One of Britain’s fastest rising composers, Michael Stimpson who has been a resident in Barga Vecchia for some time now (article here) has just released a new CD containing some of his recent work. The CD entitled “Journeymen” is recorded by the Allegri String Quartet and is based on two distinct and separate moments and places in time.
The first – the string quartet no 1 (Robben Island) – 6 pieces concerning Robben Island; the island 7 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa where Nelson Mandella spent many years of his 27 years prison sentence . Today the island is a popular tourist destination and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. The second part of the CD is based around the work and life of Laurie Lee (1914 -1997). English poet, memoirist, and novelist, probably best-known for his autobiographical book CIDER WITH ROSIE
Robben Island had for a number of years been a symbol of great suffering and suppression of basic human rights. But when I came to visit the island around Christmas of 1999, having already begun this quartet, I realized that it was also a place of beauty and mystery, and of course immense inspiration. I appreciated also that it is simply a piece of land, only temporarily abused since its formation. So the piece needed to reflect characteristics as well as events, and therefore it emerges only gradually, almost like the island appearing out of the mist. If it feels uncertain and edgy, then all the better.
The second movement had a working title of ‘the road from Natal’, where Nelson Mandela was arrested before his final trial. It is violent, a siren wails in places, although on occasion the chasing has odd elements of farce.
For the opening of the third movement I had in mind the misery of being transported to the island, tired, battered, and full of fear and trepidation. A later section is marked ‘Restless, quasi-dance’, and this relates to the earlier history of the island. For some time it was a leper colony and I wanted to convey a lifestyle and mental energy that would be so strange and difficult to comprehend by those on the outside. It draws to a close with more reference to modern times, a confrontation of imprisonment and a theoretical slamming of a cell door gives it a dramatic finale.
The fourth movement had a working title of ‘isolation’ and I have used pizzicato chords to symbolize a heartbeat that both stops and runs into panic. An equally nervous ‘pacing up and down’ can be heard in the second violin, viola and ‘cello. This movement gives way to a re-emergence of the opening chorale, but this time with a little off-beat, reggae-like rhythm in the pizzicato first violin. Here I had in mind the hub of ‘real-life’ that was so near to the islanders, and yet so far.
And then a fifth movement that had a working title of ‘spirit’. Being marked ‘Majestic: Joyous’ it speaks for itself, and is a celebration of one of the major successes of the twentieth century. The work draws to a close with an ornamented version of the original chorale, but this time it finishes with a closer reference to the national anthem of New South Africa.
In programme notes I usually shy away from structural comment, I think I have been worn down by the dominance that ’analysis of what someone has done’ takes over the ’act of creation’. But I will mention here the opening motif of the national anthem of South Africa. I first hid this in a second subject of a Sonatina for guitar some years ago. It was no coincidence that I settled on this on the afternoon that Mr. Mandela walked from Robben Island. I later experimented with it in a student piece for orchestra, and both of these gave me the preparation for this larger scale work. The rising third of the opening to the national anthem forms the basis of this quartet, as does the three-note response. But in this piece it is not the structure that is important, it is the human element. Yes, this is a tribute to one man, but to the spirit of many others as well. – Michael Stimpson
Michael has composed for some of the UK’s most distinguished artists in the classical music industry, including the English Chamber Orchestra, Tallis Chamber Choir, David Campbell, Allegri String Quartet, Paul Agnew, Sioned Williams, John Anderson, Dussek Piano Trio, London Festival Orchestra and the English Concert Singers. The capital’s foremost venues have hosted performances of his work; the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Cadogan Hall, Purcell Room and St. John’s Smith Square and international recognition has prompted performances in the USA, Iran and Italy.
The second part of the CD is based around the work and life of Laurie Lee (1914 -1997). English poet, memoirist, and novelist, probably best-known for his autobiographical trilogy CIDER WITH ROSIE (1959), AS I WALKED OUT ONE MIDSUMMER MORNING (1969), and A MOMENT OF WAR (1991). The trilogy depicts Lee’s boyhood in the country, his journey to London to seek his fortune and see the world, and his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.
As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning narrates Lee’s first trip to Civil War Spain in 1936 and his walk across the country from Vigo to Granada. In Castillo he works in a hotel, but when the city is taken by Franco’s troops, he returns to England, only to realize that the war is not over. A Moment of War told of a young man’s walk over the Pyrenees into Spain to fight in the International Brigades in 1937.
‘The challenge of the new work has been to reflect the many different features and styles within these wonderful books, the ‘Englishness’ of the early chapters, the youth and energy of his long walk through Spain, and the underlying menace of this most desolate of wars. To assist me with this I have made various musical references, some of works premiered in the years that Laurie Lee travelled, and some structures of the various regions of Spain. But uppermost is the story itself.’ – Michael Stimpson
Michael’s site can be seen here
Click on the link below to hear a short interview with Michael and a section from the Robben Island work called Majestically: Joyous