Colin Matthews – It rains (World Première)

by 5:4

The Lent Series continues today with a short, darkly ruminative work for baritone and ensemble by British composer Colin Matthews. It’s a setting of the poem ‘It rains’ by war poet Edward Thomas, one of two poems that Thomas composed in 1917 concerned with rain. ‘It rains’ is a wistful act of remembrance, conjuring up memories of love and light from a context of isolation and darkness. There’s an overwhelming sense of an almost sterile stillness; though Thomas speaks of nature – parsley, grassblades, petals – it is of a state reduced to immobility and collapse. It’s from within this “wilderness” that Thomas’ protagonist brings to mind a memory of himself with his beloved, walking and kissing, oblivious to the rain. The presence of the rain is the only common factor between past and present, leading to a resigned acceptance of loneliness and light rendered ghostly, swamped by the present dark predicament.

Matthews’ response is extremely simple. The rain is represented by a relentless, weirdly steady sequence of descents, solemn, austere, stylised and heavy (almost like a reduced-speed version of the opening of Berg’s first Altenberg Lied). It instantly feels uncanny and unsettling, being so at odds with the usual noise texture of rain; it’s as if each and every raindrop is felt as a tiny but palpable blow against the body, like a form of water torture. The baritone moves with greater rhythmic freedom, adopting a cool, lyrical demeanour that’s entirely in keeping with the restraint of Thomas’ words, emotionally-charged while avoiding extremes of passion. Sometimes he sounds pent-up, elsewhere simply doomed, making the act of remembrance seem almost idle, unbidden, rather than a desperate attempt to (mentally) escape.

Wars push everyone involved to such terrible extremes, yet i find the gentle, semi-numbed form of expression heard in Matthews’ music to be no less dreadful. The steady staccato descents morph into a cold, mechanically ticking pulse, emphasising the slow passing of time. Yet in the midst of this dazed detachment and bleak environment, there are traces of something more warm lurking within, in the form of countermelodies given to a muted horn and, later, an oboe, both of which move with more meaningful freedom and hint at the humanity that otherwise appears to be almost dying before our eyes in this act of twilight nostalgia.

Composed in 2017, 100 years after Thomas penned his poem, the world première of It rains was given by baritone Roderick Williams with the Nash Ensemble, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Edward Thomas – It rains

It rains, and nothing stirs within the fence
Anywhere through the orchard’s untrodden, dense
Forest of parsley. The great diamonds
Of rain on the grassblades there is none to break,
Or the fallen petals further down to shake.

And I am nearly as happy as possible
To search the wilderness in vain though well,
To think of two walking, kissing there,
Drenched, yet forgetting the kisses of the rain:
Sad, too, to think that never, never again,

Unless alone, so happy shall I walk
In the rain. When I turn away, on its fine stalk
Twilight has fined to naught, the parsley flower
Figures, suspended still and ghostly white,
The past hovering as it revisits the light.

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