Sally Beamish 2020
Double concerto for clarinet and violin
for Martin Fröst and Janine Jansen
Written for a Swedish and a Dutch soloist, and drawing on my own Scottish and Swedish connections, this worktouches on the folk music of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Scotland, going back to ancient times and the use of bells, bird bones and cow horns in mankind’s earliest music.
The piece was written during the lockdown of 2020, and explores the idea of connection and also of isolation. Two of my three Scottish children, and my grandson, live in Sweden, and another son was still in Scotland as I wrote the piece. What began as an exploration of the musics of three countries, became an expression of longing at a time when many of us are separated from those we love. Although I recently returned to my homeland (England), I still hear the calling from Scotland and Sweden, and this has manifested in the music, in the form of half-remembered and reinvented strains of folk song and dance.
The music is deeply inspired by Janine Jansen and Martin Fröst, who are both exceptional communicators, and who each have compelling onstage presence. The piece reflects their virtuosic and expressive qualities.
The first movement opens with antiphonal horns and trumpets, reminiscent of Scandinavian lurs – the wooden horns traditionally used to call across great distances. The soloists are then heard calling to each other from offstage- a little like ‘kulning’ – the high-pitched singing of women calling the cows on remote pastures.
From the cow-calling come cowbells, heralding a fast dance as the soloists join the orchestra – blues inspired, but also using folk configurations.
The violinist invites the clarinettist to join in a second dance – the rhythms and colours inspired by the Swedish nyckelharpa, in 3 time. The nyckelharpa is a fiddle with keys, and many sympathetic strings, which give the instrument an extraordinary resonance. I have reflected these sounds by using sustained notes in the orchestral strings, picking up the solo violin’s notes.
After a playful cadenza, the soloists lead us back into the fast dance music, and the movement ends with a flourish.
The second movement is an extension of a short duo The Flittin’ I wrote in 2018 for violin and clarinet, to explore ideas for this concerto. It reflected my mixed feelings on leaving Scotland after 30 years, and returning to England. To flit– in Scots – means to move house – a similar word to the Swedish ‘flytta’. I couldn’t have known then how the separation from my family would intensify when a pandemic struck planet earth. The music is based on drones and echoes, and is an expression of longing.
A renaissance-inspired march, led by the clarinet, and a 13th century Dutch troubadour song form the material for the final movement, using loops and canons to build texture. The Dutch song is the only melody I have directly quoted, and tells of a princess who sets out on her horse to hear a famous troubadour sing. She is warned he is dangerous, and finds herself in a field full of dead maidens, but she outwits him, decapitates him, and returns home triumphant with his severed head. Though a gruesome song, the music signifies homecomings, reunions, and triumph over adversity.
The concerto ends as it began, with voices calling to each other across a distanced landscape.
Distans was commissioned by
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
for Janine Jansen and Martin Fröst
The premiere was given Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra 21 MAY 2021
Thanks to Nynke Beamish-Vis for Dutch research, and to Peter Thomson for dramaturgy.
TOTAL DURATION 25’