Piece of the week 29 – ‘Beauty, Joy’

It’s always nice when you write something which you are pleased with, and which also works for another purpose…

The year 2021 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of John Keats. During his short life (he died at the age of 25) he quickly reached an astonishing creative maturity as one of the foremost English Romantic poets. It was to celebrate Keats’ contribution to literature and his bicentenary that the Fairhaven Singers and their conductor Ralph Woodward commissioned me to write a Keats setting for their 2021 summer concert.

I chose the opening twelve-and-a-half lines from Keats’ poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818) – these lines beautifully set the scene for nearly 5000 lines of epic story-telling, beginning:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

The first line gave me my title – Beauty, Joy – and gave me a constantly recurring rich harmonic pattern, above and within which float other melodic fragments: an emphasis on pure sound to help to celebrate all that is beautiful.

The voices of the Fairhaven Singers are admirably suited to the full and expressive textures that I employed, often dividing into eight parts and with a soprano and tenor soloist as well. Covid caused the scheduled first performance to be cancelled, but they performed it later in 2021 in Ely Cathedral and then again at their 2022 summer concert in Queen’s College Chapel, Cambridge – two great performances!

During 2022 another interesting thing happened – I was approached by a film-maker who had made a film about the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty inland from Thorpeness, in Suffolk, and was looking for music similar to the Samuel Barber ‘Adagio’ as background music for it. As ‘Beauty, Joy’ is focussed so much on pure sound, it occurred to me that a digitised ‘orchestral’ version of it might suit the film rather well. It turned out that it wasn’t what he was looking for, but by then I was bitten by the movie bug so I made a film, just using my phone and iMovie, of broadly the same area – The Suffolk Sandlings – with the digitised version of Beauty, Joy as its backing track. My film takes us from the coastline (between Thorpeness and Sizewell) inland through Aldringham to the village church of Friston. As it happens this area is now threatened by cable routes and enormous substations, so in time this little film may well become a memorial of past beauty and joy.

So the poetry of Keats, and the Fairhaven Singers, took me on a bit of a journey – I hope you enjoy it!

Here is the Fairhaven Singers recording of Beauty, Joy

Here is the Suffolk Sandlings film

And here are details of how to obtain the music