Going – a song cycle

for baritone and piano
December-April 2014; 8’

Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?

A setting of four poems by Philip Larkin exploring themes of reminiscence, regret and uncertainty.

1. ‘Long Sight in Age’ (1955)
2. ‘Maturity’ (1951)
3. ‘Traümerei’ (7th Sept. 1946)
4. ‘Going’ (Feb. 1946)

When Jake Muffett asked me to write a song cycle for the final recital of his BA, which would have a theme of moving from childhood to death, the poetry of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) seemed instantly appropriate for situating the piece towards the end of the programme. Larkin’s sombre, plain-speaking style – sometimes painfully personal, occasionally vehemently ironic – gives the sense of a man old before his time; a man struggling with values of ‘Englishness’, yet also in radical, if cynical or despondent, opposition to conventional social constructions.

I am often drawn to texts that can gain a self-reflexive meaning from performance; texts that can become about the act of performance. These four poems from Larkin’s earlier years are ordered to trace a narrative journey for a persona embodied by the baritone, with the piano as his subconscious. Thoughts of reminiscence and of the desire to “go back” informed the music (coincidentally, the poems are ordered chronologically in reverse). The songs are performed attacca.

The cycle begins with the baritone pondering ‘clear’ sight with age, immediately rejecting the idea (‘as dew clarifies air’) – but he clings to memory (‘long soft tides of grass…gold Wind-ridden waves’).

Tolling alarms bring the baritone to reflect on himself: his present, ‘this pantomime… my ablest time’; his future, ‘stationary…desired… inaccurate, tired’. The piano moves from a detached sensibility to support and echo the baritone’s disillusionment.

In ‘Traümerei’ the baritone continues reflecting, on a ‘dream that dogs me’ – he is ‘shut in’ with ‘a silent crowd’. The piano’s maelstrom of activity (with syncopations inspired by Larkin’s love of jazz) occasionally erupts amidst a surreal omen, as fate is spelt out.

Finally, the baritone looks further inwards. ‘There is an evening coming in…’ The piano weaves a fragile, seemingly endless line. ‘What is under my hands, that I cannot feel?’