New Piece, Matière: Le Palais de la mort, inspired by the life and work of Emily Brontë – first performance Monday 14 June 2021

On 14 June 2021, at 19:00, the City Pierrot Ensemble, which I founded in 2017, will give their second concert in the City Summer Sounds Festival, conducted by Joshua Ballance. The programme will consist of Girl (2017) for six players by British-Iranian composer (and recent City PhD graduate) Soosan Lolavar, the Four Primo Levi Settings (1996) by Simon Bainbridge, who sadly died in April of this year, Peter Maxwell Davies’ notorious Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), with libretto by Randall Stowe, based upon words of King George III, and my own new piece Matière: Le Palais de la mort (2021), for singer/speaker and six players.

The singers will be Georgia Mae Bishop (Pace, Bainbridge) and Benedict Nelson (Maxwell Davies). The other players are Nancy Ruffer, flute; David Campbell, clarinet; Emma Arden, percussion; Ian Pace, piano; Ben Smith, electric organ; Madeleine Mitchell, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Joseph Spooner, cello. The event will be given to a small select live audience but also live-streamed, details of how to view can be found here – City Pierrot Ensemble: Eight Songs for a Mad King (Monday, 14th June 2021) • City, University of London.

The following is an extended note about my new piece.

IAN PACE     Matière: Le Palais de la mort(2021)

  1. A very untidy state
  2. Cannot go
  3. Cold, selfish, animal and inferior
  4. And pleasures banish pain
  5. Le Palais de la mort

This piece began to form in my mind at the time of a visit to Haworth Parsonage in summer 2019, looking round the house and in particular the square piano in one of the front rooms, and collections of music owned by Emily and Anne Brontë in particular. After reading further about the musical dimensions to the Brontë family, I began to form fantasies in my mind of a certain bombastic playing on the part of Emily (the most talented pianist of the siblings), incorporating some of the (then) popular pieces which she and Anne had in her collection, and developed an interest in creating a work of music which would be unquestionably from the present day, but incorporated aspects of the music which would have been heard in the Brontë household.

The original idea was for a piano piece, which became Pitter-Pottering (2021), and consists essentially of the piano part to the first movement. This consists of a continuous thread of material, derived obliquely from the Pastoral Rondo by Daniel Steibelt (1765-1823), which was in the Brontë music collection, and which in other guises also underpins the third and fifth movements. This is combined with derivations from a range of marches, waltzes, quadrilles, operatic overtures, and sonatas. I also started to imagine that this piece might be part of a wider work for ensemble attempting to capture something of the wider world of the Brontë sisters, and Emily in particular. I was not interested in writing some sort of musical evocation of the moors, nor really in setting Emily’s remarkable mature poems (as various others have done, but these do not seem to me literary works requiring of any musical elaboration). Rather, the world of the Brontë sisters was the starting point for a free creative fantasia informed by aspects of their biographies, musical interests, and wider aspects of their writings. A wish to emphasise the contemporary perspective suggested to me use of some sounds, for example percussion instruments such as the flexatone and vibraslap, or a whistle, to emphasise the sense of artifice, together with the use of a synthetic electric organ (never to be played on any type of real organ), to counteract any wider assumptions of aspirations to verisimilitude. Gradually, from reading more of the work, biographies, letters, diaries and occasional writings of the Brontës, and scholarship thereupon, the piece began to take shape in my mind, and was composed relatively quickly during an otherwise troubled period between late April and June 2021.

Music played a prominent place in the Brontë household. Branwell studied the flute and organ, while Emily and Anne studied the piano, while Anne also sang. Emily was probably the most talented pianist, while Charlotte was the least musically inclined, in part because of having to give up piano study because of acute short-sightedness. Another important musical presence in the Brontë milieu was the organ installed at Haworth in 1834. Branwell in particular was deeply excited by the installation of this new instrument, parodied by Charlotte in her juvenile writing ‘My Angria and the Angrians’)

Anne Brontë collected a song book in 1843, consisting of a range of hymns, folk-songs and a few classical numbers. Branwell Brontë, kept a flute book, from as early as 1831 (aged 14), consisting of similar music for flute and piano accompaniment. These have been published in rare but invaluable scholarly annotated editions by Akiko Higuchi – Anne Brontë’s Song Book/Branwell Brontë’s Flute Book: An Annotated Edition (Tokyo: Yushodo Press, 2002) – as a companion volume to the same author’s The Brontës and Music: Music in the seven novels by the three Brontë sisters (Tokyo: Yushodo Press, 2005), tracing the many allusions to music throughout the sisters’ works. These, together with John Hennessy’s Emily Jane Brontë and her Music (York: York Publishing Services, 2018), are my most important sources. Other studies include Robert K. Wallace’s attempt to map Wuthering Heights onto three Beethoven Sonatas (Emily Brontë and Beethoven: Romantic Equilibrium in Fiction and Music (Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 1986)), and Gregory Pepetone’s similar comparison of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette with Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana (‘Kaleidoscopic imagination: a comparison of Robert Schumann and Charlotte Brontë’ (DMA Dissertation: University of Iowa, 1984)), but these are both highly speculative, and afford a central role for now-canonical works of Beethoven and Schumann which they had by no means yet securely achieved during the Brontë sisters’ lifetimes. There is no evidence that the family owned a single complete Beethoven sonata.

