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Vocal with chamber orchestra works

For Mrs Tomoyasu from 'Or Shall We Die?'

Duration: 6 minutes
Year of composition: 1987
Published by Oxford University Press

The oratorio Or Shall We Die? was commissioned from Ian McEwan and Michael Berkeley by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus. It was first performed in 1983, the year that Ronald Reagan declared that a nuclear conflict in Europe was not only thinkable but winnable; cruise missiles came to Britain; Heseltine was appointed by Thatcher to extinguish CND; Professions for World Disarmament and Development was formed at the suggestion of Fenner Brockway and MANA was formed as one of those professional peace groups.
This piece is the chamber version of the soprano aria in section five of the work which forms the heart of the oratorio.

Mrs Tomoyasu was a young woman in 1945 when her nine year-old daughter died in her arms after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. She told her story to Jonathan Dimbleby in his television film In Evidence: The Bomb, and her words changed by the librettist, Ian McEwan, only to make smoother rhythms were used directly in the text.

All night I searched for my daughter.
At dawn a neighbour told me
she had seen her by the river,
among the dead and dying.

I heard her voice calling Mother, Mother,
and I went towards the sound.
My child was completely burned.
The skin had come off her head,
leaving a knot of twisted hair.

My daughter said, Mother, you're late, so late,
please take me back. It hurts, it hurts.
Please take me home. But there were no homes,
no doctors, there was nothing I could do.

I covered up her naked body and held her
in my arms for seven hours.
Late at night she cried out again, Mother,
Mother, and put her arm around my neck,
her small cold arm.

I said, Please say Mother again,
But that was the last time.

© Michael Berkeley

For Mrs Tomoyasu from 'Or Shall We Die?' (chamber version)

Duration: 7 minutes
Year of composition: 2004
Published by Oxford University Press

The oratorio Or Shall We Die? was commissioned from Ian McEwan and Michael Berkeley by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus. It was first performed in 1983, the year that Ronald Reagan declared that a nuclear conflict in Europe was not only thinkable but winnable; cruise missiles came to Britain; Heseltine was appointed by Thatcher to extinguish CND; Professions for World Disarmament and Development was formed at the suggestion of Fenner Brockway and MANA was formed as one of those professional peace groups.

This piece is the chamber version of the soprano aria in section five of the work which forms the heart of the oratorio.

Mrs Tomoyasu was a young woman in 1945 when her nine year-old daughter died in her arms after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. She told her story to Jonathan Dimbleby in his television film In Evidence: The Bomb, and her words changed by the librettist, Ian McEwan, only to make smoother rhythms were used directly in the text.

All night I searched for my daughter.
At dawn a neighbour told me
she had seen her by the river,
among the dead and dying.

I heard her voice calling Mother, Mother,
and I went towards the sound.
My child was completely burned.
The skin had come off her head,
leaving a knot of twisted hair.

My daughter said, Mother, you're late, so late,
please take me back. It hurts, it hurts.
Please take me home. But there were no homes,
no doctors, there was nothing I could do.

I covered up her naked body and held her
in my arms for seven hours.
Late at night she cried out again, Mother,
Mother, and put her arm around my neck,
her small cold arm.

I said, Please say Mother again,
But that was the last time.

© Michael Berkeley

Songs of Awakening Love

Duration: 26 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

This work is a setting of three poems; two sonnets, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, framing a scherzo-like song of elation by Christina Rossetti. The poems superficially seem straight-laced and high-minded, but, in reality, smoulder with intense expression.

© Michael Berkeley

The Wild Winds

Duration: 12 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

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.
MB

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.
MB

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