Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-83) - Islands

Recorded live on 15th February 2013. Duration 32 mins 9 secs

Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-83)
Islands, Op. 80
This Island
The Isle
The Isle of Aros
The Ringing Island

Working at customary speed, Lutyens produced this almost-half-hour score within a few weeks in the winter of 1970-71, for a première at the annual festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in London the following June. She was by some way the oldest living composer on the programme for that occasion, but also one of the freshest, and Islands received a vivid performance, sung by Philip Langridge and Jane Manning, with David Atherton conducting the London Sinfonietta. Such an arrival should have lodged it in the collective memory; however, this evening’s performance is the first in thirty years.

There are four islands, radically different places. The first is Lemnos, where Philoctetes, in excerpts from the Sophocles play as translated by the Greek theatre director Minos Volonakis, is bewailing his fate, abandoned alone by his fellow Greeks on account of his offensive wound. Then comes the flower-jewelled island of a poem by Shelley, followed by Aros and its mighty waves, from a story Robert Louis Stevenson based on a Hebridean island he had visited. Last of the four is the imaginary Ringing Island, inhabited by birds with all too human characteristics in one of Rabelais’s satirical fantasies.

Unalike as they are, the islands make a symphonic sequence, with a big, argumentative first movement, a contrasted pair in the middle, lyrical and dramatic, and a strongly unified finale. These are also islands of voice in instrumental environments, and again diverse as such. The tenor in the first movement sings as the spurned hero; the piece is a quasi-operatic scena, the soloist’s emotional and existential state expressed in the vocal line and reflected in the ensemble, whereas the soprano in the Shelley song is a brilliant vehicle for beautiful words. Stevenson’s depiction, introduced by a wonderfully eruptive theme on baritone sax, has both singers working to describe the awesome phenomenon, and in the finale they become almost wordless, the inhabitants of the Ringing Island, as it is laid out for us by a narrator and by the continuous chiming of the ensemble.

We could also understand the movements as four stages in an unfolding drama, where the focus moves out from individual human suffering through two unalike experiences of the non-human world, exquisite and menacing, to a view of general human absurdity.

© Paul Griffiths

ABOUT THE COMPOSER: Elisabeth Lutyens
Credited with the first twelve-note piece in British music (her Chamber Concerto of 1939), Lutyens was always a contrarian: a modernist before it became fashionable, a devil’s advocate once it was, and a composer who preferred doing things her way, to the extent of writing philosophical operas to her own librettos, even when there was no immediate prospect of performance. Eventually, by her sixties, she was part of the scenery, productive herself – especially of chamber music, with or without voice – and an encouraging influence on younger composers. Her father was the architect Edwin Lutyens.

Mark Heron - conductor
Gillian Keith - soprano
James Oxley - tenor
Richard Suart - narrator

Conrad Marshall - flute
Dov Goldberg - clarinet/saxophone
Neil Grundy - horn
Richard Casey - keyboards
Tim Williams - percussion
David Lewis - percussion
Benedict Holland - violin
David Aspin - viola
Jennifer Langridge - cello

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