The Crimson Bird – Nicola LeFanu & John Fuller

The New Year has brought with it a situation that most composers are probably familiar with: when what is going on in the real world begins to interfere with the imagination. This was certainly the case following the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. It was not so much the event itself, but the inauguration address. The text, no doubt written by close advisers, appeared to vilify the institutions and legacy of the previous administration, and in language with a vehement tone of delivery that was harsh, even offensive to some of those listening. To others it may have represented a robust declaration and promise to change the status quo and ‘give power back to the people’. It was a far cry from the inauguration address of his predecessor who, before taking the oath of office, had commissioned a short piece, Air and Simple Gifts, from movie composer John Williams for performance by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-yo Ma, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montera.

I found and played the YouTube video of Air and Simple Gifts in which its star performers mimed the performance on the steps of the Capitol because of the extreme cold of that January day in 2009. Nevertheless, it seemed entirely fitting, entirely right, to hear such music, and from such performers.

In the days following the inauguration Radio 3’s excellent Music Matters had broadcast a short feature on the place of music in presidential inaugurations sandwiched between an interview with John Adams and a panel discussion on Brexit . Adams deftly skated around any political opinions he might own but had underlined how marginalised he felt contemporary music had become in concert programmes and with public engagement. Sad though that Radio 3 declined to even mention the music commissioned for the 58th   presidential inauguration by John Wykoff to words by Michael Dennis Browne. This 5 minute choral work Now We Belong was sung by the Missouri State University Chorale. New Music Box invited Wykoff to write about his commission and can be read here, where you can also hear his composition.

The chemistry of those events in the latter part of January became an unwelcome preoccupation, a distraction even. I had a large-scale commission (The Arrival of Spring) that could not be further away from the social and political concerns in the daily / hourly news. But these distractions got the better of my attention and resulted in an altogether previously unplanned new work, Vehemence, written for the same ensemble forces that the 44th President had commissioned in 2009.

Nicola LeFanu

Nicola LeFanu

In seeking to write about the intersection of world events and music, and not wanting to wholly focus on my own work, I had the opportunity to listen to a new work by a composer who has featured on these pages previously. Nicola LeFanu is an English composer, now in her 70th year. I have come to know her music more vividly since writing about a fine work for strings, Catena.  I notice I have described this work previously as an ‘adventure in listening’.  Recipient of a recent RPS bursary from the estate of Edward Elgar she has now composed a large-scale concertante work for soprano and orchestra titled The Crimson Bird.


This 20-minute piece certainly provides a striking intersection between real and imagined events. The music takes words from a substantial poem called The Siege by John Fuller. When the poem was published in Standpoint magazine in November 2016 it was prefaced by a photograph of the destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo. In effect the poem claims association with Euripides The Trojan Women, and a previous orchestral work by Lefanu, Threnody.  Although receiving its first performance by Ilan Volkov and the  BBCSO last Friday (and available now on BBC Radio 3 I-Player) its subject is too close to the events in Syria over the past four years to be without connection or consequence.

The Crimson Bird takes its title from the opening verse of The Siege marked Vigil.

The baby wakes.

The baby wakes in the hour of the morning

When the air is cool as silk

And the pale bird of the night gives way

To the crimson bird of the day.

The baby wakes, his fingers at my milk.

The four sections (Vigil, Terror, Lament and Prayer) are reflected in a continuous work, the words set for the very accomplished operatic soprano Rachel Nicholls. Without being able to read the text it would have been difficult to grasp the whole poetic flow, but the opening and closing were admirably clear in the transparent and beautiful scoring of the music. The final verse was most telling, though with a change in the final line from something wholly memorable (perfect reason) to something rather ordinary and obvious (dawning reason).

So here I pray for the need to be revealed,

And the will to answer to the need,

When the voice of mothers will be believed

When the night will in the end give way

To the perfect (dawning) reason of the day.

And what a pity the Arabic inscriptions that finish the text were not used!

Lefanu said in her broadcast introduction that the role of the orchestra was to provide a ‘psychological landscape’, the voice providing a dramatic narrative; a story that unfolds from the new born baby to the young man absorbed into armed conflict, to his death reflected in the section Prayer where the young man is returned to his mother’s arms in a kind of Pieta.

The hand that held the breast will pluck the fruit.

The hand that plucked the fruit will tighten on the gun.

