When Shelley met Sally

Tenor James Gilchrist explains how he is bringing English Romantic poets to Wigmore Hall

When Shelley met Sally
Tenor James Gilchrist

On 22 June at London’s Wigmore Hall, tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook will perform the world premiere of a new work by British composer Sally Beamish. At around 20 minutes long, Beamish's work is the first of three that have been personally commissioned by Gilchrist in a unique project that aims to bring to the concert hall contemporary settings of texts by English Romantic writers – a group who have largely, and mysteriously, been ignored by composers over the years.

The second two works in the series – by Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove – will be performed in subsequent Wigmore Hall seasons. In the meantime, Gilchrist tells us about his project, and about working with one of Britain’s finest composers to turn his Romantic dream into reality…


In the German-speaking world at the very beginning of the 19th century, there seemed to be a very happy coincidence of great poetry and great music. The poets and the musicians were there at the same time, and I’m sure this is in part responsible for why there was such a flourishing of Lieder repertoire at that time in the German language. So why didn’t this happen in the English-speaking world? We certainly had good poets, and there was a great flowering of Romantic poetry from the period. However, for some reason or the other, we just didn’t have the musicians – I have no idea why this was.

Nowadays, though, I feel that things have really changed. The UK, which used to be disparagingly known as ‘The land without music’ has really flourished musically, and we now have composers of great talent and quality. And, through my career, I’ve become conscious that we have people who write particularly well for the voice. So I had this idea that we could even up the balance a bit, and pair each of three song cycles by Schumann – the two Liederkreis cycles Opp. 39 and 24 and Dichterliebe – with a new work from a modern British composer that sets texts broadly contemporary with the life of Schumann himself. In short, each composer will try to make a companion piece to one of the Schumann cycles, setting English Romantic poetry of that period.

The idea has, of course, thrown up one particularly interesting question: namely, why have composers even outside Britain not previously set English Romantic poetry? Schumann set some Byron, as did Carl Loewe, but there is very little other than that. I do think that the poetry has a lot to say, and the ideas that were thrown up then still have really important resonance today. So why has no-one tried to set it? I think that it may be because it is sometimes so rich and complex in terms of its imagery – there are often classical allusions, complicated metaphor and long words within long lines of poetry. The English Romantics reveled in obscurity, which I’m sure is why composers shied away from it.

For my project, I’ve chosen three composers whose writing for the voice I very much admire. The first is Sally Beamish. I’ve previously performed a wonderful work of hers called Four Songs from Hafez, and I was very struck by how she happily delved into a very esoteric realm of poetry to produce a work that was both very singable and also very interesting and full of life. I approached her and decided that her companion piece would be Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis song cycle, which sets words by Joseph Eichendorff.

The Eichendorff Liederkreis cycle is quite a Gothic work. The poetry is full of misty, veiled night-time scenes where one is not quite sure what is going on – there are knights and maidens and strange happenings down in the valley. We initially discussed pairing it with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but Sally threw up her hands in horror at that, and we also considered James Macpherson’s Ossian’s Fingal from the 18th century, but eventually rejected that for not having enough poetry. 

And so we went back to the Schumann and tried to work out what it was that inspired us about that. Part of the German Romantic tradition is looking at the natural world and seeing both the connection of the human to it and also the Gothic and veiled nature of it, and in one way the Op. 39 cycle seems to spiral ever more into a pit of despair. It sprang to mind to both of us almost simultaneously that we might like to work with Percy Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, a work that addresses the wind, its destructive ability and how it can tear the earth apart.

Shelley wrote it while he was in voluntary exile from England, deeply frustrated by his lack of acceptance at home and feeling lost and vulnerable. Ode to the West Wind, though, ends on a positive note, as he compares the destructive West Wind with its sister wind in Springtime – it finishes with the line ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’. He also chooses a metaphor by which he sees the wind tearing his work apart, but also carrying it to all four corners of the world and disseminating his passion.  

How Sally has connected her new work with the Schumann is really fascinating. She firstly immersed herself in the Shelley poetry, then put it away and picked up the Schumann and played through it all, each movement in turn – and, taking any details that came to her attention in each movement, she produced an abstract improvisation on them, which she then wrote down. She has used material from these improvisations to infuse her own work. It is in no way a parody of Schumann, but the more you look at Sally’s work, the more you can see the connection.

I have really enjoyed working on it and Sally writes so beautifully for the voice. It will make a great programme at Wigmore Hall, because we will begin with the Schumann, which opens darkly and mistily and plunges us into a pit of despair, before we visit some more comfortable Romantic music from Mendelssohn and Liszt. And then we’ll come to Sally’s piece which, as well as introducing us to a new voice, will also eventually leave us with a hopeful note on which to go on our way.


James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook perform Sally Beamish’s new work at Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 22 June. For details, click here.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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