The annual 5:4 Lent Series is almost upon us, but in the meantime one of the more striking premières i’ve heard recently is a new work for violin and orchestra from US-based British composer Anna Clyne. The work’s title, The Seamstress, comes from W. B. Yeats’ eponymous poem (see below), where a song is made into a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies”; the garment is subsequently robbed, yet the songmaker rather sanguinely concludes “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Clyne’s song takes the form of what she calls an “imaginary one-act ballet”, with five distinct movements, the last recapitulating the first. The temptation would be to describe it as a violin concerto, but in many ways it really isn’t; the solo violin is by no means more important or significant than the orchestra at all times, indeed for much of the piece there’s a strong sense of duet, with the soloist frequently yielding centre-stage. All the same, the violin certainly acts in ways that could be called catalytic, instigating ideas and often leading the way elaborating them.
Clyne composed The Seamstress during her five-year stint as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the work’s opening section, featuring a prominent folk-like idea, was partly inspired by Clyne’s own beginner fiddle lessons at the city’s Old Town School of Folk Music. It acts like a prologue, a melodic line featuring a rising semitone cadential figure, unwinding over a pair of oscillating chords, given a vaguely filmic atmosphere by the orchestra’s discreet accompaniment, rising and falling like the surface of the sea. After a few minutes, the music is suddenly transfixed, sustained wind notes marking the transition into the work’s second episode, initiated by the harp and leading to a new pizzicato idea that only gradually starts to become more concrete. The idea becomes a preoccupation, like an earworm or a poignant thought that just can’t be brushed aside or suppressed, continually worrying itself back to the surface. Both the tone and the focus become mixed, convoluted; a lyrical aside is answered by a heavyweight surge which is in turn immediately yanked back into a place of low, indistinct scalic runs. Clyne speaks of the titular character “lost in her thoughts, her mind begins to meander”, and it’s easy to hear a parallel in such spontaneous passages as these, the music switching courses seemingly on a whim.
And it continues: the violin agitates things with an angular third idea, and the pace gets ramped up, only to be immediately pulled back, almost to a stop, held briefly in check for a moment’s soliloquy before launching off again—only to arrive in a kind of inverted climax, emphasised in octaves, utmost weighty but extremely restrained. For a while, the music becomes kind of absent-minded—the first of several occasions when Clyne very nicely avoids pushing the piece on—an introspective succession of hesitations that eventually evaporate. Following a pause, a strange chord leads to the fourth movement and the work’s lyrical high point. Violin and orchestra together strike up a chaconne, simply harmonised, circling like an oblique hymn while the soloist elaborates high, high above; it’s truly exquisite—like Purcell caught up in raptures—and once again becomes an aural fixation: in many ways The Seamstress doesn’t seem so much composed as ruminated. Through a series of brief echoes and afterthoughts, occupying another sonic space that’s rather courageously passive, Clyne ushers back the opening folk-like melody, the orchestra now taking a more prominent role in its exploration, while the violin (mentally tired by now, perhaps) meanders in a low register, everything coming to a warm, weary, wistful close on a soft major seventh chord.
There’s a potent sense of melancholy and even nostalgic obsession permeating The Seamstress, casting much of its tumbling ideas with the hue of autumn sunlight; yet there’s joy intermingled with the sadness, nowhere more so than in the soaring ecstasy of that fourth section. Anyone looking for a more archetypal ‘concerto’ will probably find it wanting; but approaching it on its own terms, one finds a stirring, hauntingly beautiful and ultimately rather moving work, articulating the kind of depth and complexity of emotion that words would struggle adequately to capture.
Composed for violinist Jennifer Koh, The Seamstress was first performed in May last year with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The UK première took place last month at the Barbican, also featuring Jennifer Koh, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.
The Seamstress is an imaginary one-act ballet. Alone on the stage, the seamstress is seated, unraveling threads from an antique cloth laid gently over her lap. Lost in her thoughts, her mind begins to meander and her imagination spirals into a series of five tales that range from love to despair, and that combine memory with fantasy.
W. B. Yeats – The Seamstress
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.