‘Capturing Twilight’ on Radio 3

Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, muses on the connections between music and twilight as part of the station's 'Capturing Twilight' season, which culminates this weekend as the clocks go back in the UK.

'Capturing Twilight' on Radio 3

Radio 3’s ‘Capturing Twilight’ season is an attempt to reflect the influence on the human psyche of the light that is between two worlds – neither day nor night – where nothing looks or feels quite as it should be, a shimmering anticipation of change and transformation. 

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Twilight – whether the twilight between the end of night and the start of day or the end of day and the coming of night – has inspired or influenced artists of all kinds, from the visual arts, through poetry and prose writing to music. It’s a time made for magic and creation.

Experiencing twilight also affects us as human beings and the way we perceive and receive music at different times in the day. So while some of the music we have been featuring on Radio 3 is explicitly reflective of twilight in terms of the composer’s artistic intention, some will invoke a twilight feel in the mind of the listener – and sharing this has been a revelation to me as it made me realise the wide range of works that through the centuries have depicted or reflected in sound the mood of this special time of the day.

For my own twilight thoughts, a place to begin is Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. The opening ‘Pastoral’ has words that invoke twilight, but the musical spirit of the piece, with sparse instrumentation gradually revealing more complexity of tone and colour, and a journey toward darkness, make it something I have often turned to listen to as the light fails.

My Covid year has often been spent working in my shed in the garden, where in the winter especially the light fades before the window from which I look out. Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B Flat minor, D960 is a piece I always associate with the gloaming and the occasion for refection that brings – especially in Alfred Brendel’s 1988 Philips recording.

The Athenaeum in Helsinki is home to some wonderful paintings, including Askeli Gallen-Kallela’s scenes from the Kalevala, that seem to take place in a brilliant half-light that invokes a world both real and magical. Many Finnish painters of that period reflect light in that special way. The music of Sibelius seems to me to often have a twilight quality about it – reflecting the light of a Finnish evening – whether it be the half light of a winter’s day or of a summer’s night. To me Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony is an evocation of that, as is his Lemminkäiinen Suite – the second of which, ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is perhaps most evocative of a kind of time and scene that makes you shiver in response to its strangeness.

Scandinavian music of many kinds reminds me of half light – for example, the Danish Quartet’s ‘Wood Works’ contains many tunes evocative of the strange near light of long summer evenings in Norway or the Faroe Islands – it is a record I often put on as the day fades in summer.

Choral music, particularly that associated with Choral Evensong – always a special part of the day on Radio 3 – is highly suggestive of half light for me. Any polyphony or chant associated with Vespers reminds me of the dying light. William Mundy’s Vox Patris Caelestis is a piece of choral music I often return to at the end of the day – it is almost as if gradually the stars come out as the piece builds from little shards of light into quiet magnificence.

Finally, the work of the Canadian painters known as ‘The Group of Seven’ captures the half light of winter in Northern Canada in a particular way, whether in forests or lakes or further north in snowy wilderness. One piece of contemporary music which  reflects this for me is by songwriter and ambient/soundscape artist Jonas Bonnetta. His All this Here, recorded in a winter on the island of Fogo off Newfoundland, perfectly encapsulates through a soundscape of field recordings, cello, violin, piano and electronics a special twilight atmosphere of the North. The second track on side B, ‘Tilting’, captures this atmosphere beautifully – but the whole needs to be listened to as the light falls.

Light is as important in music as it is in art, and affects us profoundly as humans. Capturing Twilight on Radio 3 has been a great way to think about a special place between two worlds, one where anything can happen – and frequently does.

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BBC Radio 3’s Capturing Twilight ­ marking the changing of the clocks and the start of the Winter season with twilight-inspired music, art and literature – culminates on Sunday 31/10. Further info here