Channel Firing

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Recording by Norrköping Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Martyn Brabbins
By kind permission of Bis Records

The title comes from a poem by Thomas Hardy. It was written shortly before the outbreak of the Great War and it describes a scene at night in a churchyard on the south coast of England.

The sound of gunfire splits the night air, a sound loud enough to wake the dead, which in this case it actually does. The dead rise up thinking it is the last judgement. God tells them it is a false alarm – only the sound of gunnery practice at sea – but that if this were the judgement hour, those responsible would have to ‘scour Hell’s floor for so much threatening’. Finally, the dead return to their graves, lamenting the folly of the human race, and the shelling resumes.

My orchestral piece is the third in a series of ‘symphonic poems’ (for want of a better term) which are all connected with the sea. In my imagination the other two, Sea-Change (1988-89) and The Flight of Icarus (1990), were, respectively, devoid of human characters and peopled by mythological figures. In Channel Firing, this land-and-seascape of the mind is inhabited by figures who are all too human and it is consequently the darkest of the three works.

The piece is an elegy, sustained over a time-scale of some twenty five minutes. The background is that of a solemn processional, whose progress is violently disrupted in the middle.

The form basically divides into three parts, slow-fast-slow, and the whole work is haunted by chords from the doom-laden prelude to Act 2 of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Additionally, the bleak landscape of Sibelius’ Tapiola – one of my favourite pieces proved to be a powerful inspiration during the work’s protracted gestation.

It should be emphasised that there is no attempt to ‘illustrate’ Hardy’s poem. Instead, it is its peculiar, visionary atmosphere which stimulated the music. Channel Firing is dedicated to the memory of my composition teacher, William Mathias, who commissioned it for the North Wales Music Festival and who read the earlier portions of the work in manuscript.

John Pickard