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Vocal with chamber ensemble works

Winter Fragments

Duration: 19 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

Video courtesy Halcyon Ensemble/Jenny Duck-Chong

This song cycle was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, who gave the first performance at The Purcell Room in London on the 5th of March 1996 with Jean Rigby the soloist, conducted by Thomas Ades.

The double meaning title of these pieces came naturally, partly because I was at that time considering an opera project based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, partly because the music was largely written in a frozen Welsh landscape, and partly because I wanted to write short, spare pieces that combine to create an overall aspect of winter. Since composers often tend to destroy words before recreating them, I have gone further still and both used lines and ideas from various poets as well as concocting miniatures of my own.

The first is a case in point with the music waking-up, as it were, with difficulty from a frozen slumber. Next comes two lines from Romeo and Juliet to begin the first of several metaphysical references to winter.

After these two very spartan pieces, the third is a quick and more extended movement evoking the sheer exhilaration and power of high wind and rough weather. Incidentally these lines about reeling clouds are by the 18th-century poet James Thomson - not to be confused with his 19th-century namesake. Following the swirling storm there's a brief return to frozen stillness and the blinding light refracted from snow in bright sun.

The fifth song has a feel of folk music with a simple melodic line for Shelley's words and a repeated mechanical pattern for the bass clarinet which, only in the final line of the poem, is revealed as being the sound of the mill-wheel. In addition to the clarinet, Winter Fragments is scored for flute and oboe plus harp and string trio.

The penultimate piece consists of lines from Longfellow's Snowflakes and ascribes a certain melancholy to nature itself. Finally there is a passage from David Malouf's libretto based on The Winter's Tale in which that touching character, Paulina reminds us of the inexorable passage of Time and its ability to heal; we must have faith for season on season the changes are wrought.

Michael Berkeley

Winter Fragments texts

No. 1

Winter, winter fragments the earth and
stills sheer space.

No. 2

Death lies on her like an untimely frost
upon the sweetest flower of all the field.
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

No. 3

The reeling clouds
stagger with dizzy aim, as doubting yet
which master to obey: while rising, slow,
sad, in the laden-colour'd east, the moon
wears a bleak circle round her sully'd orb.
Then issues forth the storm, with loud control,
and the thin fabrick of the pillar'd air
o'erturns, at once.
Thick clouds ascend, in whose capacious womb,
a vapoury deluge lies, to snow congeal'd:
Heavy, they roll their fleecy world along;
and the sky saddens with th'impending storm.
Thro' the hush'd air, the whitening shower descends.
See! Earth's universal face
is all one, dazzling, waste.
James Thomson (1700 - 1748), from Winter

No. 4

Frozen still; a loud silence
speaking, speaking so white, so bright -
light eye cannot see.

No. 5

A widow bird sate mourning for her love
Upon a wintry bough;
The frozen wind crept on above,
The freezing stream below.
There was no leaf upon the forest bare,
No flower upon the ground,
And little motion in the air
Except the mill-wheel's sound.
Shelley, A Song

No. 6

Silent and soft and slow descends the snow.
The troubled sky reveals the grief it feels.
This is the poem of the air.
This is the secret of despair,
Now whispered and revealed to wood and field.
Longfellow, from Snowflakes

No. 7

Time that knows more
than we do has its own
story to tell.
In good time we say,
in good time all
that time has locked away
in the realm of what is
and will be will be
revealed. We must not force it
but in good faith abide
the telling, it is
out of our hands,
but not out of hearts.
Season on season
the changes are wrought. Awake
your faith now, and listen.

David Malouf, from libretto for The Winter's Tale

© Michael Berkeley