Large Ensemble

Thea Dances2013
cl, bn, hn, 2vn, va, vc, db20 minutes

Premiered by Ensemble 10/10, conducted by Clark Rundell, at The Cornerstone, Liverpool, on 16 October 2013. Score and parts available to buy here. programme note Ian Stephens: Thea Dances

1. Limerick 2. Lopsided 3. Jest 4. Balkan  

I was commissioned to write Thea Dances in 2012 by Gina Fullerlove, whose aunt was Dame Thea King (1925-2007), “the doyenne of English clarinettists”. The piece was commissioned with funds from Thea’s estate, and is dedicated to the memory of Thea King and her husband Frederick ‘Jack’ Thurston (1901-1953), also a clarinettist of worldwide renown.


Gina, an excellent horn player, asked for a piece that used the same instruments that Schubert had written for in his Octet of 1824. I’ve played the Schubert Octet both on the cello and the bass, and I was delighted to be given an opportunity to write a large-scale piece for this versatile combination.

In addition, Gina asked if I’d be able to allude in some way to Thea and Jack within the music, though she left it up to me how I was to go about this. Throughout the piece I’ve used a melodic motif derived from the name ‘Thea’. In sol-fa, ‘te’ equates to the note B in a C major scale. H, in German usage, is B natural. E and A speak for themselves. So this gives the theme B-B-E-A. This is worked thoroughly into the fabric of the piece, and has a large impact on many of its harmonic and melodic characteristics.

Thea King enjoyed writing limericks. Here is a rather risqué number called The Cow’s Lament:

I have just given birth to a calf, sir, / Of motherly pride I am full, / But please do not chaff, or stifle a laugh,/ When I tell you I’ve not had a bull.

The farmyard’s the dreariest place now; / The meadows are not even gay, / When the one bit of fun in the year’s dismal run, / Has by science been taken away.

You may think I’m out of my place, sir; / There are some things a cow should not say, / But the land army tarts, who play with my parts, / Still get it the old fashioned-way!

In the first movement, Limerick, I’ve used an exaggerated approximation of the rhythm and speech melody that could be used to declaim The Cow’s Lament as the basis of the faster section. The opening chords are built from the THEA motif.

The second movement, Lopsided, contains my tribute to Jack Thurston. Many works were written for him over the years, by composers including Malcolm Arnold, Herbert Howells, Gordon Jacob and Elizabeth Maconchy. Another work written for him was John Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata, and it’s the first phrase of this work that forms the basis of a chain of chords that underpins much of this movement. Ireland’s melodic line also forms an important source material. The underlying metre is a lopsided 9/8, made up of 5/8 + 4/8.

The third movement, Jest, is a scherzo, growing from the THEA motif, and hinting at the rhythm and vivacity of the Scherzo from Schubert’s Octet.

The finale, Balkan, is framed by passages which refer to the opening of the first movement. In the main body of the movement a clarinet-led passage, again growing out of the THEA motif, and cast in an irregular ‘aksak’-type rhythm such as those found throughout the Balkans but particularly in Bulgaria, alternates with a section in 7/8.

dai-hu and ensemble (fl, ob, cl, bn, hn, hp, 2vn, va, vc, db)12 minutes


Premiered by dai-hu soloist Yu LeFu and Ensemble 10/10, conducted by Clark Rundell, at The Cornerstone, Liverpool, on 24 January 2009. A version for dai-hu, guzheng and symphony orchestra is also available.

programme note

Ian Stephens: Oxbow

It’s not often that a composer is asked to write for a new and largely untested instrument. Oxbow is the result of just such an approach. In summer 2007 I was asked by Andrew Cornall, then Executive Director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, to compose a rather unusual piece as part of Liverpool’s celebrations as European Capital of Culture 2008.

