John Woolrich – Swan Song (World Première)

by 5:4

The next work i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series is one that, in the six years since i first heard it, has completely changed my opinion about it. At the world première of John Woolrich’s Swan Song, i felt that “the fragmented delivery of transient moments of something cantabile felt stilted and over-earnest”. Looking back, i wonder whether this was something to do with the context: it was the final concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Jackie and Stephen Newbould at the helm, and i think at the time Woolrich’s contribution seemed far more aloof than everything else. Yet the piece has stayed with me – haunted me, you might say – and i’ve returned to it a lot in the years since, eventually realising that i now felt it to be perhaps the most emotionally powerful work performed at that concert. In hindsight i feel i misjudged this piece completely – and it only took me a little over half a decade to realise.

In his programme note, Woolrich says that, in contrast to the idea of the swan song as a final, lyrical outpouring, in his piece she never unlocks “her silent throat”. This phrase is a reference to the text in Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal The Silver Swan:

The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
“Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

The reference to the Gibbons, with its emphasis on death, plus the fact Woolrich’s piece “never unlocks” the actual song, imbues the music with a sombre intensity that feels acutely personal, and painful.

Woolrich achieves this intensity through huge quantities of understatement, to the extent that the music sounds almost fatally uncertain, equivocal and repressed. One could even regard Swan Song as not so much a composition as 14 successive attempts to begin one. Each of these 14 sections – ranging from as much as a minute in duration to as short as just a few seconds – is distinct from the others, though they’re united by a shared behavioural palette, dynamic range (rarely emerging beyond pianissimo) and lyrical instinct.

A number of them are oblique, music that’s poised rather than actively moving forward, and this in fact is how the piece begins. Others convey more warmth; section B (1:02), for example, transforms the mood from that cool opening, though subsequently tends to be qualified: section D (2:20) is melancholic, the clarinet melody lively but ending up hanging in space; section E (3:03) has its warmth diminished by sparseness, and the low cello line accompanied by rather blank chords above. Sections G (4:12) and H (4:34) are more convincingly brighter, the latter even giving the impression of being gently sunlit, in an atmosphere of wistful nostalgia.

But just as often the colour drains from the music. Woolrich makes sections C (1:58) and I (5:29) nervous and fretful, in both cases experiencing the intrusion of an unexpected forte accent. Section F (3:36) is penumbral and distant, led by a searching viola in a tremulous environment, while section J (5:53), the shortest, is the work’s most inward moment, a few fleeting, fragile seconds that hint at an inversely proportional quantity of suppressed emotion.

Even the episode that might have become Swan Song’s apogee, section K (6:03), where the ensemble finally unites around an undulating unison melody, is muted and tentative, progressing as if each new note causes an ache, withdrawing to pppp at its final chord. Whereupon the final three sections return to equivocality: L (7:23) is a brief collection of halting chords, the last of which again withdraws; M (7:50) descends into darkness, with the cello a particularly ominous presence; and N (8:18), a strange sequence of high oscillations that if anything seem more unsettlingly blank and remote than anything that went before. It’s an uncanny, rather distressing but entirely fitting way to end a work of such attenuated yet powerful lamentation and finality.

The world première of Swan Song was given by BCMG at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, in June 2016.

Programme note

This short piece is scored for the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble minus the piano and darkened with alto flute and an added viola. Each of the instruments has its own fragment of song and the piece is built from these broken melodies, punctuated by silence. The five almost come together in a soft unison towards the end. But, unlike the swan, this piece never unlocks “her silent throat”. Swan Song is dedicated to Jackie and Stephen Newbould.

—John Woolrich

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