Piece of the Week 32: Olympian Sketches

Around 30 years ago, the late Angela Fussell, inspirational clarinettist, teacher and conductor, gave me the opportunity to write a piece for her high-flying students at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. The result was Olympian Sketches, which they first performed at the ICA/CLARFEST 1993 in Ghent, Belgium, and which was soon taken up by other clarinet quartets, and recorded on CD by the Chinook Clarinet Quartet.

I’ve always loved writing for the clarinet – its flexibility and wide range really inspires me. I can’t remember why I chose the title and subject-matter – but the concept of the Greek gods and goddesses, the inhabitants of Mount Olympus, provided me with a ready-made set of musical characters, and the scoring for three B-flat clarinets (one of them doubling high E-flat) and a bass clarinet gave me a wide range of sonorities and textures.  So here’s a summary of those characters:

1.  Apollo – the god of music and poetry. Sinuous, interweaving musical lines, marked ‘peacefully, expressively’, sometimes interrupted by chordal passages, and with a strong triadic focus but with shifting tonal centres.

2.  Charon – the ferry-man of Hades, the Greek underworld. A pair of clarinets, a tritone apart, represent a boat, gently and mysteriously rocking on the murky waters. A bass clarinet suggests the lapping of the waves on the stones on the riverbank. Several times the high, piercing E-flat clarinet interrupts this continuum with the cries of the souls travelling on their journey from the living to the dead. Throughout the piece, the pitches and harmonies are chosen from a scale or mode derived from the overtone series of the clarinet.

3.  Hermes – the messenger of the gods. A fleeting and light movement featuring running stepwise passages interspersed with fanfare-like passages, suggesting the athletic, winged messenger.

(I wrote these three movements at home in Colchester, then it was time for an Easter holiday in eastern France where I completed the piece, in between sight-seeing, Easter-egg hunts, and games of table tennis with our young family. Looking at the pieces again now, I think a French influence may have crept into the final two movements, perhaps Messiaen in the fourth movement and Poulenc in the fifth!)

4.  Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty. Much of this movement is a free-flowing melody accompanied by chords in the other three clarinets.  The rich harmony is derived from a scale which alternates tones and semitones, and, aided by a constantly changing and rather languorous metre, it suggests a mood of relaxation and pleasure.

5.  Artemis – the goddess of hunting. A lively movement with hunting-horns and galloping rhythms a-plenty.

Here’s a link to a recording on YouTube, and you can find a score and more details here.  There is also a version for saxophones available, which I made a few years later for the Essex-based saxophone quartet, Saxology.

I hope you enjoy meeting these mythical characters!