Commissioned by Jane Sheldon with financial assistance from the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts
First performance by Jane Sheldon (soprano), Helen Ayres (violin), Zoe Knighton (cello) and Anna Goldsworthy (piano), Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, Lecture Hall, Port Fairy, Victoria, 12 October 2013
Last Words was the winner of the Vocal/choral Work of the Year category in the 2014 AMC & APRA AMCOS Art Music Awards. It was a shortlisted and ‘highly commended’ work for the prestigious Paul Lowin Song Cycle Prizein 2016 – Ford’s work Learning to Howl won this award in 2004.
Andrew Ford: Last Words (2013) for soprano, violin, cello and piano
Even if some of the words I have set to music here are rather terse for songs, Last Words is probably best thought of as a cycle of songs and monologues, strung together to form a single structure.
The basic conceit – that of using the final poems, letters and diary entries of mostly quite famous people, together with a few deathbed utterances – was always going to yield a meditation on mortality and grief, but I felt, early on, that aesthetically this was not enough. No one wants to listen to over half and hour of slow, sad music. What the piece needed was some relief, perhaps some defiance, ideally something that would allow me to write some fast music.
Defiance proved easy enough to find. Chidiock Tichborne writing his poem in the Tower of London the night before Elizabeth I had him executed for treason and Emily Brontë railing at religion, provided plenty of both. Further relief came in the form of Florenz Ziegfeld’s delirious ravings and Maurice Chevalier’s sudden outburst of happiness. And at the heart of the piece, it seems to me, is Dorothy Porter’s quiet delight in the view from her hospital bed.
But in order to write fast music, I had to turn to fiction. Originally, I had intended to include several sets of fictional last words alongside the real ones, but in the end there is just the one passage from the end of Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet, in which Fish Lamb comes lumbering and clattering along the jetty on his way to the ocean.
Last Words was commissioned by the soprano, Jane Sheldon, with assistance from the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. It is dedicated to her and to the members of the Seraphim Trio.
Mehr licht, mehr licht . . .
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Now comes the mystery.
(Henry Ward Beecher)
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)
March 29th, 1912. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake look after our people.
(Robert Falcon Scott)
In the cold I will rise, I will bathe
In waters of ice; myself
Will shiver, and shrive myself,
Alone in the dawn, and anoint
Forehead and feet and hands;
I will shutter the windows from light,
I will place in their sockets the four
Tall candles and set them aflame
In the grey of the dawn; and myself
Will lay myself straight in my bed,
And draw the sheet under my chin.
Mehr licht, mehr licht . . .
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is gone, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green,
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen:
My thread is cut, and yet it was not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made:
The glass is full, and now the glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
It is not right that in the house of song there be mourning. Such things befit us not.
The sky – twilight sky –
is a wisping blue
friendly and unearthly
I’m not sure where I am
The buildings my window
have an art deco look
of white flat squares
with art deco design
from a hospital room
Something in me
can’t believe my luck
Il y’a de la joie!
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hath rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.
I must go in, for the fog is rising.
My very dear Sarah: The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
But, O [my] Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night . . . always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
(Sullivan Balou, Major 2nd Rhode Island Infantry)
Curtain! Fast music! Lights! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good! The show looks good!
It’s a sight to behold. It warms the living and stirs the dead. And speeds the leaving.
Because there, down along the jetty, fat and barefoot, runs Fish Lamb with a great slack grin on his face shining with chicken grease and liberty. His shirt tail is out and so is his tongue. The boards rattle and ring with nails and years and spikes and barnacle chatter and dried bait leaps behind him. Below, the water flexes and falls silver brown gold black. Birdshadows fall across him. His trousers rattle with knucklebones, pretty stones and pennies to make running music, going music, blood music in his temples and ears till right out at the end he finds the steps and the landing, the diving board in its sheath of guano. And the water.
And the mirror it makes.
Ah, the water, the water, water . . .
Fish leans out and the water is beautiful. All that country below, the soft winy country with its shifts of colour, its dark, marvellous call. Ah, yes . . .
