Monday, 18 January 2010

David Beck: A Dunham Pastorale for recorder & piano


I recently reviewed Thomas Pitfield’s book of poetry Cheshire Verses and was suitably impressed by these attractive and often amusing verses. Thomas Pitfield is best known as a composer, but in fact he was much more. He was a teacher, a craftsman, an artist, a poet and an author. He wrote a number of books, including three volumes of autobiography and provided the illustrations for many others.

The poem, from his collection that impressed me most was ‘Dunham Park (Winter Evening)’. This is meditation on an evening walk through one of Cheshire’s great treasures. I wrote in my review that ‘every line of this poem is evocative; virtually every word contributes to the poet’s mood.’ I considered that the best descriptive metaphor was for the winter’s night desolation of the park, which in fact is close to the conurbation of Greater Manchester and the M56 – ‘…the close-cropped grass/ close-cropped by deer, the sole inhabitants/of parkland nave, a voiceless congregation.’ It is this desolation and the frost bound night that informs David Beck’s A Dunham Pastorale.

Dunham Park (Winter Evening)
Beech boughs are etched on the grey waste of sky
As on a wide-arched canopy of glass;
Below, the snow, & stained leaves counterpane
(White, brown & green mosaic) the close-cropped grass…

Close-cropped by deer, the sole inhabitants
Of parkland nave, a voiceless congregation,
And vesper-shadowy. Now veteran-ripe
The time, the winter day’s transfiguration.

The sun lies low on saffron-bordered pillow,
And in a cloud-gap, with scarce-visible ray,
The half-bared white rind of the citreous moon
Signals a closing door upon the day.

The genesis of A Dunham Pastorale was back in 2005. The composer told me that he was asked to contribute a piece for the Flying Kites CD (Cameo 2044). This was to be subtitled A Trafford Miscellany and was to showcase a number of Manchester-based composers. After some consideration he struck on the idea of writing a meditation or a reflection on Thomas Pitfield’s poem.
The form of Beck’s piece is largely derived from the text of the poem, except that he repeats the mood of the last stanza. He told me that the constructional principle of this piece was based on a 12-note tone row. However, he assured me that it was not his intention to make the piece sound like Schoenberg or the Second Viennese School! Beck reflected that at Dunham Park there is a fine view of the house from across the lake. It was this scene along with the poet’s image of the ‘The half-bared white rind of the citreous moon’ that inspired the section beginning with the piano arpeggios.

A Dunham Pastorale opens with a short piano introduction played, if not signed, ‘misterioso’ This is icy music, creating a frost-bound sound-world. The style of playing is brittle, mirroring the “grey waste of sky.” However, the music begins to expand in it mood, though there is still the feel of a frosty path underfoot. The second stanza is represented by music that is much more lyrical and gradually becoming quite intense. Yet once again there is a change of mood. The pianist plays some gorgeous arpeggios and the recorder’s part begins to thaw a little. This section is less dissonant and less obviously dependent on the ‘tone row.’ Yet the mood is still tantalising, the final trills leave the listener still in a frozen landscape. The overall mood of A Dunham Pastorale is tentative: it is heading towards a kind of resolution when it is stopped in its tracks by the ‘closing door upon the day’.

It is an interesting precedent that on the recording of this work, the poem is read before the piece is performed. It is a splendid way of giving context to the music. It is something that could be used in a variety of musical situation. Jonathan Woolf has written a review for MusicWeb International where he describes the A Dunham Pastorale ‘as Francophile in orientation whilst the recorder spins an aloofly beautiful line’.

Finally, this work would sound impressive played on flute or perhaps even the oboe. Perhaps the former would point up the little warmth that is found in this score, whilst the latter would emphasise the chill. If I ever get to see the score I would like to write a slightly more detailed study of this piece.

With thanks to John Turner and John McCabe, trustees of the Thomas Pitfield Trust for permission to quote the above verses and pencil sketch.

1 comment:

Graham Salvage said...

Lovely to read.
Knowing both David Beck and John Turner I'm so glad to have found this page!
It's also such a joy to own Pitfield's 'cello and to hopefully one day play it.........!