Earlier this year I was commissioned to write a new flute concerto for the wonderful Abigail Dolan and Symphonova (about which more in the next post), I was only in the earliest stages of imagining the piece. But by good luck I fell quite quickly on some lines from Swinburne
But I, fulfilled of my heart’s desire,
Shedding my song upon height, upon hollow,
From tawny body and sweet small mouth
Feed the heart of the night with fire.
… which I loved, and Abigail loved too. Now (even though very few notes had been written at this stage) the soloist of my concerto became a spirit of the air, wild, passionate, unsentimental, fierce, burning bright. I suggested a title – Upon height, upon hollow – which went into the publicity, and I was committed.
A bird is in many ways an obvious theme for a flute piece – the flute is high and agile, it can soar above the rest of the ensemble. It can also imitate birdsong, although that was a possibility I chose not to explore – partly because Messiaen has done this in his own very distinctive way, and I’ve been immersed in a lot of Messiaen recently; and partly because to do this well I would need to greatly improve my knowledge and recognition of birdsong (which is something I love to listen to, but in a completely ignorant way). The Swinburne lines invite me to compose the bird’s song – but (perversely perhaps) I did not try to make this sound like real birdsong – rather, just the song of this free aerial spirit – where ‘song’ is conceived specifically and wholly in flute terms.
I was also attracted by the movement of the bird – the way it is at one with its element – air, currents – the effortless control and easy play of its swoops and turns and dives. Swinburne suggests this obliquely, perhaps, in the way his bird sings, and swoops, we must imagine, from height to hollow, across the full gamut of the sky’s spaces and depths.