For Mezzo Soprano and Piano
(2010) 28 minutes
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3's New Generation Artist Scheme. Premiered by Jennifer Johnston and Alisdair Hogarth during the City of London Festival at St. Lawrence Jury on 11th July 2011.
In my setting of excerpts from Beowulf I wanted to convey the heroism and grandeur of the tale and of Beowulf himself. The work was very much inspired by seeing the poem spoken live several years ago, and I wanted to retain the drama and immediacy of the words in my setting which is at time quite sparse and monolithic. I thought of this song cycle more like an opera for two musicians, and wanted the narrative to be very clear (even though large chunks of the tale have had to be left out).
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2010
"Frances-Hoad’s 30-minute Beowulf for mezzo-soprano and piano was premiered in 2012 by Jennifer Johnston at the City of London Festival. The narrative of the ancient text is abbreviated and tells of Beowulf’s two fights, with Grendel and with the dragon, set within a prologue and epilogue. The sparseness of the musical writing — announced by the clanging open fifths (piano, Alisidair Hogarth) of the first section, ‘So’, and the recitative-like directness of the vocal line (a magisterial Johnston, who demonstrates enormous expressive and physical stamina) — has an epic quality, as if drama and expression are pared down to the bare bones. There is a frightening intensity in sections such as ‘Then his rage’: the rhythmic and melodic hairs are all on edge.
Hogarth’s complex piano never overpowers Johnston’s utterances though, which possess an elemental energy, and the piano’s airy asymmetrical motifs in ‘Hildeburgh’ are suave and propulsive. Frances-Hoad provides structural balance: there are episodes of reflection and restraint, and ‘When Hrothgar arrived’ is characterised by a lower tessitura (showcasing Johnstone’s rich chest voice) and tight oscillations of chords in piano accompaniment. The piano interlude mid-way allows for a drawing of breath. After the initial furious conflicts, the tone becomes more fatalistic and Johnston succeeds in capturing the shifting moods as, after the assertive bravura of ‘Then he drew himself up’, the narrative sinks into the anguish, and quiet dignity, of the concluding declamatory episodes and final unaccompanied measures. This composition makes one long for a full-scale operatic work from Frances-Hoad."
Claire Seymour, Opera Today
Performance history (post-premiere)
11th October 2019 - Jess Dandy and Dylan Perez at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, UK as part of The Oxford Lieder Festival