Tristessa

Michael Berkeley (1948)

Tristessa 2003

2223-4331-2 perc-hp-strings
Duration 
21
Solist 
Genre 
Commissioner 

Tristessa was commissioned by the BBC for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Tristessa was written very much with particular players in mind. One of the great advantages of having an association with an orchestra is that, as a composer, you get to know the particular qualities of various individuals while, correspondingly, the orchestra begins to get a feel for the nature of your musical language. Although there are two soloists in Tristessa, it is not a concerto but rather a tone poem in which a solo Viola and Cor Anglais are the chief protagonists, but where there are also important roles for other instruments, such as the principal clarinet. The title comes from a pivotal character in Angela Carter's extraordinary and visionary novel The Passion of new Eve. Carter died prematurely of cancer, thus cutting short one of the most idiosyncratic and distinguished of literary careers. She was a close friend and even wrote a libretto for me for a possible opera on Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Tristessa is a similarly ambivalent creation both philosophically and sexually. The very word, Tristessa, suggests to me the lachrymose melancholy of a John Dowland lament. Angela's writing, however, has that element as well an intense, almost furious energy that I still find very inspiring. So Tristessa is a memorial to Angela. The music is not in any way programmatic but an abstract essay for which the personality of Tristessa is a starting point.

The piece lasts around 20 minutes and constantly returns to the glowing and still chords of the opening. These are marked "luminous" but are almost immediately darkened by plaintive chanting from the soloists who constantly speak with one entwined voice. Indeed the writing overall is quite linear and contrapuntal with the orchestra providing a shifting harmonic landscape. The music becomes more tense and then faster with Cor Anglais and Viola sometimes reflecting on the orchestral passages, sometimes intervening and sometimes leading. There are also absorbed and transmogrified references to other works of mine that have a similar motivation, most notably Entertaining Master Punch, itself an offshoot of my first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and the memorial elegy to Benjamin Britten that is the last movement of my Oboe Concerto. The apex of the score comes two thirds of the way through and is followed by a cadenza-like passage for the soloists but once again the sustaining of the line is more important than any overt show of virtuosity. An impassioned climax leads to a last recollection of the opening chords, irrevocably tainted now by the Cor Anglais and Viola finally arriving at, and sadly resigned to, their final destination.

Michael Berkeley

Performances 
29.5.03 St David's Hall, Cardiff: Steven Burnard / Celia Craig / BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Richard Hickox
2
Flute
2nd doubling piccolo & alto flute
2
Oboe
2
Clarinet
2nd doubling bass clarinet
3
Bassoon
3rd contrabassoon
4
Horn
3
Trumpet
3
Trombone
1
Tuba
2
Percussion
glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, gong, tambourine, tenor drum, bass drum, vibraphone
1
Harp
(Esc)