The new piece was part of ‘Celebrating the Year of the Ox’, a concert given by Ensemble 10/10, the contemporary music group of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, on 24 January 2009 in The Cornerstone at Liverpool Hope University’s campus in Everton, Liverpool. Yu LeFu was the dai-hu soloist, Clark Rundell the conductor.

The dai-hu has been developed by Liverpool resident Mr K.H. Li, leader of the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra, the first and largest Chinese youth orchestra in Europe, which he established in 1980. It belongs to the huqin family of Chinese stringed instruments, of which the best-known member is the erhu. The erhu has two strings, tuned to the D above middle C, and the A above that. The dai-hu also has two strings, but is pitched over two octaves lower, with the strings tuned to the C two octaves below middle C and the G above that, like the bottom two strings of the cello.

An important consideration behind Mr Li’s development of the dai-hu is his desire to fill a gap in ensembles of Chinese instruments. Though the higher string parts are normally taken by the erhu and other members of the huqin family, lower parts tend to be played on the Western cello. The dai-hu extends the characteristic colour and technique of the erhu down to the bottom of the cello’s range, and blends much more readily with the tone of the Chinese ensemble. It is with this piece that Mr Li is displaying the capabilities of his new instrument.

I met Mr Li a number of times in 2007 and 2008, recording him improvising on the dai-hu both at the Pagoda Cultural Club and in The Cornerstone. The title draws together three aspects of the piece – firstly, the piece celebrates the Year of the Ox; secondly, the dai-hu is played with a bow (it passes between the two strings); and thirdly, the piece is roughly in the form of an arch, following the shape of an oxbow lake (a U-shaped lake formed when a wide meander of a river is cut off).

Two musical ideas provide much of the material used in Oxbow. The first is a complex chord derived from the pentatonic (five-note) scale that is central to much of Chinese music. The notes of pentatonic scales linked to five pitches which are the interval of a fifth apart – C, G, D, A and E – are piled up on top of each other to create a 25-note chord which is rich in harmony but dissonant between its high and low extremities.

The second idea is my response to the frequent inclusion of traditional melodies in Chinese music. Though I live near Liverpool, I was born and brought up in Devon in the south-west of England, and I have chosen a particularly beautiful folk song from Devon to form the heart and soul of the piece. Titled ‘The Forsaken Maiden’, the song was taken down from a hedger names James Parsons in 1888 by Sabine Baring-Gould, and published in his collection ‘Songs of the West’. It’s thought to date back to the 16th century. The first and last verses are as follows:

A maiden sat a-weeping
Down by the sea shore,
What ails my pretty Sally,
What ails my pretty Sally,
And makes her heart sore?

I’ll spread my sail of silver,
I’ll sail towards the sun,
And thou, false love, will weep for me,
And thou, false love, will weep for me,
For me when I’m gone.

Fragments and transformations of phrases from the song are present from the opening bars and throughout the piece, though it is not until the central section that the whole melody is revealed by the dai-hu.

I was further inspired by the idea of an oxbow lake to cast the piece in the form of a river’s journey. The first section takes us from the source high in the mountains, flowing onwards through narrow rapids and wider reaches, through rural and urban landscapes, until the floodplain is reached. This descent is marked by a very gradually descending pentatonic scale, outlining the notes of the 25-note chord. A cadenza for the dai-hu creates a sense of timelessness, representing the oxbow lake itself, cut off long ago from the flow of the river, obsolete and stagnant. The folksong gradually appears and is then further transformed and developed. A second dai-hu cadenza begins rhapsodically but then regains its urgency, leading to a return to the steadily flowing river. In the final section the river enters the estuarine landscape where fresh and salt water merge and blend, with violent tidal eddies and currents giving way eventually to the understated power of the ocean.

