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Brian Elias

Publisher: Chester Music

Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya (1989)
Commissioned by the BBC
Text Writer
Irina Ratushinskaya
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
28 Minutes
Mezzo Soprano
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Programme Note
Brian Elias Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya (1989)
I first came across Irina Ratushinskaya’s poetry when the collection ‘No, I’m Not Afraid’ was published in England in early May 1986. The poems, the various circumstances in which they were written and the poet’s integrity, commitment and appalling situation (she was still imprisoned) all had a tremendous impact upon me. I was drawn inexorably into the world she describes so vividly. The powerful imagery of resistance, the acceptance of shattering realities and the fantasies of different kinds of escape made poetry of truly universal significance and urgency, and the idea of a setting for voice and large orchestra followed immediately.

Each of the settings (in Russian) is self-contained and quite different in mood and orchestration. However, I consider the songs as one piece, and the whole cycle is performed without a break. All the basic musical material, themes and motifs for the entire work are stated in the first few pages, and the order of the poems was chosen to provide an overall musical and dramatic shape that attempts to link them together and to reflect more than the immediate meaning of the individual poems.

‘It seemed to you that it was night’ is about waiting to be arrested and was written after the poet had served her first term in prison. The song alternates between the expression of resistance, optimism, and fearful anticipation.

The second song, ‘And I undid the old shawl’ is a fantasy and I have set it as a simple ballad with tune and pizzicato accompaniment.

‘No, I’m not afraid’ is a tragic and slow lament. The poem was written in May 1981 after the poet had applied to emigrate and before her first arrest. The mezzo-soprano is accompanied by an obbligato flugel horn.

The fourth song is violent and explodes out of the third. It is divided into three sections of increasing length (each signalled by downward figuration on strings and woodwind) and a coda which returns to the music of the third song. ‘Pencil Letter’ was written while the poet was held in solitary confinement as she waited for her trial. It is, in fact, the first part of a much longer poem since published in full. It is used in this earlier version by permission of the poet. Bells toll heavily at the end of the fourth song.

‘Mermaids, and stars with rays’, a poem about childhood and the sadness of growing up – the passage of time – leaves behind the weight of the previous two songs. Time is now counted out by lighter bells and the music gradually returns to the mood and tempo of the second song.

The piece was commissioned by the BBC for their 1988/9 Winter Season and lasts for approximately 25 minutes.

Brian Elias

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  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Martyn Brabbins
...this beautifully moving piece is really very impressive indeed.
--, Classical Music Web,01/11/2001
Despite an outwardly athletic handling of the orchestra, Elias masterfully creates the sense of ringing internalisation suggestive of a troubled mind....These are thoroughly imaginative scores, forged with insight to the respective texts.
Edward Bhesania, The Observer,24/12/2000
Elias is one of our most fastidious craftsmen, but these big orchestral songs...are shot through with furious dark passion.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,17/12/2000
One of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s more memorable first performances in the past few years ..a richly deserved second hearing...his music is very fine indeed...a tribute to his own rare talent: this is an altogether more exacting kind of composing than stringing together one twittering assembly of minimalist patterns after another...The work is also scored with an exceptional skill.
Malcolm Hayes, Sunday Telegraph,24/08/1991
...Elias’s setting of [Ratushinskaya's poems] ...has a certainty of its own: the music seems to have been commanded by the words to live to the utmost, and not only to project an expressionistic onslaught but also to tighten and purify itself, so that what is achieved is a kind of athletic keenness and even grace.....this Prom performance got more deeply and incisively into the grain of it...The orchestral playing was a fine tribute to Elias’s mastery.
Paul Griffiths, The Times (London),23/08/1991
...Elias’ resourceful score. The work runs continuously over a long span, and reveals a musical mind of depth and originality.
--, Music and Musicians,01/07/1989
Brian Elias is a composer who writes little, but writes well...the new song-cycle is a dazzlingly accomplished piece of writing for voice and orchestra, almost over-extravagant in its opulence.
Nicholas Kenyon, The Observer,30/04/1989
Elias responds...with rare imagination and technical skill....remarkable creations...the effect was to capture brilliantly both the poem’s lyrical sweep and its distancing irony.
Malcolm Hayes, The Sunday Telegraph,30/04/1989
[This] must count as one of the most imaginatively crafted and deeply felt scores to have been heard in London for some time...For Elias, the vocal-orchestral piece is his metier. ...the remarkable mood-creating, mood transforming work.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,30/04/1989
The new Elias cycle is orchestrally rich and dramatic ...Elias has not stinted on sharp musical invention, nor on dramatic contrast of his own devising...the pungently individual Elias voice.
David Murray, Financial Times,25/04/1989
“...The Five Songs is a work of stature, complimenting the fastidious but exotic interest of Elias’s previous orchestral song cycles...the success of the settings is...that Ratushinskaya’s spirit is so brilliantly released into the score...Elias is skilled in the art of writing genuinely fast music; and a keen orchestral ear keeps the textures open through a large ensemble, so that there is no weight to be transported....Elias’s settings read beyond the often intimate, confiding and domestic tone of the verse. He projects the anxieties and fears onto an epic scale; and that the voice at the centre of it all is cast in a comparatively modest cantabile style, motivated purely by melody, gives a poignant refinement to the focus of the work.
Michael John White, The Independent,25/04/1989
On any count this is a formidable achievement from a composer happily oblivious of current musical fashion...he is a natural communicator...Violent, evocative and darkly expressive by turns, his setting...directly reflect his profoundly emotional to the words...its clearly defined melodies and violently dramatic gestures...a sequence of memorable ideas, all with immediate impact. His boldness at every point pays off.
Edward Greenfield, The Guardian,25/04/1989
Elias is acutely sensitive to the direct and personal imagery of the words without compromising his own original ear for orchestral colour and effect...the instrumental daring ...imaginative fervour and concentration of Elias’s impressive response ...warm and deserved applause.
Robert Henderson, The Telegraph,25/04/1989
Brian Elias is not a composer to play for safety. His latest work...takes just about every possible risk, facing technical hazards in setting Russian words and putting them into the most rarely successful of musical forms, the orchestral song cycle and also going for moral danger in taking its texts from Prison poetry....Elias handles her verse with tact and care..there is such abundant inventiveness in this half-hour score. Amply gifted as an orchestral composer....the music responds directly to the mood and image, but finds a great deal else to do as well.....purified intensity, immediacy and unrestrained lyricism.
Paul Griffiths, The Times (London),24/04/1989
[Elias'] five songs combined intuition with imagination, capturing the essence of each poem with conspicuous sensibility and technical address.
Christopher Grier, Evening Standard (London),24/04/1989
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