A long-held wish to write a choral and orchestral piece was given a more specific impetus when, in the summer of 1960, a friend suggested setting Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle; when, later on, the BBC offered me a commission to write a new work for the Promenade Concerts, this gave me the opportunity of carrying out the idea.
Much has been written about The Phoenix and the Turtle (it has even been doubted whether Shakespeare is the author) and many different interpretations of it have been advanced. But the very diversity of interpretations is perhaps a sign rather of its strength and suggestibility. Certainly some atmosphere of mystery surrounds this poem, with its strange assembly of birds; but at the same time the description of the pure, platonic love between the phoenix and her turtle builds up a climax of extraordinary intensity and passion. It was a combination of all these characteristics that made this poem an immediate and exciting choice.
There are three parts to the poem - the assembly of the birds for the funeral ceremony; an impressive and powerful description of the love of the phoenix and the turtle; and lastly the lyrical ‘threne’ which speaks of their complete identity in death.
My main concern when composing this work was to make the music completely continuous, not to break the flow with distinct cadences or sections and to have long interweaving phrases which nevertheless should be clearly articulated. This process is in complete contrast to my recent Chamber Concerto, which is built in short, contrasted yet related sections.
The larger musical sections follow on, therefore, without any break and correspond to those of the poem. The first part is mainly slow and solemn, and the merging sound of bells, vibraphone, and gongs evoke the elegiac atmosphere. The second part, which forms the main climax, is in a much faster tempo and has more complicated textures. The last part is more lyrical, again in a slow tempo, it recapitulates some ideas from both of the previous sections, but now in a different mood and colour.
The work is written for an orchestra of normal symphonic proportions but the choir should be relatively small, so as to retain the necessary flexibility and rhythmic precision
The Phonenix and the Turtle
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou, shrieking harginer,
Foul pre-currer of the fiend.
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wind,
Save the eagle, feather’d king.
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-diving swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right;
And thou, treble-dated crow.
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So the love’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distnace, and no space was seen
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.
Sop between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoneix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appall’d,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was call’d.
Reason in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded
That it cried how tru a twain
Seemeth this concordant one.
Love hath reason, reason none
If what parts can so remain.
Whereupon it made this threne
To the phoneix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.
Beauty, truth and rarity,
Grave in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d in cinders lie.
Death is now the phoenix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity -
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be
Beauty brag, but ‘tis not she,
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.