The Bride of Flowers

What is Welsh music?

At a superficial level, it’s a great tradition of male voice choirs, and some lovely traditional ballads that most of the world thinks are English[1]. Anything more?

When the Independent Ballet Wales come to perform a new work The Bride of Flowers (google finds the story here), based on a story from the centrepiece of Welsh culture The Mabinogion, I was interested to see what they’d make of it. But Welsh music it is not: the score is by a young English composer Eleanor Turner, and draws heavily on English and other European traditions.

Having said that, the work as a whole is quite stunning and individual. It’s a fine story in best fairytale-ballet tradition[2]. The scene and lighting were gorgeous, and when characters were transformed to and from birds (the eagle and the owl[3]), it was done with a stunning shadow-play that brought forth audible gasps from the audience. The dance seems to grow from the scene and (often very subdued) light, and the blend of the visual, the music and the dance formed an organic whole that was more than the sum of its parts. At its best it was almost like the childhood wonder of a new sensory experience.

I’m completely ignorant of the technicalities of dance, so it’s only the music I can really describe. The composer was also the harpist, and the centrepiece of all the music. With her were a violin, a cello, and a solo Tenor voice. It sounded much bigger than a four-person band, but was alas recorded rather than live, perhaps due to budgetary constraints.

After a dark and evocative start, the second scene was the first of several to take a very traditional and derivative form: a theme and variations in the pure classical tradition of Beethoven et al. The theme was The Ash Grove, probably the only genuinely Welsh tune in the whole score. Overall, the major influence was the English tradition of the first half of the last century, particularly Vaughan Williams and Holst. But in a darker and more sinister scene we hear something that’s more Stravinsky or Ravel. And in the second act, a scene that’s pure Italian bel canto: Bellini or Donizetti. Not to mention the voices of Britten and Schubert in the two tenor songs!

Yes, that’s a lot of patchwork, and that kind of thing usually brings out the cynic in me (and if I’d heard the score in isolation, I’d probably not have been so impressed). But Turner is far more than a pastiche: her music has a life of its own, and adds something to all the ingredients. This is a young composer who has achieved a high level of mastery and musicianship, and has many years ahead of her to develop her own voice and individuality. I shall watch with interest.

[1] I’ve even seen “all through the night” taught as english!

[2] I didn’t hear Tchaikovsky in the music, yet I found myself humming Swan Lake on the way home by … hmm … evocative association?

[3] Must re-read The Owl Service – this is the same owl.

Posted on September 29, 2007, in entertainment, music. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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