Small Ensemble

A Wailing on the Wind2013
string quartet and storyteller35 minutes


more...
text: Liz Weir

Premiered by the Mavron Quartet and Liz Weir at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on 23 April 2013.

Score and parts available to buy here.

CD, recorded by Liz Weir and the Mavron Quartet, available to buy here.

programme note

Ian Stephens: A Wailing on the Wind

A Wailing on the Wind was commissioned by the Mavron Quartet, with support from Arts Council Wales and the RVW Trust. It was first performed by the Mavron Quartet and Liz Weir at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on 23 April 2013.

Back in summer 2006, I was at Pigotts Music Camp, an inspirational place in the Chiltern Hills, along with Lucy, the cellist in the Mavron Quartet. I’d brought along a recent string quartet, Dances Overheard, and Lucy and some friends were kind enough to perform it, which they did with great aplomb. She later asked if she could perform it with the Mavron Quartet – of course I was delighted. So with their knowledge of Dances Overheard, the quartet approached me a couple of years ago when the idea of a piece for quartet and storyteller was being developed.

The Quartet, Liz and I first came together in July 2012, spending a fascinating day being terrified out of our wits by Liz’s excellently creepy ghost stories – well, I was, at least! – but also trying to work out the best way to interweave the music with the words.

Liz and I met again in January for a session in which she polished the script, and I worked out exactly how many seconds of music was needed for each section, what character it should have, whether it should be foreground or background, and so on. And then in February I retreated to my aunt’s little house in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire for a week of intensive, uninterrupted composition.

The music itself works somewhat on a leitmotif basis – the technique developed in 19th-century opera where a particular musical theme relates to a particular character. Central to the whole piece is a three-note rising pattern which is first heard in the instrumental introduction, which in musical terms is B-C-G. The only direct quotation in the piece is a few notes from the ‘Dies Irae’ (Day of Wrath) from the Requiem Mass, which I couldn’t resist incorporating at a moment of particularly ghoulish terror. The other tunes – whether it’s what seems to be an Irish folk ballad or reel, or an American 1940s Big Band number – are my own work, though they draw unashamedly on the musical language of the times they are designed to evoke.

We all met again in early March for a day of checking and fine-tuning the music and the script. To my great pleasure, only a few small tweaks were needed, with none of the extensive rewriting I had feared.

Liz writes: “As a professional storyteller I have worked for many years with all age-groups and in various settings, but the Stories and Strings project was something quite different for me. The collaboration with the Mavron Quartet and composer Ian Stephens has been an exciting and inspiring challenge.

My role was to devise and tell a story which spans the generations and crosses the water, linking Ireland, England and Wales. Inter-generational storytelling is something that is very important to me. In my work with older people I often collect stories about World War Two and retell them to teenagers for whom it seems like ancient history. This story started to emerge when I envisaged a young man busy with all his technological devices suddenly forced to simply listen to the words of an older relative. It is often too easy to look at an old person and make judgments about them without ever knowing their story.

The piece combines different types of storytelling. As an oral storyteller I never memorise my stories but simply see pictures in my head and say what I see. This piece is scripted and yet contains a traditional folk tale, a personal family story, and aims to demonstrate how the two can comfortably sit side by side. Ian Stephens’ powerful music moved me to tears when I first heard it. The evocative storm sequences, the nostalgic wartime music and the Irish airs touch the emotions, adding so much to the tale.

As the narrator, I feel privileged have been able to collaborate with Ian and the Mavron Quartet whose interpretation of my story has created a fusion of words and notes to touch the heart.”
Rondo for Three2012
violin, classical guitar, marimba7 minutes
more...

Premiered by the Acordia Ensemble at the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, on 17 November 2012.

As much as I enjoy writing music for conventional ensembles – string quartet, brass quintet and the like – there’s something special about writing for an unusual group. Perhaps it’s the possibility of creating a musical texture that has never been heard before, perhaps it’s the extra imagination needed to imagine how it will sound. So when Ann Lawes asked if I’d be interested in writing a work for the Acordia Ensemble, I jumped at the chance. The Ensemble is a one-of-a-kind trio, with Ann on violin, Alejandro del Valle on classical guitar and Andrew Whettam on marimba. They make a wonderful sound together.

I’ve lived with my family in West Kirby on the Wirral since 2004, and feel very much that it’s my home – though at heart I will always be a Devon boy! The Wirral is also home to the International Guitar Festival of Great Britain, and the Festival has been very supportive of this project, making the premiere of the new piece a centrepiece of their 2012 programme. 

After a period of preparation and mulling over, I wrote Rondo for Three in April 2012. The spark for the piece was the realisation that the forenames of the members of the Ensemble had some interesting properties – they all begin with A, and they each have a number of letters (three, six and nine) that is divisible by three. A rondo is a piece in which one passage of music – the rondo theme – alternates with episodes of different music; these name-derived properties are key to the rondo theme. For the episodes in between the rondo theme I have written sections derived in a variety of ways from the theme itself, often making use of its opening three-note phrase, A-C#-D.

The piece opens with a vigorous statement of the rondo theme, culminating on widely-spaced dissonant chords for all three instruments. Then after a linking passage, the violin begins a spacious melody, underpinned by a delicate guitar accompaniment. With the addition of the marimba, this builds to an expressive climax; the music then subsides, loses intensity, then launches into a shortened restatement of the rondo theme.