Anne and Branwell’s collections, together with a range of music collected by Anne and Emily as catalogued in Hennessy, served as source materials for this work, not so much to directly quote (except in the singing of ‘Ye banks and braes o’ bonny Doon’ and ‘As down in the sunless retreats’, both in Anne’s songbook, which appear in the final movement), as to plunder for musical attributes, though clearer allusions to the hymns in particular surface during some of the mezzo’s arias in the third and fourth movements, as well as in the organ part. The flute part is derived almost wholly from material in Branwell’s book (not least also his rendition of ‘Ye banks and braes o’bonny Doon’) but heavily modified – subject to quasi-serial techniques, cut up, with pitches and rhythms displaced, and developed in various other ways.

The first movement, ‘A very untidy state’ is a somewhat cacophonous portrait of the world of the Brontë household, with the Pitter-Pottering piano part as the fundamental thread, combined in places with the flute material, distant sounds of the organ vaguely heard, free elaboration or ‘commentary’ from the percussion, and occasionally sonic ‘background’ from the strings.

The second movement, ‘Cannot go’ is a free setting of part of a relatively juvenile 1837 poem (whose relative simplicity made it more apt to set to music), to represent the apprehensive young Emily, afraid of but fascinated by the external world, with its strange sounds and sensations.

Both Charlotte and Emily Brontë travelled to Brussels in February 1842, where they were taught languages by Constantin Heger, at the Pensionnat Heger. Charlotte remained in Belgium for two years, and the country featured in her novels Villette and The Professor, though she was extremely rude about the country and its people in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, probably from July 1842, part of which I quote in the introduction to movement 3 (met by an evocation of charivari, which Charlotte herself describes in Jane Eyre as ‘the “rough music” made with kettles, pans, tea-trays, etc., in public derision of an unpopular person’). Emily, who had less of a cosmopolitan inclination than her sister, was notoriously ill-at-home in Belgium and unlike her sister made little attempt to integrate into this new milieu. Some have speculated that she might have heard performances by Berlioz and Liszt during her time in Brussels, but there is no evidence available to substantiate this. Both sisters returned to England after the death of their aunt Elizabeth Branwell in October 1842; Charlotte would return the following January and stay another year, but Emily never did so.

The third movement, ‘Cold, selfish, animal and inferior’, named after Charlotte’s atrocious characterisation of Belgians, attempts however to imagine Emily playing in a piano trio with representatives of the then new Belgian schools of violin and cello playing. Taking a basic rhythmic and gestural structure from Daniel Auber’s duet ‘Amour sacré de la patrie’, from La Muette de Portici, a performance of which preceded the beginnings of the Belgian Revolution on 25 August 1830 (the revolutionary crowds sang this duet following the performance), I combine this with material and stylistic allusions to the violin playing of Charles de Bériot and cellist François Servais, while the piano clumsily attempts to provide a half-hearted accompaniment to them in the right hand, whilst continuing with the basic Steibelt-derived material in the left, mostly in a different metre.

The movement ends with a setting of the text from Mendelssohn’s Infelice, of which he made two versions, the first from 1834 featured a concertante part for de Bériot to play alongside the singing of his Spanish wife Maria Malibran, representing Emily’s yearnings to return home.

The fourth movement, ‘And pleasures banish pain’, is a counterpart to the second. I use the text of the Hymn ‘Prospect’, collected by Anne, but in a very different musical setting (with a nod in the direction of Charles Ives), to symbolise the more mature Emily, after her Brussels trip, rooted in the domestic environment but still drawn to the mysterious forces which she perceived in the immediate natural vicinity.

The gothic elements in Emily’s writing in particular are notorious, and can be dated back to her early juvenile writings, not least the poems about the fictional island of Gondal. These elements can be found in her siblings’ writings from the time as well, but it was Emily, much more than the others, who developed these into her mature work. Not to respond to these seemed to me to miss a vital dimension, so I deliberately chose some of the most manneristic musical representations – xylophone, temple blocks (or ‘skulls’) and thunder sheet, all of which are extremely prominent in the last movement, ‘Le Palais de la mort’. This movement, and the work as a whole, takes its title from one of the devoirs, essays which served as French writing exercises, which both Charlotte and Emily wrote under the tutelage of Monsieur Heger, and which have been published complete in an authoritative edition (Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, The Belgian Essays: A Critical Edition, edited and translated Sue Lonoff (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1996)).