For the fruit of the land is the fruit of exile

And the fruit of guilt is the pulling up of the root

That binds all people to an unforgiving land

And the pulling of the trigger is the fruit of hatred.

It takes a particular kind of courage to set such words, the kind of courage taken on by composers such a Michael Tippett in A Child of Our Time, and latterly by John Adams in The Death of Klinghoffer. It is very difficult for any composer to respond to words that make reference to terror, death and the lament of loss without a semiotic entanglement with certain orchestral sonic templates that can easily feel as though they belong to a movie sound track: the insistent percussion, the explosions of brass. Perhaps there is not quite enough repetition and insistence in the middle sections of The Crimson Bird, or enough extremity of sonic expression to provide an immediate and lasting impression.  The text was cut in places, but perhaps might have been cut further or treated as speech – most effectively done in just six lines in the score.

The apartments are sliced open like a dolls’ house,

The families in dust, as stiff as dolls,

Children in rubble, unusually still.

In the hospitals, the surgeons in despair,

The beds themselves under rubble,

A thigh stump like a burst pomegranate.

I think with further performances (perhaps a performance at the Proms 2017?) the more complex and edgier sonic facets of the work will make more impact. I look forward to getting to know it better . . .

I am writing all this from personal experience of creating a large-scale concertante work for voice and orchestra whose narrative backdrop is not human conflict, but carries a warning about the despoiling of our planet’s oceans. Whilst Sounding the Deep tells the story of one of the pioneers of deep-sea exploration in the 1930s it can’t avoid being ‘relevant’ to the current issues of climate change. The text I compiled for this 30-minute long work for bass voice and orchestra was that of the explorer himself, William Beebe, and it is no easy ride to sustain a narrative that truly engages without being openly a soundtrack for David Attenborough’s Life on Earth or The Living Planet.

In seeking to find a way of setting a world event into some kind of musical resin if not for posterity, but for my own piece of mind, I turned to a device I have employed in four previous works: using the mapping of written text into pitches and rhythms., thus embodying a work from the outset with previously ‘found’ content. I have discussed the ins and outs of this device in Text into Music, one of the concluding chapters of my book Parametric Composition.  Simply, this is achieved by a very straightforward mapping algorithm that can turn text, poetic or otherwise, into pitch in any tonality, even one that is specially invented.

 The key to this new composition was undoubtedly finding a word that seemed to surround what I heard webcast on 20 January 2017. The title references a musical expressive marking that begins the music: with vehemence,. This is not something one is likely to find in any score except Henze’s Versuch über Schweine and Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre. The music does not attempt to indulge in sonic extremes, but to encourage the performers, should they wish to respond personally to the nature of the inauguration text (and its delivery), to add their own coating of timbre vehemence. The point of Vehemence is to provide an interpretative space for performers whilst exploring just how varied a translation of a 15-minute address might be / could be when presented in musical media. The point and the challenge was to achieve this with varied orchestration, tempo change, articulations, optional instrument ‘preparation and a free play of octave transposition, rather than overtly sonic acrobatics and  ‘difficulty’ that seems so very much the current way of ‘doing things’.

Note: The business of free transposition as an expressive device is something common to many of my works where by providing an initial and restricted compass of an instrument’s part allows for a performer to experiment with placing phrases into different octave positions. See scores such as Metanoia, Self Portrait and the Six Concertos cycle. The Quartet scoring, although chosen by the movie composer John Williams for the 2009 inauguration commission, has a very particular pedigree. Think of such quartets by Hindemth and Messiaen, and more recently by Ades (Catch with its wonderful expressive marking Sullen) and Gerard Grisey.

Although Vehemence was written in under two weeks it will not go directly onto my web archive of publications by Tonality Systems Press. I remain in two minds about the musical result, so I’ll let it rest a while. It certainly has a quality of vehemence, but do players and their audience really want or need to be challenged in such a way, with vehemence.  Attempting to tackle such a phenomenon as experienced daily in the ‘alternative facts’ and ‘falsely reported’ actions of the 45th president of the USA I found a necessary and engrossing challenge, but I think I’m happier giving attention to The Arrival of Spring in Hockney’s Woldgate Lane in East Yorkshire.

From The Arrival of Spring by David Hockney

From The Arrival of Spring by David Hockney


The score and parts for Vehemence for Eb Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano are available on request only from . The first four pages of the score can be downloaded here.

Pages from Vehemence Quartet



















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