Burnham Wick

David Matthews (1943)

Burnham Wick 1997

1111 - 1000 - perc(1) - harp - strings

Burnham Wick, Op. 73 Commissioned for the Britten Sinfonia and Nicholas Cleobury, Burnham Wick is a large farm on the Essex marshland east of Burnham-on-Crouch (Wick is Anglo-Saxon for dairy farm). It was while on a walk here on at the end of May 1997 that I conceived the first ideas for this piece. Corn Buntings were singing loudly, and I wrote down their jangly upward scale, and in the background was the continuous song of Skylarks. Both songs appear in my piece: the Corn Bunting’s as a frequently occurring short motif, the Skylark’s in a semi-improvised passage for solo violin towards the end. Burnham Wick might be described as a modern pastoral, but it stands somewhat apart from the tradition represented by, for instance, Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending to which my own Skylark makes a comradely allusion. That earlier pastoral tradition in British music belonged to a more innocent age which is gone forever, and so it cannot be sustained. There is an almost universally held feeling today that nature is fighting a losing battle with man. In the face of our profound melancholy about the future, it is hard to celebrate the beauty of nature without lapsing into nostalgia and sentimentality. Nature, however, is not yet spent, nor are we obliged to deconstruct the delight we may feel on a country walk. And it is particularly appropriate for us now, with our acute awareness of the past, to look deeper into our landscape, beyond the innocent eye. In writing this piece I have been influenced by Simon Schama’s marvellous book Landscape and Memory, which shows how the contours of our landscape everywhere reveal the influence of man, and how the “veins of myth and memory” lie beneath the surface of things, awaiting rediscovery. Burnham Wick is scored for wind quintet, harp, percussion and strings and is in a single movement divided into six sections. The first is a pastoral idyll; the second a series of three dances increasing in tempo. The third begins with a big, expressive theme for the first violins, and ends with a series of cadenzas for the wind instruments. The fourth section recapitulates the second, more quietly; the fifth begins with a repeat of the violin theme developed over the whole string section, softens into the Skylark passage over quietly sustained string chords, and ends with the wind instruments, now dispersed in four positions away from the stage, playing the material of the first section. The last section begins with a light-hearted quodlibet, with the winds now in their normal places but again as soloists, leading to a boisterous conclusion: the return to the city, perhaps. In memory of Michael Tippett.

David Matthews

10.3.98 Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham: Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
22.2.99 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London: Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
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