The Haworth parsonage was a scene of death, a ‘Palais de la mort’ of its own, during 1848-49; Branwell died on 24 September 1848 (aged 31), Emily on 19 December 1848 (aged 30), then Anne on 28 May 1849 (aged 29), all probably from a variety of tuberculosis. Charlotte a further six years, and died on 31 March 1855 (aged 38) probably for different reasons related to complications with pregnancy. Their father, Irish Anglican priest Patrick Brontë, outlived all of them and died on 7 June 1861 (aged 84); his oldest daughter Maria and Elizabeth had both died in 1825 (aged 12 and 11 respectively); their mother, his wife, Maria Branwell, had died in 1821 (aged 38). In the final movement, the flute, piano and voice could be said to ‘represent’ the characters of Branwell, Emily and Anne respectively, all of whose material comes to an end, with two of them leaving the stage in the manner of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony. But this is superseded by the world of Emily’s gothic fantasies, with two pieces of text from her ‘Le Palais de la mort’. The organ remains a persistent background presence (as in the whole work, except for the ‘Belgian’ third movement), representing the world of Patrick which continues after all the siblings are gone.

Matière: Le Palais de la mort is dedicated to long-term collaborator, friend and confidante, composer and writer Christopher Fox.

Textual Sources

Introduction: Emily Brontë, diary entry for 24 November 1834

Cannot go (Movement 2): Emily Brontë, poem ‘The Night is Darkening Round Me’ (1837)

Transition: Charlotte Brontë, letter to Ellen Nussey, probably July 1842

Cold, selfish, animal and inferior (Movement 3): Italian text by Pietro Metastasio for Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, concert-aria Infelice (1834).

And pleasures banish pain (Movement 4): Isaac Watts, hymn, ‘There is a land of pure delight’ (1704)

Le Palais de la Mort (Movement 5): Reverend Patrick Brontë, letter to Ebenezer Rand, 26 February 1849; folksongs Ye banks and braes o’ bonny Doon’ and ‘As down in the sunless retreats’; French text from Emily Brontë, Matière: Le Palais de la Mort, devoir written in Brussels, 1842.

Translations

Infelice

Ah ritorna, età dell’oro, alla terra abbandonata, se non fosti immaginata nel sognar felicità. Fu il mondo allor felice che un tenero arboscello, un limpido ruscello le genti alimentò. Ah ritorna, bell’età.

Ah return, golden age, to your abandoned land, if you were more than the fancy of happy dreams. The world was merry then when a young sapling, a limpid stream, sustained the people. Ah, return, beautiful age.

Matière: Le Palais de la mort

inspirés par moi l’ami fidèle deviendra un ennemi mortel, la femme trahira son mari, le domestique son maître; nul sentiment ne peut me resister; je traverserai la terre sous les bannières du ciel et les couronnes seront comes des pierres sous mes pieds. Quant aux autres candidats ils ne sont pas dignes d’attention; la Colère est irrasionnable [‘barbarisme’]; la vengeance est partiale; la Famine peut être vaincue par l’industries; la Peste est capricieuse. Votre premier minister doit être quelqu’un qui est toujours près des hommes, qui les entoure et les possède; décidez donc entre l’Ambition et moi, nous sommes les seuls sur lesquels votre choix peut [‘or puisse’] hésiter.

inspired by me, the faithful friend will become a mortal enemy, the wife will betray her husband, the domestic his master. No sentiment can withstand me; I will traverse the earth between heaven’s banners and crowns will be as stones beneath my feet. As for the other candidates, they are unworthy of attention; Wraths is irreasonable [barbarism]; vengeance is partial; Famine can be conquered by industry; Plague is capricious. Your prime minister must be someone who is always close to men, who surrounds and possesses them. Decide then between Ambition and me; we are the only ones between whom your choice can [might] hesitate.

les voûtes, les chambres et les galleries résonnaient du bruit des pas qui allaient et venaient, comme si les ossements qui jonchaient leur pavé s’étaient subitement réanimés et la Mort, regardant du haut de son trône, sourit hidieusement de voir quelles multitudes accouraient à lui server.

the vaults, the chambers, and the galleries resounded with the noise of steps that came and went, as if the bones that lay strewn about the pavement had suddenly come back to life; and Death, looking down from the height of her throne, smiled hideously to see what multitudes hastened to serve her.

(From translations in Charlotte and Emily Brontë, The Belgian Essays: A Critical Edition, edited and translated by Sue Lonoff (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1996). Passages in square brackets indicate corrections made by Constantin Heger to Emily Brontë’s text.)



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