Samuel, Rhian: Moon and Birds. Medium Voice and Piano
Four songs for medium voice and piano to poems by Anne Stevenson and Emily Dickinson.
1. Blackbird (Anne Stevenson) (b – g)
2. The moon is distant (Emily Dickinson) (b – g sharp)
3. Bird in hand (Anne Stevenson) (e flat – g flat)
4. On not being able to look at the moon (Anne Stevenson) (b – g)
For medium voice and piano or ensemble of flute, harp and string quartet, Moon and Birds is a substantial cycle of songs to words by Anne Stevenson and Emily Dickinson. Its sequence of four settings, ‘Blackbird’, ‘The moon is distant’ (Dickinson), ‘Bird in hand’ and ‘On not being able to look at the moon’ unfolds a symmetrical structure of contrasting yet interlocking moods in which the reflective second and fourth numbers, lunar visions of mystic tranquillity flawed by doubt and pain, temper with human frailty the bright epiphanies of the first and third songs.
There is a fascinating challenge here for the performer to embrace both elation and gravitas in a single reading, Samuel’s vigorous musical invention binding the developing web of feeling with its own formal strengths and subtly illustrative moments. In the version for string quartet, flute and harp, first performed by Contemporary Connections on 4 November 2011 at St James’s Church Piccadilly, the flute takes a prominent role throughout. Violins, viola and cello at times elaborate on the simpler textures of the keyboard version, though the two scores remain entirely compatible. The bluesy harmonies of the concluding number, whether weighted by sonorous string quartet or profiled in edgier piano chords, bring the cycle to a sombre conclusion with a proper sense of an emotional world traversed.