Songs of Travel (for mixed choir) (2020-21)

(text: Robert Louis Stevenson – in English)
30 min.

  1. Home no more home (7′)
  2. In the highlands (4’30”)
  3. The infinite shining heavens (5′)
  4. Give me the sun (5’30”)
  5. Evensong (8′)

My collaboration with conductor George Parris began when I heard his recording with the Carice Singers of Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, and remarked to him that I’d always wanted to write a large-scale choral song cycle in English along those lines. Having rediscovered Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel at a very low point in 2018, I thought they would be the ideal basis for such a venture, perhaps even a companion piece to Parry’s. The poems’ pervasive tone of loss and rootlessness, far from being depressing, were somehow a great comfort. Amid the isolation of 2020, they acquired a new urgency for me, and once again became a vehicle for healing. The shape and main ideas for the piece formed in large part on an extended hike in the perpetual light of Finnish Lapland that summer, a trek during which grief would move slowly toward acceptance.

The cycle is anchored at each end by two expansive songs, for which I adapted the poetry in small ways to make it more personal, with minor deletions where the musical setting demanded it. The opening song, Home no more home, presents a simple, ambiguously modal tune at the outset, before sending out tendrils in searching, halting rhythms, a slow, reluctant tread off into the hills, clouded by memory. The middle three songs are brighter in tone, attempting to find solace in a variety of places – in the land, in the firmament, on the sea – but all ultimately turn reflectively inward. In the highlands touches on a number of folk traditions, including bagpipe-like strains and a Swedish herding call known as kulning. The infinite shining heavens is a rapt, glowing meditation on the night sky. Give me the sun is an original setting of Stevenson’s lyrics for the popular Skye Boat Song, with fragments of the original tune ghosted here and there throughout the texture. The final movement, Evensong, combines three poems on the theme of leave-taking. Here the tone of melancholy becomes one of gentle resignation, not to an ending, but an acceptance of suffering, and of transience.

Songs of Travel was jointly commissioned by the Carice Singers and Spira Ensemble with the assistance of the Madetoja fund, and is dedicated to George Parris.