Fish goes out sighing . . . slow, slow to the water that smacks him kisses when he hits. Down he slopes into the long spiral, drinking, drinking his way into the tumble past the dim panic of muscle and nerve into a queer and bursting fullness. And a hesitation, a pause for a few moments. I’m a man for that long, I feel my manhood, I recognize myself whole and human . . . and I’m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river . . . and then my walls are tipping and I burst into the moon, sun and stars of who I really am. Being Fish Lamb. Perfectly. Always. Everyplace. Me.
(Tim Winton [from Cloudstreet])
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
Mehr licht, mehr licht . . .
Goodnight, my darlings. I’ll see you tomorrow.
Dorothy Porter’s poem ‘View from 417’ is used by kind permission of Andrea Goldsmith.
The passage from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is used by kind permission of the author.
Rarely does a composer choose to tempt fate like Andrew Ford does in his newest work, Last Words. For soprano and piano trio, it sets in continuous song form the final utterances of a miscellany of writers and historical figures. It’s unsettling, at times voyeuristic. There’s Chidiock Tichborne’s bitter railings at a life cut short before he was executed in 1586, Virginia Woolf’s despairing last note before she drowned herself, Noel Coward’s famously ironic 'Goodnight, my darlings, I’ll see you tomorrow', and a lot more to arouse one’s morbid curiosity.
Ford responds to these different gazes into the face of death with a quixotic sense of remove. Tichborne’s elegy is transformed into what stylistically resembles a simple English folksong whose words are torn apart by shrieking chordal outbursts from the piano over a throbbing cello drone. Sullivan Balou’s profoundly moving letter to his wife from the battlefield acquires a strangely alluring beauty thanks to its sweet ballad-like melody overlayed by a spectral shimmer of harmonics in the strings: it felt like one was floating among angels. Unexpected elation accompanies the last words of Dorothy Porter and Maurice Chevalier, while furious vocal gymnastics ramp up the intensity of Florenz Ziegfeld’s frenzied final hollering to Broadway and the painful demise of Fish Lamb in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
If one was looking for composerly statements on death, there were none. Ford’s Last Words looks solely through the eyes of his selected writers and demurs from making pronouncements of its own. It is nevertheless a gripping and thought-provoking work - and one hopes its fatalistic theme brings no ill-luck on the composer himself.
Soprano Jane Sheldon, to who Last Words was dedicated, brought mesmerising emotional truth to the performance - the skill and maturity of this remarkable young Sydney-born, Manhattan-based singer were the highlight of this Seraphim Trio concert.
Graham Strahle, The Australian
Using the final poems, letters and diary entries and even purported deathbed utterances of people as early as Sappho and recent as Dorothy Porter, Andrew Ford has strung together 17 very diverse items to form an integrated and arresting song cycle. Varying in length and mood, this is far from being a morbid catalogue of woe. Ziegfeld’s final 'The show looks good!', Maurice Chevalier’s 'Il y a de la joie!' and Dorothy Porter’s gentle words of acceptance and gratitude: '… despite everything/can’t believe my luck' broaden context and accentuate an appreciation of the good in life.
Initiated by soprano Jane Sheldon, the writing is tailor-made for the beauty and focused clarity of her voice. She also has the dramatic wherewithal to characterise very different styles, both vocally and physically. Whether in short outbursts as in the initial urgency of Goethe’s 'Mehr Licht, mehr Licht' (the only recurring phrase in the cycle) or the concentrated stillness of Virginia Woolf’s incredibly moving farewell, each piece was given thoughtful attention.
The only selection to come from the realms of fiction is the final passage from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. In the program notes, Ford writes, 'But in order to write fast music, I had to turn to fiction.' And he certainly makes the most of Winton’s highly musical prose, as well as giving Sheldon the opportunity for a dramatic scream at the end after Fish Lamb becomes himself in the water’s embrace.
As a group of highly accomplished musicians renowned for their spirit of adventure, Seraphim Trio was an obvious choice for collaboration on this project. The portraits of imminent mortality were threaded together by sustained notes of varying duration from all three instruments, enhancing a unity of musical language and providing an emotional connection between the fragments of text. Even though the Woolf passage was virtually unaccompanied, there was an eerie hushed suspension of not hearing yet almost hearing a breathing thread of sound. The controlled beauty of the trio’s playing was central to creating this effect.
Heather Leviston, Classic Melbourne