Howard Skempton – Here’s the Tender Coming (World Première)

by 5:4

Back to the Lent Series, and to a completely charming and surprisingly poignant little miniature by Howard Skempton. Here’s the Tender Coming is a Northumbrian folk tune, and Skempton’s arrangement of it dates from 2011, appropriately written for Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell plus the addition of a string quartet. Despite the cheeriness of the tune, the song is distinctly melancholic: the ‘tender’ of the title refers to the approaching ship—to all intents and purposes a prison—that, following the actions of the press gangs, would take away men by force to fight in the war against the French.

Here’s the tender coming, pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s the tender coming, off at Shield’s Bar,
Here’s the tender coming, full of men-o’-war.

The song is especially potent (and, one assumes, quite unusual) as it’s written from a woman’s perspective, capturing her utter desperation at the thought of losing, literally, the bread-winner of the family.

If they take thee, Geordie, who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead.

Skempton allows the melody to twirl and sparkle for a couple of minutes, letting it sit prominently in the pipes over a simple oscillating accompaniment in the strings. It’s partway through the fourth statement of the melody that the music briefly glances against a minor harmonic inflection, but carries on otherwise unchanged. However, the fifth statement becomes entirely transformed: everything shifts from major to minor, and the strings take the lead, the pipes playing a countermelody that eventually predominates as the strings settle on a drone. Caught between tonalities, there’s real hurt in these moments; it’s as though the music is simultaneously frozen with fear yet wincing with pain. The melody is eventually re-established in the major mode, reinforced by the cello initially, before continuing as at first. But not for long, and feeling very, very different from three minutes earlier.

This world première performance was given at the 2011 Bath Festival by Kathryn Tickell with the Navarra Quartet.

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