The composer tells us about the inspirations behind some of his most haunting music
Composer Jonathan Dove is one of the most successful contemporary composers – he has written works for Glyndebourne Opera, the Royal Ballet and ENO among many others. This month sees the launch of a disc of his music for small choir on Naxos. We spoke to him about why this recording is particularly close to his heart.
The main work on the disc is your cantata The Passing of the Year. Tell us a bit about how that piece came about.
It was a commission from the London Symphony Chorus a few years ago and I’m particularly proud of it. I began looking for poems that could be sung by a chorus rather than an individual singer – a lot of poetry is quite personal and intimate – and I can’t remember at what point I realised that a journey through the seasons was taking place. I had thought about setting Thomas Nashe’s poem ‘Adieu, farewell Earth’s bliss’, which I find unbearably touching, for quite a long time – particularly the line ‘Brightness falls from the air’ which I think is one of the most mysterious lines in poetry.
A lot of the texts on the recordings – including one used in The Passing of the Year – are written by Emily Dickinson. Why is that?
She’s a poet I’ve set quite a lot. I think she’s very popular for all kinds of reasons but what I like about her is that the writing is simple, it hits the ear easily but has great depth – so it’s a very deceptive simplicity. It has an almost childlike quality at first glance: you can sing it and nothing is lost in the singing. Her phrases are simple and yet the imagery is often quite unexpectedly large – it has this depth charge in it that hits you after you’ve encountered it.
The Passing of the Year is dedicated to the memory of your mother – why did you decide to do that?
My mother died very young and although there are memorial poems in the Cantata (the text for ‘Ring out, wild bells’ is part of Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam) and there’s a kind of grieving in ‘Adieu! farewell Earth’s bliss!’, there’s also something quite unconscious at work there. I suppose what I understand of life and time and the passage of life is what I inherited from my mother – that it’s a thing we have to accept, that everything is born and dies.
This is the first time many of the works on this disc have been recorded – why do you think that is?
‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ is a piece I’m very fond of but it’s not that widely known because it’s not a sacred piece so it’s not performed by cathedral or church choirs, so I’m particularly pleased that it’s been recorded. It is challenging but I think rewarding and I would love more choirs to know of it. It’s nice that these things go out into the world.
What else have you got coming up?
There’s a small scale opera called The Walk from the Garden that’s going to be performed in Salisbury Cathedral for the Salisbury Festival at the end of May about Adam and Even leaving the Garden of Eden and I’ve also written part of a triple bill for the Royal Ballet which is going to be performed in July.
The Passing of the Year, recorded by Convivium Singers and Neil Ferris is out now on Naxos