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Derek Strahan's "Rose of The Bay", a cycle of 9 Songs about Sydney, for Mezzo-soprano, Clarinet & Piano. Duration, approx 52"00".
Music & Libretto by Derek Strahan, commissioned by Lauris Elms. First performance in November 1987 at the Sydney Opera House, performed by Lauris Elms, mezzo-soprano, Deborah de Graaff, clarinet and David Miller, piano. Studio recording by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) released by kind permission on Revolve CD RDS 003.
The very welcome opportunity to write a song-cycle for Lauris Elms brought with it some challenges. I wanted the cycle to have a dramatic unity in performance, making it closer in concept to a narrative from opera than to traditional lieder. The theme is: a subjective view of Sydney - the city seen through associations created by a close relationship. I hoped this would give universality to the theme, and make the work widely accessible. Most people, the world over, have had the experience of living in a place haunted by vivid memories, especially personal ones.
Although the libretto is gender specific (female identity for female voice), the singer's memories show an awareness of the viewpoint of the other; just as, in the relationship, each was aware of the other sometimes with telepathic intensity. The implication of psychic awareness (untimebound) is one of the subtexts of the libretto, and it surfaces openly in the recurring notion of "forever". "Forever" is a comforting concept where lovers live happily ever after. It is far from reassuring when continuing sensitivity is not accompanied by a happy ending! And so "forever" keeps surfacing in this work. Sometimes it is seen as a threat, an inescapable fate.
Sometimes it is viewed with irony, even with a sense of the absurd, as in Song 4 "(Threads"), where the singer parodies a famous popular song to dramatise indecision about romance: "Yes, we have no relationship..." J.Albert & Sons kindly gave permission for the appropriate musical quotation, and were also amused to learn that the first four notes of that song are identical to the first four notes of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" - a piece of music which decisively celebrates the concept of "forever", in a religious context. Naturally, the quotation becomes somewhat ambivalent!
As psychoanalysts are fond of pointing out, quasi-religious expectations are an important part of western romantic love, which is probably the main reason why so many relationships fail to fulfil the hopes on which they are based! Romantic idealism and urban realism coexist in the libretto of this work. Another challenge lay in finding a musical style which would allow me to take the term "song" literally - that is, to write contemporary music which is also songful. My solution was to write tonally, and to use the rhythms and extended harmonies of jazz as a musical expression of the urban setting.
This involved much use of syncopation in 12/8 time (this being the true jazz time signature); and much recourse to polytonality, which is a consequence of jazz harmonies. For example, a triad of C major plus a triad of Bb major can equally be thought of as a chord of C11. Or again, the chord of C7(5b) is actually the same chord, inverted, as F#7(5b). There's a useful harmonic ambiguity here based on the tritone. Jazz provides an equally interesting road to the dissolution of classical harmonies as do other twentieth century harmonic systems. As regards structure, each of the nine songs has its own melody, in many of them two melodies in an A-A B-8, or A-B-A-B pattern.
In addition, there are certain motifs which keep recurring, such as the rising bi-tonal figure heard in the opening bars (Eb+G7), which represent Sydney, as much in its striving character as in the visual arching of the city skyline. There is also an heraldic figure which, ambiguously, is used to represent both the reality of European settlement, and the fragile dreams or which it is based. This is heard in Songs 2 & 8.
Song 7 ("Rose of the Bay") quotes the main theme from the slow movement of my String Quartet No.l ("The Key"). The title of that song (and of this work) is a word play on the name of one of Sydney's eastern suburbs - Rose Bay, a district in which many of the events took place which are "remembered" in the libretto.
The melody of Song 9 ("Immortal Beloved") makes several attempts to emerge throughout the cycle, in various harmonic and melodic guises. In its final form it is, musically, a deliberate evocation of 19th century romantic idealism - although the libretto fights against the notion!
The "small church" mentioned in Song 9, is St. Peters in Watson's Bay, Sydney, and it really does house an organ, built in 1796, which was lent to the (then) Emperor Napoleon. It was recovered after his fall in 1815, had several owners in England and, after travelling to Australia, was eventually installed in St. Peters in 1920.
I wish to express my gratitude to Lauris Elms, for the opportunity to write this work, and for her encouragement and advice during its composition. I thank the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for recording the work and for making available the master tape for this release. I also thank the Australia Council for their generous assistance in manufacturing the compact disc.
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