My Day in Hell
For String Quartet
(2010) 10 minutes
Cheryl Frances-Hoad was a winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2007. As a result she was awarded the first ever Susan Bradshaw Composers' Fund Commission to write My day in Hell for the Cheltenham Festival 2008. The work was premiered at the Pitville Pump Room in August by the Dante Quartet during the festival.
Upon winning one of the RPS Composition Prizes I was delighted to be told that I could decide exactly what I wanted to write for the 2008 Cheltenham Festival. I’d always wanted to write a string quartet, but was a bit daunted when I heard that the Dante Quartet (whom I was to write for) were commissioning new works inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, mainly because I’d never read a word of it. Nevertheless this sounded very exciting, so I panic-bought the thirteen-hour audio book and set about listening to it during a particularly bad bought of flu. This probably had quite a strong influence on my interpretation of Dante’s travels (being half asleep through some passages and then waking to descriptions of sinners submerged neck-deep in rivers of boiling blood did interesting things to my dreams and little to sooth my fever).
Not to my surprise, I discovered that my relatively blameless life would nevertheless land me (at the very best) somewhere in Purgatory’s grottier places should I decide to die without repenting. So I set about re-reading Inferno and Purgatorio to find out how I’d end up being punished for my sloth, hypocrisy, indolence, lust and gluttony amongst other (in my view) debatable sins, and based the quartet on this unsavoury imaginary day trip.
Other than the evocative descriptions of each sin’s punishment, the piece is influenced by Dante’s numerical organisation of Hell and Purgatory. For instance, Hell is organised into 10 circles: 4 of Incontinence (an uncontrolled appetite for all sorts of things), 1 of Violence, 2 of Fraud, 1 of Misbelief (the Heretics), 1 of Unbelief (Limbo) and 1 Vestibule of the Futile. These circles are organised into 3 groups (3 being the number of the Holy Trinity) of 7 (the number of the deadly sins), 2 and 1. They permeate the entire fabric of the piece, determining durations of sections, influencing chordal structure, rhythmic organisation and melodic lines.
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2008
"The music is highly wrought, yet piled high with emotional content, and in a curious way it is very English-sounding too..."
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
"My Day in Hell (2007) found Cheryl Frances Hoad grappling with the implications of Dante's “Divine Comedy” in a diverse yet tautly argued movement structured around the proportions of Hell as its most famous commentator envisioned it. For all that, an element of 'comedy' – at least in the human sense – ensured that the musical response never became overbearing. A striking piece from someone with something to say."
Richard Whitehouse, Classical Source
Performance history (post-premiere)
4th October 2019 - The Gildas Quartet at St Edmund King & Martyr Church, Southwold, UK, as part of the Alwyn Festival
4th July 2018 - The Gildas Quartet at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, Australia
4th May 2017 - The Gildas Quartet at Kansas Smittys, London, UK
20th February 2011 - The Wu String Quartet at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK
14th January 2010 - The Finzi Quartet at The Purcell Room, London UK as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series
Due for release by Champs Hill Records (on The Whole Earth Dances, Cheryl's fifth disc with the label) in 2020.