Matthew Schellhorn


SIMON SMITH (b. 1983)
Elegy (2011–12)
for tenor, horn and piano | 11' | World Premiere 2012
  • SummaryOpen or Close
    Matthew Schellhorn gave the world premiere of Simon Smith's Elegy during a recital for Seaton Music in Devon. This dramatic and moving work is a setting of the most famous poem by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, who was himself a young fatality during the Second World War.
  • Programme noteOpen or Close
    My Elegy is a setting of the poem Elegy on… [a Polish boy] by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, a Polish war poet who, despite being killed at the age of only 23 in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, wrote over 500 poems of which this is among the best-known. I first attempted to set this text three years ago as a piece for 16-part chorus. After only a few lines I became aware that the music I was writing was somehow expressively inappropriate to the text, and I was unable to find a way forward with it; it was effectively a dead end. I was happy with the music itself, which instead became part of my orchestral piece Against All Things Ending, which was finished at the end of 2009. Meanwhile the small book containing this poem sat by my piano collecting dust.

    When I was then asked early in 2011 to write a piece for tenor, horn and piano, with a free choice of text, it seemed the ideal opportunity to revisit the poem. I soon had a structural plan for the piece, but the music was composed out of order and over a long period of time (at least six months); in fact, the piano part was mostly written first, in sections, though I was always aware of the part of the poem for which each section was intended. Then the horn part and vocal line were added. This was deliberate, the intention being not to write a piece for tenor and horn with a piano accompaniment, but rather for the texture to be as integrated as possible in the circumstances: the tenor and horn complement the harmony in the piano, as well as often acting in tandem as a sort of compound voice, each shadowing the other.

    The exception is the beginning of the song, which is a horn solo, setting out some of the basic pitch material for the piece. The text is then presented as three verses of four lines each, separated by short interludes for horn and piano, as well as a further brief interlude in the middle of the second verse.

    The piece was originally intended to finish with the end of the text, but in December I decided to write an extended postlude for horn and piano, which was finished on Christmas Day. Certain small features of the postlude then fed back into the main song which was not completed for another month. Compositionally the postlude was inspired by a reacquaintance with Brahms’ Chorale Preludes for organ, Op 122 (his last composition), in particular his two memorable treatments of the melody O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, which I present in full here.

    © 2012 Simon Smith

    Elegia o… [chłopcu polskim]

    Oddzielili cię, syneczku, od snów, co jak motyl drżą,
    haftowali ci syneczku, smutne oczy rudą krwią,
    malowali krajobrazy w żółte śćiegi pożóg,
    wyszywali wisielcami drzew płynące morze.

    Wyuczyli cię, syneczku, ziemi twej na pamięc,
    gdyś jej ścieżki powycinał żelaznymi łzami.
    Odchowali cię w ciemności, odkarmili bochnem trwóg,
    przemierzyłeś po omacku najwstydliwsze z ludzkich dróg.

    I wyszedleś, jasny synku, z czarną bronią w noc,
    i pozcułeś, jak się jeży w dźwięku minut – zło.
    Zanim padłeś, jeszcze ziemię przeżegnałeś ręką.
    Czy to była kula, synku, czy to serce pękło?

    Elegy on… [a Polish boy]

    They separated you, little son, from dreams which flutter like a butterfly,
    they embroidered your cheerless eyes, little son, with crimson blood,
    they painted landscapes with yellow stitches of conflagrations,
    they embroidered a flowing sea of trees with hanged men.

    They taught you, little son, your land by rote,
    after you carved its footpaths with iron tears.
    They reared you in darkness, fed on a loaf of terrors,
    you paced blindly the most disgraceful human routes.

    And you came out, bright son, with a black weapon into the night,
    and you felt how the evil bristles in the sound of minutes.
    Before you fell down, still you crossed the land with your hand.
    Was it a bullet, son, or did your heart break?

    Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, 30 March 1944
    literal translation by Piotr Wiśniewski

    picture: Józef Szermentowski, Stary żołnierz i dziecko w parku (1869)
  • PerformancesOpen or Close
    16 February 2012
    Town Hall, Seaton, UK; with John McMunn (tenor), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn)
    World Premiere
  • Concert reviewsOpen or Close
    "The main work in the second half was a world première - a piece by English composer Simon Smith (b. 1983) Elegy on … (a Polish boy). Already much respected as a pianist and composer, his full programme notes, together with a translation of the original Polish text (by Krzystof Kamil Baczynski) helped to understand the structure and mood of the piece, which evokes some or the horrors, and the destruction, of life in occupied Poland in 1944. The horn part and the vocal line complementing the piano part, which is far more than an accompaniment, made a moving evocation of the poem. The composer enjoyed enthusiastic applause from the audience at the end of the piece."
    Peter Dawson, Midweek Herald, 22 February 2012
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