Matthew Schellhorn


DAVID BRUCE (b. 1970)
The shadow of the blackbird (2010)
for solo piano | 8' | UK Premiere 2012
  • SummaryOpen or Close
    The shadow of the blackbird by David Bruce was given its UK premiere as part of a birdsong-themed recital built around Matthew Schellhorn's Wigmore Hall debut programme.
  • Programme noteOpen or Close
    Art can be used to express the joy of living – something I think I've done in my more 'good-humoured' pieces, like Piosenki and Steampunk. But it can also of course be used to reflect on the deeper mysteries of existence. For me, Wallace Stevens' poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is one of the most moving meditations on life's mystery; moving partly because it circles around the mystery without trying to explain it – the poem seems to have a gaping hole at its center, which is the very mystery, the 'indecipherable cause' it reflects upon. I particularly liked the image of the 'shadow of the blackbird' found in the seventh stanza. If the blackbird in the poem is a mysterious, mystical bird, which is sometimes real, sometimes symbol – it might be god, life or death – then how much more mysterious is its shadow.

    A common starting point for me in a piece is instrumental colour, and I often draw inspiration from the types of writing found in folk music. As a result, for many years writing for piano has been something of a challenge for me, I think partly because it has little music that could be considered 'roots' in the folk-sense – other than perhaps boogie and blues. When I started talking with Bruce Levingston about writing a piece for him he sent me a recording he had made of Schumann's Kreisleriana. Although it was a piece I knew well, the sensitivity of Bruce's playing moved me and I was struck by the feeling that this was, in a way 'roots music' for piano. I borrowed the first few notes of the Schumann's masterpiece and started tinkering. The piece developed from there.

    The shadow of the blackbird is in two movements, which – like the Schumann – both have something of a fantasia quality to them. The first movement begins with fast-paced gestures that keep converging onto a single fast-repeated note. This is contrasted with a more chordal section. Throughout the rest of the movement the two ideas are gradually more and more interwoven with one another. Throughout the movement there are accelerandi and rallentandi, as if time is being shifted beneath our feet.

    The second movement also plays with our perception of time, as a gently rocking melody and accompaniment are constantly shifting tempo back and too, never quite settling into one tempo or another. The movement is much more delicate than the first, becoming more and more fragile, with the melody line fragmenting into multiple overlapping shards at times. After the final most extreme fragmentation, we arrive suddenly, as if through a worm-hole back where we started in the first movement, only now with a deepened sense of mystery.

    © David Bruce 2011

    'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' (from Harmonium) by Wallace Stevens

    Among twenty snowy mountains,
    The only moving thing
    Was the eye of the blackbird.

    I was of three minds,
    Like a tree
    In which there are three blackbirds.

    The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
    It was a small part of the pantomime.

    A man and a woman
    Are one.
    A man and a woman and a blackbird
    Are one.

    I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of inflections
    Or the beauty of innuendoes,
    The blackbird whistling
    Or just after.

    Icicles filled the long window
    With barbaric glass.
    The shadow of the blackbird
    Crossed it, to and fro.
    The mood
    Traced in the shadow
    An indecipherable cause.

    O thin men of Haddam,
    Why do you imagine golden birds?
    Do you not see how the blackbird
    Walks around the feet
    Of the women about you?

    I know noble accents
    And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
    But I know, too,
    That the blackbird is involved
    In what I know.

    When the blackbird flew out of sight,
    It marked the edge
    Of one of many circles.

    At the sight of blackbirds
    Flying in a green light,
    Even the bawds of euphony
    Would cry out sharply.

    He rode over Connecticut
    In a glass coach.
    Once, a fear pierced him,
    In that he mistook
    The shadow of his equipage
    For blackbirds.

    The river is moving.
    The blackbird must be flying.

    It was evening all afternoon.
    It was snowing
    And it was going to snow.
    The blackbird sat
    In the cedar-limbs.
  • PerformancesOpen or Close
    29 February 2012
    Michael Tippett Centre, Bath, UK
    UK Premiere
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