Magic Lantern Tales
For Tenor and Piano
(2015) 24 minutes
Magic Lantern Tales was premiered by Nicky Spence and Iain Burnside on the 2nd April 2015 at The Venue, Leeds College of Music as part of the Leeds Lieder Festival.
The cycle sets four poems by Ian McMillan from his collection Magic Lantern Tales, written in response to interviews and photographs by Ian Beesley. In 1994 Beesley was appointed artist in residence at the Moor psychiatric hospital in Lancaster and worked in the geriatric unit (where most of the patients had senile dementia or Alzheimer's disease). The hospital was in the process of closure, and in one empty ward he found a solitary chest of drawers containing old photos relating to WW1 (including wedding photos with the grooms in uniform) and old spectacles. Upon finding out that these were the last possessions of patients who had died in hospital with no living relatives, Beesley was prompted to interview as many men and women who had experienced the First World War as he could find before their stories were lost forever.
My cycle tells the stories of three of the elderly people interviewed by Beesley: Lily Maynard (101 years old), Harry Holmes (99 years old) and Mabel Walsh (104 years old).
Lily found a young man cowering in the bushes on her way back from the fair during a thunderstorm. She rather liked him, so she coaxed him out and took him home. They started going out and were planning to get married when he was called up. He went to the Somme and never came back, and Lily never married.
Harry Holmes was a decorated war hero when he returned to Bradford to be a painter and decorator. He became good friends with Harry Ramsden (of fish'n chip shop fame). The pair loved to while away the hours down the pub, but when Harry R found a tee-total wife, the pub trips had to stop...until Harry H hatched a cunning plan, for Harry R buy a dog so that they could walk it (to the pub) every day! This continued for many years, unbeknownst to Harry R's wife. When Harry R passed away, his wife had to start walking the dog. It promptly lead her to the pub where Harry H was propping up the bar...
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2015
"In Magic Lantern Tales (2015), settings of poems by Ian McMillan which have a strong anti-war theme, the overall effect is touching and strongly characterised." Arnold Whittall, Gramophone Magazine
"In Magic Lantern Tales, on World War One poems by Ian McMillan, the composer follows a well worn English path, but with her own highly persuasive contemporary language. Words and music are seamless partners equal partners, just as they should be..." Jessica Duchen, BBC Music Magazine
"Just over three minutes long, this [Marching through time] is a marvellously crafted song which, through the expanding bare fifths and octaves in the accompaniment, the rhythmic and resonant intimation of military echoes, and the tense heightening of the vocal line, travels widely through time, place and emotions. The ascending line, “Stories rebuild just what wartime destroys”, spills intensely into a densely accompanied proclamation: “And a photograph is a kind of map.” Spence’s unaccompanied voice bursts with the anguished weight of memory, “That story lifting up the tentflap of history”. There is a subtle chromatic alteration in the repeated final line, “Stories as brittle as glass”, to which Spence adds timbral nuance, which is both beautiful and anguished. Such precise musical insight into the relationship between sound, sense and sensibility is characteristic of Frances-Hoad’s writing...
The piano introduction to Lily Maynard swings with a lovely lop-sided lilt, which is complemented by Spence’s warm, affectionate tone in the refrain, “Come on Lily, Let’s go walking”, and as the song and journey into memory proceed, so the enriching of the piano’s harmony expresses first a sensuous passion, “Heating up the air something magical”, and then a pained portentousness, “And you pictured him in a trench/ Cowering and crying like a baby.” Spence’s repetitions of Lily’s name somehow seems both encouraging and tormenting, but the softness of the tenor’s head voice in the final refrain, “We’ll talk as we’re walking/ And pretend you’re young again,/ Lily”, follows Kynoch’s star-bound accompaniment into the air and we too are borne aloft on Lily’s dreams and memories.
The Ballad of Harry Holmes, like Lily Maynard, evokes a war-time song, but now wistfulness is replaced by chirpy resilience, as Spence’s narrator launches with rollicking gusto into this tale of brave Harry who meets bombs, barbed wire and a bonfire-sky with the pragmatic refrain: “All O want when I get through this,/Is a stroll, and a pint, and a kiss.” The rattling spikiness and quirkiness of the piano’s ringing tattoo - which reappears in various guises through the tale - brings Britten to mind, as does the text-setting. Spence’s expansive, galloping laudation, “I guess Harry was a hero”, is halted by the half-spoken whisper, “don’t take me…”, uttered in the “stinking night” to the dark terror. Frances-Hoad whips us through an extraordinary panoply of fluctuation moods and emotions. A cockney voice yelps with joy, “Harry, it’s over!”; the perennial bird-song stills the bombs; Harry’s chest puffs with pride on his home streets of Bradford; Harry-the-decorator dismisses his Military Cross in Yorkshire brogue, “a medal’s just a gaudy lump of tin”; he and Harry Ramsden of chip-shop fame hatch plots to frequent the Crown Inn when Harry R’s wife objects to his ale glugging. Frances-Hoad paints vivid pictures of Harry’s life and at the close, when Spence reflects, “Now Harry’s tale has been told”, we feel that we’ve travelled with him through his adventures and that we know him well, and love him.
The rhythmic ambiguities of the destabilising piano ‘clock-ticking’ in Mabel Walsh suggest the centenarian’s straddling and merging of past and present. The effect is heightened by the piano’s gentle inter-verse ringing, a motif which is drily reiterated at the close as we hear “the hourly chimes/ Struck silent by that bastard war”.
Claire Seymour, Opera Today
Performance history (post-premiere)
15th February 2019 (two songs) - James Way and Ceri Owen at Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge, UK. Part of the inaugural Cambridge Song Festival, opening concert.
6th April 2019 - Ted Black and Rachel Fright at the Oxford Lieder Festival Young Artist Platform (Marching Through Time only)