Accompanied Choir

Timepieces: Three Auden Lyrics2010
SATB choir, alto saxophone16 minutes

Domesday Song
Our bias
Funeral Blues

Premiered by the Elysian Singers and saxophonist Kenji Fenton, conducted by Sam Laughton, on 1 March 2011 at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, London

Sheet music available to buy here

CD, recorded by Kenji Fenton and the Elysian Singers, available to buy here

programme note

Ian Stephens: Timepieces: Three Auden Lyrics

Timepieces was commissioned by Sam Laughton and the Elysian Singers of London with the aid of a generous grant from the PRS for Music Foundation. Texts used with the permission of the Estate of W.H. Auden.

Timepieces was first performed by the Elysian Singers and saxophonist Kenji Fenton, conducted by Sam Laughton, on 1 March 2011 at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, London.

I have known Sam Laughton since 1998, when I first started going to Pigotts Music Camp, an inspirational place in the Chiltern Hills. Over the last decade I have been lucky enough to have Sam conduct a number of my pieces at Pigotts. In 2006 he read through my partsong For Instance with his London choir, the Elysian Singers. On the strength of this, in 2009 Sam and the Elysian Singers commissioned me to write a new work on texts by Auden, to fit into a programme devoted to Auden settings by composers ranging from Britten and Walton to Rudolf Escher, James Lavino, Antonín Tucapsky and Hans Vogt.

Sam asked me to include a part for a solo instrument of my choice, though not a chordal instrument such as piano, harp or guitar. After some deliberation I decided on the alto saxophone, partly because it’s an instrument I adore, partly for its great expressive potential, and partly for its huge dynamic range, from the most delicate, fragile sound to an uncompromising stridency, able to be heard above a whole choir singing at its loudest. .

I heard Kenji Fenton’s fluid and versatile playing in 2009 in a concert I had written for in Liverpool, and his name immediately sprang to mind when I was asked who I would like to play the saxophone part.

After a long process of reading and narrowing-down, Sam and I agreed on which poems I would set. I have responded to Auden’s wonderful language in the overall mood of each poem, often by reflecting the ebb and flow of emotion, though only rarely on the level of specific words.

Though each song is a separate entity, with a distinct character and pace, a number of themes and twists of harmony run throughout the set, drawing them together. .

‘Funeral Blues’, the central movement of Timepieces, was broadcast live on In Tune on BBC Radio 3 on the day before the premiere, 28 February 2011.
Caneuon Serch a Gofid2010
SATB choir, harp15 minutes

Caneuon Serch a Gofid means ‘Songs of Love and Sorrow’. Premiered by the Liverpool Welsh Choral and harpist Anna Christensen, conducted by Keith Orrell, at St Mary’s Church, West Derby, Liverpool, on 15 May 2010.

Sheet music is available to buy here

programme note

For the Liverpool Welsh Choral and its Music Director, Keith Orrell, Caneuon Serch a Gofid was commissioned in the 2009 by the Liverpool Welsh Choral. It is written in memory of Eileen Vaughan, who was a loyal and generous member of the choir for many years.

The brief I was given was to compose a piece for choir and harp based on a few traditional Welsh tunes, to be sung in Welsh. As someone with an interest in languages but with scant knowledge of Welsh, I needed much help in preparing for this. Rhiannon Liddell, a member of the choir, has put her great expertise and many hours of her time into helping me with the texts. After the process of selecting the songs – there are many treasures to choose from and it was hard to whittle them down to six – she provided me with literal, word-for-word translations of all the texts; the translations printed on the following pages are based on these. I also recorded Rhiannon speaking all the texts in natural Welsh speech rhythms.

The six songs I selected are all found in the 1884 edition of The Songs of Wales, edited by Brinley Richards:

Hob y deri dano (All the day)
Bum inau’n rhodiana (I was strolling, also known as One Bright Summer Morning, or Cadair Idris)
Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock)
Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech (The Campaign of the Men of Harlech, or Men of Harlech)
Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn (Watching the Wheat, or Idle Days in Summer Time)
Llwyn Onn (The Ash Grove)

The music that the harp plays at the beginning and end of the piece, and in the linking passages between some of the songs, is derived from another song which is never heard in full, ‘Difyrwch Gwyr Dyfi’ (Woe to the Day, or The Men of Dovey’s Delight). Apart from ‘Men of Harlech’and ‘The Ash Grove’, none of these songs were familiar to me before beginning work on this piece. It has been a pleasure to discover these songs, to explore them, and to find ways to cast them in new light.

Below the Welsh text in the music itself, and also on the following pages, I have provided a phonetic version for English speakers; further explanation of this appears on the next page. Though I’m well aware that this has severe limitations in its ability to accurately represent the intricacies of Welsh pronunciation, I hope that it will prove more of a help than a hindrance to singers who are not familiar with the Welsh language.

Grateful thanks to Rhiannon Liddell for her help with the translation and pronunciation, to Eryl Dooling for her help with the phonetic version, to Robert and Gillian Pascall, who gave me free rein of their cottage on Ynys Môn (Anglesey) for a concentrated week of work on this piece in January 2010, and to Eleanor Hudson for her advice on harp technique.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas2008
SATB choir, children’s choir (SA), orchestra (2222.2221.T.2P.H.str)3 minutes 30 seconds

Premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir, in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, conducted by Ian Tracey, in December 2008. If no children’s choir is available, a semichorus of sopranos and altos should take its place.

Score and parts are available to buy here
Shir Ahava1998
SATB choir, 2 narrators, clarinet, harp, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, double bass12 minutes


text: from the Song of Songs, in Hebrew 

Premiered by Bristol University Chamber Choir and instrumentalists from Bristol University at the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, conducted by Grace Rossiter, on 4 February 1998. The solo string parts can be performed by a larger string group of similar proportions. The narrators should be amplified. 

programme note

Ian Stephens: Shir Ahava

I composed Shir Ahava (Song of Love) in 1997-98 at the request of Grace Rossiter, then conductor of the Bristol University Chamber Choir, which I had sung in for four years up to 1997. Though I was not brought up in any religion, my mother is Jewish (her family moved from Lithuania to Manchester in the 1890s), and through this work I went some way to exploring the Jewish side of my ancestry. I decided on two verses of the Song of Songs which I felt an affinity with, and which I felt could be set effectively. Though I don't speak or read Hebrew, I wanted to set it in the original language.


To this end, I visited the very helpful Rabbi Simon of Bristol, who I asked to read the relevant Hebrew verses into a tape recorder. I then transliterated it to make it as easy for singers to read as possible. I also wanted a poetic translation of the verses read out as part of the piece, and came across a lovely translation by American writer Marcia Falk, who has given me her permission to use the verses.


Shir Ahava draws on klezmer, which is basically a modern take on Eastern European traditional Jewish music. It makes use of the characteristic harmonies, melodic contours and rhythms of that tradition, though does not quote any actual tunes. A typical pattern in a klezmer performance is to move from the doina, a rhapsodic improvisation, through a selection of tunes of increasing vigour to a final bulgar or freylakhs, a type of fast, celebratory tune associated with weddings. In its brief framing episodes – meandering clarinet solo at the beginning and jubilant fast dance at the end – Shir Ahava follows this framework. 

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