ENS.2016.2 | 38′
Poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Tenor & Alto Clarinet, Bassoon, Baritone Horn, Tuba, Cello, Bass
I have long been fascinated by the epic exploration of the Arctic in the nineteenth century, and having already composed an Arctic Symphony I wanted to write a song cycle dramatizing the futile search for a Northwest Passage. In particular the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845, lost with all hands, has exerted such a powerful fascination that in the decade after its mysterious disappearance more than fifty search expeditions sought to discover its fate, and only in the last several years were his ships finally discovered at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.
Some fifteen years after the expedition sailed, an undergraduate Algernon Charles Swinburne, not yet the controversial poet he would become, wrote The Death of Sir John Franklin for a competition. (He came in second.) Although it is on the surface a fairly standard heroic paean to the noble Englishman, this paradoxical work finds interest in its use of the Arctic and the person of Franklin as a hidden metaphor for the icy, passionate, lonely, resolute life of the artist.
In setting this nine-part poem I wanted both to mirror and question the work’s apparent narrative. Franklin may be considered heroic for leading his expedition to the unknown ends of the Earth, or he may be considered a fool for doing so with such little preparation for or understanding of his undertaking that every man under his command perished. In truth he was both. Accordingly, I have sometimes set Swinburne’s text elegiacally, other times sarcastically, sometimes with false pomp and unearned grandeur, and sometimes with somber fidelity.
Scored for an unusual ensemble, with a tenor recounting the narrative accompanied by a sextet of low instruments, The Death of Sir John Franklin is characterized by a preponderance of winds including an alto clarinet and baritone horn, instruments more often found in a concert band than a classical chamber group. These hopefully convey a somewhat lugubrious, Victorian atmosphere while still providing for a variety of colorful textures, from ripe clarinet tones to frigid string harmonics.