Through the Affrighted Air2007
fl+pic+afl, ob+ca, cl+ebcl, bn+cbn, hn, tpt, trbn, pf, perc, 2vn, 2va, 2vc, db14 minutes


Premiered by Ensemble 10/10 at The Cornerstone, Liverpool Hope University, on 18 March 2007, conducted by Clark Rundell.

programme note

Ian Stephens: Through the Affrighted Air

Through the Affrighted Air was commissioned by Ensemble 10/10 as one of ten pieces to mark its 10th anniversary in 2007. It was first performed by Ensemble 10/10 at The Cornerstone, Liverpool Hope University, on 18 March 2007, conducted by Clark Rundell, and performed again by the same forces in the same venue on 21 November 2007. The other pieces commissioned for the 10th anniversary concert were Kenneth Hesketh’s Ein Lichtspiel, Stephen Pratt’s Double Act, Howard Skempton’s Piazza, David Horne’s Phantom Instruments, Ian Gardiner’s L’escalier en spirale, Graham Fitkin’s Subterfuge, Steve Martland’s Reveille, Kurt Schwertsik’s The Longest Ten Minutes and Gary Carpenter’s Sonatinas for Alto Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra.

Through the Affrighted Air was broadcast on In Tune on BBC Radio 3 on 19 October 2009.

 “He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [about 200 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the windand the swirling of air, as well as by the consciousness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure that he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.”

The intrepid man was Eilmer, a monk of Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. His flight took place in the year 1010, or thereabouts. The report of his feat was included in De Gestis Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) by fellow monk William of Malmesbury, writing in about 1125.

Through the Affrighted Air is an exploration, though not a programmatic description, of this event.

The kernel of the whole piece is a rising three-note motif; in its various guises it is the source of much of the harmonic and melodic material.

Interweaved throughout are passages of the Kyrie – Christe redemptor from the Winchester Troper, which includes perhaps the oldest large collections of two-part music in Europe. Consisting of two English manuscripts dated circa 1000, the Winchester Troper was originally used at Winchester Cathedral, about 40 miles to the south-east of Malmesbury. It’s not impossible that this music might have been known and even sung by Eilmer. It was long thought to be indecipherable as the indications of pitch and duration are in an imprecise form of notation known as neumes. I am indebted to Robert Howe, who has kindly given me permission to quote freely from the transcriptions contained in his dissertation The Organa of the Winchester Troper (University of Durham, 1999).

A further thread running throughout are themes related in different ways to Halley’s comet, which I remember eagerly scanning the skies for in 1986, when I was 11. William of Malmesbury describes Eilmer’s reaction to its 1066 showing, and suggests that Eilmer had seen it as a child, which would have been in 989.

“A comet, denoting, as they say, a change in kingdoms, appeared trailing its extended and fiery train along the sky: wherefore a certain monk of our monastery, by name Eilmer, bowing down with terror at the sight of the brilliant star, wisely exclaimed: ‘You’ve come, have you? You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.’” 

In 989 the comet heralded the Danish destruction of many settlements, including the monastery at Malmesbury; in 1066, the Norman Conquest. 

The title is from Icarus by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles.

with melting wax and loosened strings
Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings;
Headlong he rushed through the affrighted air,
With limbs distorted and dishevelled hair;
His scattered plumage danced upon the wave,
And sorrowing Nereids decked his watery grave;
O’er his pale corpse their pearly sea-flowers shed,
And strewed with crimson moss his marble bed;
Struck in their coral towers the passing bell,
And wide in ocean tolled his echoing knell.

Dance for Eight2001
8 cellos7 minutes

Premiered by the cellos of the Crosby Symphony Orchestra in Hightown, near Liverpool, on 29 April 2001.

Sheet music available here

programme note

Ian Stephens: Dance for Eight

When my colleagues in the cellos of the Crosby Symphony Orchestra, an amateur orchestra in Liverpool, planned a charity concert for spring 2001, I offered to write a piece to celebrate the occasion. To complement the Bachianas Brasilieras by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos that were also on the programme, I based Dance for Eight broadly around two Latin American dance rhythms. Dance for Eight is designed to make the most of the inherent resonance and agility of the cello. Dance for Eight has been performed four times by the cellos of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
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