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Two Rivers

posted on 2023-06-07, 19:59 authored by Martin Butler
Two Rivers was commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir, with financial assistance from Southern Arts, and was completed in the autumn of 2000. In thinking about the project, I was very struck by something the composer Nicholas Maw said about choral texts (as opposed to any other kind): that they should only deal with universal themes (life, death, love), the idea being that the multiplicity of voices in a choir represents a collective, universal identity. My chosen universal theme for this piece rivers came about by a rather circuitous route. I had initially wanted to find texts about Oxford, and by writers associated with that city (of which there are, of course, hundreds). But then, prompted by a couple of sonnets by Wordsworth, the focus became the River Thames. Soon after that, I remembered the opening chapter of Timothy Mos great novel An Insular Possession with its breathtaking (and symbolically universal) description of the Pearl River in 19th Century Hong Kong, and wondered despite the problems of setting dense prose whether it could provide a contrast, or foil to the Wordsworth. Whitmans Crossing Brooklyn Ferry crept in stealthily, fairly late in the day, and almost inevitably, I felt (hes surely one of the most set to music poets ever). And then the Wordsworth, by this stage envisaged as a small, quiet centrepiece to the two longer texts, simply got squeezed out by their bulk and sweeping universality. So, in the end, nothing even about English rivers, let alone Oxford. There is much that connects the Mo and the Whitman, most obviously their shared view of their respective rivers as symbols and agents of culture, history, social conditioning and economic circumstance. They both celebrate the rivers power and majesty, and they both connect it directly to the human condition. Whitmans ecstatic and spiritual outpouring, close to being over the top, nevertheless contrasts well with Mos rather more measured and brooding portrait. The music of Two Rivers attempts to capture these universal qualities in its broad and episodic structure (it runs as a continuous 25-minute whole, although clearly in two parts which are connected by an extended orchestral transition); but it also tries to unify the texts by having the two parts share a common principal thematic idea. This idea is transformed, in many different ways, throughout the piece but is almost always present somewhere in the musical fabric. Unity (of purpose, or of vision) is also suggested by the coda, a transplanted version of music first heard quite early on in the work, in which the common thematic idea is heard for the last time on sonorous, low-register horns set against the aqueous waves of the strings.


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Oxford University Press



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  • Music Publications


25 mins. tenor chorus full orchestra.Vocal and instrumental scores - ISBN 978-0-19-355786-4

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