasma of keening brass, one in which vague, angular melodic fragments seem to emerge and then subside back into the unquiet wash. About two minutes in, the strings and harp emerge, offering a still music that seems to promise some hope of resolution — for all its stasis, it glimmers and shines. This profound tranquility does not last, and soon gives way to milling woodwind solos that, for all their metrical looseness, start propelling the work forward at an ever faster clip. Several xylophone interjections later, there is a pause, and the texture thins out again, into an ungainly duet between bassoon and flute over low rumblings in the depths of the orchestra. There’s an attempt to revive the still, tranquil music, but it can’t quite find itself, and oozes instead into a restless landscape where the low strings arc and plunge over insistent tappings from the timpani. 

Soon enough, other instruments join in with a light, disjointed patter overhead, building gradually — almost imperceptibly — in speed and density until spare brass octaves morph into an oddly plaintive oboe solo that in turn launches a stuttering, halting central section. It has, in some ways, the feeling of practicing or even composing itself in the way that it obsessively repeats small, almost incoherent fragments changing them each time, as tho perpetually dissatisfied with the previous attempt. This exhausts itself into a pointillistic bassline over which short figures flit and burble, before the bassline itself falls away, leaving only the dusting on top. There is a brief, haunting recollection of the still music, but the brass interrupt it, a snare drum beating out an impartial tattoo in short order.

Here, the music seems to slip into a fuller and more richly scored rendition of the opening material, with its clouds of dissonances blowing carelessly past and into one another, but something restless has been stirred up, and a sense of forward motion soon returns. This — deploying what I strongly suspect to be the psalm paraphrase — grinds to a crunching tutti that fades into a forlorn rendition of the still music, itself soon riven by inquietude. Another wild dance, this one more coherent than the others, ensues, and this time, after pausing for a searching oboe solo, it broadens into a blazing apotheosis, radiant in its ecstatic glory. Breathing heavily from the effort of securing this earth-shaking climax, the work ends with a gentle sigh, having found peace at last.

*A role specifically written for him by his long-term lover and collaborator, Benjamin Britten, for those less obsessively up on their 20th-Century English-language opera minutiae.