At least two composers have reasons to be thankful for the poet James Thomson – for Thomas Arne he wrote the words for ‘Rule Britannia’, and for Haydn he was the inspiration behind one of his most well-known oratorios. Scottish born, Thomson (1700-48) spent most of his working life in London, where he wrote the four long poems which together formed ‘The Seasons’ – later translated into German, paraphrased, and used by Haydn in his work of the same name.
But I didn’t know any of this when I came across Thomson’s ‘Autumn’ when I was seeking a text for a new piece. I was writing for a trio of soprano, clarinet, and piano (I was the pianist) and like many such trios we had a staple diet of Schubert’s ‘Shepherd on the Rock, Spohr’s ‘Six German Songs’, and other more recent pieces. When I came across this section from the poem, I was excited by the picture it painted of autumnal dusk, mist, and brightening moonlight:
The western sun withdraws the shortened day;
And humid evening, gliding o’er the sky,
In her chill progress, to the ground condensed
The vapours throws. Where creeping waters ooze,
Where marshes stagnate, and where rivers wind,
Cluster the rolling fogs, and swim along
The dusky-mantled lawn. Meanwhile the moon,
Full-orbed, and breaking through the scattered clouds,
Shows her broad visage in the crimsoned east.
Turned to the sun direct, her spotted disk
A smaller earth, gives all its blaze again,
Void of its flame, and sheds a softer day.
Now through the passing cloud she seems to stoop,
Now up the pure cerulean rides sublime.
Wide the pale deluge floats, and streaming mild
O’er the sky’d mountain to the shadowy vale,
While rocks and floods reflect the quivering gleam,
The whole air whitens with a boundless tide
Of silver radiance, trembling round the world.
My setting is a trio in which the soprano and the two instruments are equal partners. In the first section, the wide range of the clarinet enables it to emerge out of the low pitched darkness, and slowly climb high above the soprano voice, while the piano provides a kind of autumnal mist.
‘Meanwhile, the moon,’ suggested a change of mood – the music becomes very still as the piano articulates the moon breaking through the clouds, and then gradually picks up movement, moving to a high point on the word ‘blaze’.
In the final section (‘Now through the passing cloud’) there is a return to the opening textures, but soon the music becomes more agitated (‘While rocks and floods’), quickly reaching another high point on ‘radiance’ and rapidly falling to a final autumn mist again.
Thomson’s text is a gift to any composer and its expressive language really helped the music to flow. I wrote it in 1979, so I can’t remember much of the detail of how I worked on it, but several trios took it up and performed it in those early days. I hope you enjoy my evocation of autumn mists and moonlight!