ENS.2017.3 | 15+’
Mezzo-soprano, Tenor & 4 Piccolos/Alto Flutes, 4 Percussion, String Quartet
Completed almost exactly two centuries to the day after John Keats sent a letter to his brother George Keats describing Captain Rossâ€™s recent journey to the far regions of the globe, my work Toward No Earthly Pole sets three Victorian texts about the Arctic for an unusual ensemble of two voices with quartets of flutes, percussion, and strings.
Beginning with the marvelous opening of Charlotte BronteÌˆâ€™s Jane Eyre, in which we find Jane escaping from her awful aunt and cousin in the leaves of Bewickâ€™s â€œHistory of British Birds,â€ immediately we are plunged into a frozen landscape of â€œnaked, melancholy isles,â€ â€œforlorn regions of dreary spaceâ€”that reservoir of frost and snow,â€ in which â€œtwo ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.â€ Sung by the mezzo-soprano, the music is hard and glittering, with rich alto flutes suggesting the melodic warmth of Janeâ€™s personality.
Next, to a clangorous accompaniment of pounding drums and shrieking piccolos, the tenor declaims the text of John Keatsâ€™s letter of 18 December 1818, a description of John Rossâ€™s arctic expedition as related by Keats’s friend, the painter Benjamin Haydon. He speaks of the ship â€œentirely surrounded with vast mountains and crags of ice,â€ the men â€œfatigued with the eternal dazzle and whiteness,â€ indulges in some nineteenth century imperialist racism as he singles out the native Inuit as â€œthe most wretched of beings,â€ before finding his way to the joy of the sailors as they see the stars once more.
Finally, the mezzo and tenor join together to sing Tennysonâ€™s magnificent epitaph for the nobly ignoble Sir John Franklin, leader of the greatest failure in all Victorian arctic exploration, as Toward No Earthly Pole reaches its dramatic conclusion.