Proms 2019: Huw Watkins – The Moon (World Première)

There are times when it seems the Proms is incapable of commissioning a new work without foisting upon the composer some theme or connection that they are required to incorporate into the piece. The festival’s ongoing theme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was brought to bear on yet another new work, Huw WatkinsThe Moon, which received its world première last night. Watkins opted to sidestep notions of spaceflight and technology in favour of something more romantic, turning to 19th and 20th century poetry about the moon, by Shelley, Whitman and Larkin, for inspiration.

The moon landings took place half a century ago, but listening to The Moon you’d be forgiven for thinking it was composed when notions of getting to the moon were still but a pipedream, yet to make it even to a drawing board. While not exactly pastiche, there’s an overt (even ersatz) early 20th century vibe permeating a great deal of the work. Clean, basic, straightforward, undemanding, every idea outlined in the musical equivalent of black marker pen; even before a few minutes have passed, it all sounds incredibly timid and tired. Watkins’ musical language has always tended towards the conservative, but i’m not sure it’s ever been articulated so overtly as here.

Aside from its dismally middle-of-the-road idiom, the relationship between the choir and orchestra is downright weird. During the opening text, Shelley’s ‘Art thou pale for weariness’, the spritely nature of the orchestral music hardly feels in any meaningful way connected to the po-faced delivery of the choir, forming two parallel layers of music related only by harmony. The way the orchestra continues to develop their ideas further during the ensuing interlude emphasises this sense of independence from the choir, reinforced further by the disparity of material in the second text, Shelley’s ‘The Waning Moon’. Now related only by dynamic, the orchestra’s forceful undulations seem pretty arbitrary beside the choir’s defiantly last century-styled noodlings.

It’s not until the third section, a setting of Larkin’s ‘The moon is full tonight’, that the two feel more integrated, not so much interacting but carefully positioning their respective ideas around each other in a back-and-forth kind of conversational music. The interlude that follows is arguably where The Moon is at its most interesting, a previously established insistent idea in the strings becoming the basis for a climax, a weird bombastic dance in which each step is pounded on the ground. Where that climax felt organic, even necessary, the work’s subsequent pushing forward after the final text (Whitman’s ‘Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene’) feels by contrast forced and manipulative. This closing section is arguably where The Moon is at its most stylistically tired – especially the choir’s wan, wishy-washy bleating, which sounds positively knackered – but this is entirely overshadowed by the conclusion, Watkins blankly banging out Whitman’s final two words ‘sacred moon’ at an ever greater volume, as if it meant something, as if the piece had earned the right to any kind of apotheosis, as if it weren’t just a cheap, empty, contemptible ploy to garner whoops and cheers.

The first performance of Huw Watkins’ The Moon was given by the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Philharmonia Chorus with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.


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Huw Watkins – The Moon

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Text

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

And like a dying lady, lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky East,
A white and shapeless mass.
(Percy Bysshe Shelley – ‘The Waning Moon’)

The moon is full tonight
And hurts the eyes,
It is so definite and bright.
What if it has drawn up
All quietness and certitude of worth
Wherewith to fill its cup,
Or mint a second moon, a paradise? –
For they are gone from earth.
(Philip Larkin)

Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene;
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple;
On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss’d wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.
(Walt Whitman)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières
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