Commissioned by ABC Radio, funded by the NSW Ministry for the Arts in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
First performance by the Berry Court House Choir and the Southern Highlands Concert Band, Daryl Pratt (percussion), conducted by the composer, Kangaroo Valley Hall, Arts in the Valley Festival, Kangaroo Valley, NSW, 22 April 2007
Elegy in a Country Graveyard evokes the cemetery at Robertson, in the NSW Southern Highlands, with voices, instruments and a backing track of pre-recorded sounds.
A two-part documentary about this work, realised by Tony Williams and Four Donkey Films, is available on Youtube – you can also listen to the entire work there.
Elegy in a Country Graveyard (2007)
for mixed choir, instruments and pre-recorded sounds and voices
The graveyard in Robertson, NSW is perched high on a hill, and from it one can see for many miles in all directions. The walk to the graveyard – about 30 minutes from the centre of town, down (and then up) an unmade road – is invigorating when it isn’t too hot and exhausting when it is. I have often wondered how funerals were managed in the 19th century, before motorised transport. Doubtless the deceased rode on a horse-drawn hearse, but the mourners must have had to walk. I picture them dressed in black serge, sweltering in the January heat.
Musings such as this were the starting point for Elegy in a Country Graveyard, which over three years developed quite slowly – like the music itself – until it found its final form in late 2006 and early 2007. I began by interviewing some of Robertson’s more senior residents, asking them for their memories of the graveyard and of some of the people buried there. Some of these remarks can be heard in the finished piece, the voices appearing in the following order: Hugh Waring, Bill Pointing, Hope Waters and Del Waring (Hugh’s wife). I no longer regard these as interviews. They are part of the music. Some of the comments may still be clearly heard, but others have faded into the overall texture.
The harmonic structure of the piece consists of sequence of 55 chords presented, very slowly, by harp, piano, vibraphone and harmonium and then extended by the voices and other instruments. Fragments of the Latin Mass for the Dead are heard and a girl’s voice (Imogen Rolon) reads the Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer. Another voice whispers Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (from which I borrowed my title). We hear Joseph Parry’s hymn tune ‘Aberystwyth’, usually sung to the words ‘Jesu, Lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly’. The piece concludes with my own setting, for the choir, of the funeral dirge from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
The composition of Elegy in a Country Graveyard was made possible by a grant from the NSW Ministry of the Arts. The pre-recorded material was edited and mixed in collaboration with the Music Unit, ABC Radio National. Marshall McGuire played harp and piano; Daryl Pratt played harmonium, vibraphone and tubular bell. Russell Stapleton was the sound engineer and Andrew McLennan the producer.