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Shelley on the water : for string quartet

by Tom Henry (2016)

Work Overview

Born in 1792, the year of the Terror that followed the French Revolution, the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), left a lasting influence that in some ways epitomised romanticism: untrammelled expression of inner feeling, the rebellion against authority at great personal cost, the almost worshipful experience of nature, the pursuit of ideal love, and the search for 'freedom' in all its forms; political, physical, spiritual & emotional.

His great passion was sailing. By all accounts, any opportunity he had was spent punting or 'mucking about' in boats. As a child he made paper boats from bank notes. He sailed on Lake Geneva with Lord Byron, and he enjoyed boating on the Rhine River with his wife. Several of his close friends were also sailors, including Edward Williams, a former navy and army man who had lived in India, and whose love for adventure and manly exercises met with Shelley's approval.

Yet his great passion was also his undoing. On 8 July 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley set sail in his yacht the Don Juan in the Gulf of Spezia (off the northern coast of Italy) for a return trip from Livorno (where he had been visiting his friends and fellow poets Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt) to Lerici, where his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, waited. A sudden summer storm overcame the boat, and he and his companions drowned.

This work is a very free tone poem. It begins with the desolate solemnity of a funeral procession or dirge, in which can be heard a halting, falling motif, signally the grief of Shelley's friends. After this brief scene, the motif is transformed and can be heard portraying, in a kind of retrospective tableaux, Shelley's freedom on the ocean, and his joy in the ocean's many varied moods. These scenes include: making great knots with a full sail; the sea becalmed; setting sail at grey dawn, a moonlit night; and finally, his battle with the raging storm which gradually overcomes him, but not before he makes peace with it.

Work Details

Year: 2016

Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, cello.

Duration: 10 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

Commission note: Commissioned by Huon Quartet.

First performance: by Huon Quartet — 27 May 16. Hobart

Performances of this work

20 Jun 16: The Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre VIC. Featuring Huon Quartet.

27 May 16: Hobart. Featuring Huon Quartet.

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