One Life Stand
For Mezzo Soprano and Piano
(2011) 25 minutes
Commissioned by the 2011 Cambridge Summer Music Festival, premiered by Jennifer Johnston and Joseph Middleton on 20th July at Little St. Mary's Church, Cambridge.
The idea for One Life Stand originated from a discussion over lunch in Cambridge with my friend Jennifer Johnston. She was bemoaning the fact that, although she loved to sing Schumann’s Frauen-Liebe und Leben (Women’s Lives and Loves), and was always being asked to do so, she foundnd Chamisso’s words rather outdated and suggested I write an updated version. I jumped at the chance, and by pudding we were already thinking about whose poetry I might set.
A few weeks later, during a meeting with Chris Gribble, (Chief Executive of Writers’ Centre Norwich) he told us that the crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah had recently moved to Cambridge and had many suitable poems. It wasn’t long before we all met up for lunch and began discussing the contenders for a series of poems that might portray a modern woman’s life and loves. To begin with I had a list of about twenty-five poems that I would have liked to set, taken from four of Sophie’s poetry collections (The Hero and the Girl Next Door (1995), Hotels like Houses (1996), First of the Last Chances (2003) and Pessimism for Beginners (2007: all published by Carcanet Press), but the finnal eight in my view come together to form a narrative that is clear yet open to interpretation, and contains the whole gamut of complex emotions (both serious and humorous) that made the poems such a dream to set to music.
Although the idea for the work originated as a reaction to Chamisso’s poetry, in the course of composing the cycle I found much inspiration from Schumann’s song cycle, and many of the songs in my work are based very closely on either the harmony and/or the motivic material of what in my view is the “corresponding” song in Frauen-Liebe und
Leben. In particular it has been Schumann’s very varied (but always totally appropriate) use of piano textures that has been most inspiring, and the way that he treats the relationship between the voice and piano fascinates me: at times the voice is very independent from the piano, whereas at other points the piano doubles long phrases of the vocal line. However, when the latter occurs there are frequently very subtle differences between the doubled melodic lines: a resolution of a suspension may occur a quaver earlier in the piano than in the voice for instance, and the tension and dissonance these small moments create seem to me to perfectly describe the yearning quality of the poems that this musical device features in. One of the wonderful things about writing a new composition that is a companion piece to a great work is that you get to know the original work from the “inside out” as it were, and it is often the subtlest nuances of texture and harmony that become most important inspiration.
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2011
"Best of all is One Life Stand, a cycle of poems by Sophie Hannah, which follows a girl from dating to bereavement. Voice and piano are combined in all manner of inventive ways and it packs a hefty emotional punch." Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine
"One Life Stand (2011) for mezzo soprano and piano epitomises the wonderful inventiveness and persuasiveness of Frances-Hoad’s response to iconic compositions of the past, and the thoughtfulness and acuity of her text setting. The eight songs of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (Women’s Live and Loves) describe a woman’s love, from her point-of-view, from her first meeting with her beloved, through marriage, to her husband’s death and beyond. Apparently prompted by singer Jennifer Johnston’s remark that the nineteenth-century perspective of Chamisso’s poems was now rather outdated, Frances-Hoad has revisited a woman’s ‘one life stand’ through settings of eight poems by the crime writer Sophie Hannah, and has created a musical narrative which spans from the first bloom of passion to the grief of bereavement.
From the two rocking chords which form the opening bars of the piano accompaniment of the first song, Brief Encounter, there is a sustained conversation between the accompaniment and voice, and a diversity of texture that is a worthy homage to Schumann. Jennifer Johnstone’s line is pure and eloquent, her intonation dead-centre: the melodic arcs soar above diverse scintillating piano textures and figurations which are articulated with bright clarity by Joseph Middleton. The harmonic language beguiles with Romantic sumptuousness at times but is never indulgent, and unaccompanied vocal phrases both isolate sentiments and add sincerity.
There is humour too: indeed, the titles of the songs often speak drolly:The Pros and the Cons, The Ante-Natal, Rubbish at Adultery. And, this is echoed in musical details such as the brusque, quiet perfect cadence which closes The Pros and Cons, wriggling piano accompaniment to Rubbish at Adultery (meticulously executed by Middleton), and the dry chordal accompaniment which punctuates with wry emphasis the text of The Ante-natal.
I was reminded, in terms of both the text setting, vocal flamboyance, and pithy accompanying gestures, of Britten’s Cabaret Songs of 1937-39 — indeed the neatness of the rhymes seems to match Auden’s wry verbal dexterity: ‘My husband mocks the books with their advice about nutrition,/ He shocks the other couples in the coffee intermission.’
In contrast, Tide to Land has a rolling melodicism which recalls the songs of Gerald Finzi, underpinned as this song is first by linear, exploratory textures and harmonic inflections, and then by repeating chords in the keyboard. Johnstone securely negotiates the abrupt changes of register, and her lower voice has a soft beguiling quality; she wraps her alluring mezzo around the elegiac lines most beautifully. But, there is darkness, too, at the start of Shadow Tree, in the ominous, slow, low- and close-registered piano chords which seem to compress emotion; and, the distance between the cloudy accompaniment and floating vocal line isolates the voice in loneliness — this song is the emotional centre of the cycle. Here and elsewhere the melodic poise, elasticity and naturalness recall Britten vocal lines in works such as the early Hymn to St Cecilia, and the later canticles.
The gentle reticence of the textures and harmonic language of In the Chill — which contrast with intermittent expanses of volume and density — movingly convey the destabilising unpredictability and impact of loss. The final song, The Cycle, begins with contained but agitated figures in the piano which ascend to the highest registers, plucking at the nerve-strings. There is restlessness in the rippling arpeggios which follow as the voice seems to strive upwards, futilely seeking resolution, frustrated yearnings as the music repeatedly breaks off into silence. In conclusion, however, there is some consolation, with the return of the rocking chords of the first song Brief Encounter: perhaps one woman’s song of life and love belongs to us all, ever to be repeated"
Claire Seymour, Opera Today
Performance history (post-premiere)
16th March 2019 - Sarah Widmerand Edward Rushton (selected songs)
23 October 2018 - Felicity Turner and Natalie Burch at 22nd Mansfield Stree, London, UK
2nd and 5th October 2018 - Sarah Widman and Edward Rushton at Keller62, Zurich, Switzerland
14th and 15th September 2018 - Sarah Widman and Edward Rushton at Safe im Unternehmen Mitte, Basel, Swizterland
17th September 2017 - Calliope’s Call at Chestnut Hill, USA
16th September 2017 - Calliope’s Call in Boston, USA
10th September 2017 - Calliope’s Call in Moorestown, NJ, USA
9th September 2017 - Calliope’s Call in Princeton, NJ, USA
9th September 2017 - Felicity Turner and Natalie Burch at Milton Court, London, UK
22nd February 2017 - Helen Anne Gregory and Jonathan Ellis at Arts at Trinity, Leeds, UK
11th October 2011- Jennifer Johnston and Joseph Middleton at The Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, UK