A concert for Yves Bonnefoy

It was a huge honour to welcome the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy to Robinson College, Cambridge, last week, to give a reading of his poetry and to hear a concert of music inspired by poetry.  Bonnefoy is unquestionably a major figure in poetry worldwide and his reading drew enthusiasts from far and wide.  He read with extraordinary straightforwardness and simplicity, and within this there was a striking dignity and solidity to his words.

yves_bonnefoy-712799Last year I wrote a piece closely based on one of Bonnefoy’s poems.  At the time I owned a book of his but had no expectation of ever meeting him nor of his ever hearing my piece.  But, through a chain of extraordinarily lucky chances, I ended up putting on this concert in which my piece was given its second performance in front of the poet, alongside other music based closely on specific poems, and with the poem in question read immediately before the music.  (This was a fun programme to devise – Richard Causton’s Sleep (based on Seferis); Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air (Baudelaire); Machaut/JT: Virelai ‘Dame, vostre doulze viaire’; Cheryl-Frances Hoad’s Bouleumeta (Euripides); Dutilleux’s De l’ombre et de silence (no poem for this one, but it was perfect at this point in the programme) and finally my piece Plus avant que l’étoile, based on Bonnefoy’s poem Deux Couleurs.)  These pieces were beautifully played by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick.

M. Bonnefoy was extraordinarily receptive and generous towards the music, and wrote an appreciation of my piece which I shall treasure.  I was lucky to spend much of the following weekend with him, which was full of warmth and lively conversation.  He has suggested that we take a similar programme of poems and music to perform at Tours next year; it would be wonderful to be revisit and continue what was a truly magical weekend.

Old wine in new bottles – 21st-century Machaut

This is a little piece I wrote on a whim.

poemI needed something very short to round out a programme of music based on poetry, for flute and piano.  All the best ideas were too long – I only really had 3 or 4 minutes to play with.  I thought it might be interesting to take a song of Guillaume de Machaut, the great 14th-century French poet and composer, who wrote both words and music for his songs.  Many of them are polyphonic, in 2, 3 or more parts, but the one I decided on in the end is a monody: some modern recordings add a drone, while others sing the melody completely unaccompanied.  Part of the beauty of the line comes from the delicate shifts of accent, as well as the elegant twists and turns of the melody, which at times has an almost arabesque quality.

The modern flute is not all that much like the instruments of Machaut’s time, and the modern Steinway still less so: this helped me, because I wanted to present the melody refracted through a vastly different, twenty-first-century sensibility.  I set it twice: first half-hidden in the piano, beneath gentle swirls and strands of languid counter-melody in the flute, and then plain and up-front, offset by crystalline chimes.

The premiere will be given by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick at a concert in Cambridge, given in honour of a visit from the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy next month.