In the next episode the marimba takes the leading role, creating a varied, shimmering soundworld, coloured at times by repeated patterns on the violin and guitar. From this emerges a short dramatic duet for violin and guitar, which, after a pause, leads into an passage building up to the next restatement – this time extended – of the rondo theme.

The guitar is prominent in the next episode, playing an elaborated version of the spacious violin melody heard in the first episode. This again builds to a climax – now with the violin taking the melodic lead – then gradually subsides. Following this is a tender solo passage for the guitar, using harmonics to create a gentle, bell-like backdrop to the melody. Finally, after an increasingly dissonant build-up, the rondo theme returns, and the piece ends with vigorous energy.

Rondo for Three was commissioned by the Acordia Ensemble, and was given its premiere as part of the International Guitar Festival of Great Britain at the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, on 17 November 2012. I would like to thank the Acordia Ensemble, the Guitar Festival, my aunt for lending me her cottage in Ashby-de-la-Zouch for an intensive week of work on the piece, and, most of all, the anonymous donor who very kindly made the commission possible.

Ultramarine2012
brass quintet12 minutes


more...
Sheet music is available to buy here

'Something Blue', a CD featuring Ultramarine, recorded by Mardi Brass, is available here

programme note Ian Stephens: Ultramarine

I have known Jeff Miller since 1998, when I first started going to Pigotts Music Camp, an inspirational place in the Chiltern Hills. Over the years I have enjoyed his playing on tuba, trombone and recently jazz cimbasso (you heard it here first), so I was delighted when he commissioned me to write a piece for the brass quintet Mardi Brass, of which he is the tuba player.

Ultramarine was written for the fourth and final instalment of a four-CD series based on the wedding rhyme ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’. Jeff stipulated only that it must have something – anything – to do with the concept of blue.

After much thought, I settled on an exploration of a particular shade of the colour blue in the early Renaissance. I wrote the piece in June-July 2012.

The only way for artists to use a rich, dark blue was to use the pigment known as ultramarine. Derived from the Latin ultramarinus, its name means ‘beyond the sea’ for a very literal reason: it was imported into Europe by sea from Asia. The source of ultramarine is the mineral lapis lazuli, which at that time was mined from a single source in what is now the north-east of Afghanistan.

Ultramarine is notoriously difficult to make, and involves a long process of grinding the lapis lazuli into ever finer powder, mixing the powder with a mixture of melted wax, oils and resins, then wrapping the resulting mass in a cloth and kneading it in a caustic solution. The expense of buying the lapis lazuli and the length of the preparation process meant that ultramarine was more expensive than gold.

From the 12th century, the robes of the Virgin Mary began to be painted blue, and often the rich blue of ultramarine. This choice of colour resonates with one of the titles traditionally given to Mary: ‘Queen of Heaven’. In many paintings, ultramarine was used only in Mary’s clothing, with lighter, less intense blues used to depict sky or sea. A wide swath of ultramarine in a painting was a clear indication of the devotion of the patron – who would have supplied both ultramarine and gold to the artist – to Mary.

In my brass quintet Ultramarine, which runs for about 11 minutes, I explore the journey of this special blue from its source in lapis lazuli, deep in the Afghan earth, to its glorious use in Mary’s gowns in a Renaissance painting.

At the heart of the piece is a series of widely-spaced four-part chords, each of which contains an element of symmetry. To my mind these chords, monumental and complex, represent the colour blue, trapped as it is deep in rock. The central chord, in ascending order D-B-F#-D#, opens the piece.

The muted trumpet passage which meanders over it is derived from an ancient Afghan tune. The pace gradually increases, and the Afghan tune is transformed into a lively dance, accelerating further as it launches into a traditional Persian tune in a fast 7/8. The journey to the west, by land and by sea, has begun.

The pace slackens, and the following passage revisits and expands on the ‘blue’ chords. Then the pace again quickens, and a rhapsodic section begins, with the music ebbing and flowing from a single line to a richly textured activity and back again – signifying the transformation from rock to pigment – in preparation for the entry of the ‘Maria’ music.

The ‘Maria’ music, first heard on the horn, is a collection of four settings of the word ‘Maria’ which I have gleaned from where they appear in various passages of Gregorian chant. This body of chant, fundamentally important to Western music, was mainly written down between the 10th and 13th centuries, though the melodies themselves often date back much earlier. The four ‘Maria’ melodies intertwine, gradually growing in intensity, until they launch into a dance-like episode in 6/8 in which the ‘blue’ chords are quietly present. Without pause this transforms into a restatement of the Afghan tune, accompanied by the ‘blue’ chords.

The final section reiterates the ‘blue’ chords, though now they are clothed in elaborate arabesques. The horn makes one final iteration of the principal ‘Maria’ melody, and the first trumpet is left, alone, to ascend to its final note, concert E-flat, which itself has a special ‘blue’ significance: it is the note to which the word ‘blue’ is sung by the sopranos in Stanford’s part-
A Wedding Garland2010
string quartet3 minutes
more...
score and parts available to buy here

programme note

Ian Stephens: A Wedding Garland

I wrote this as a wedding present for Wendy De St Paer and Marcel Becker, and it was performed as they arrived at their wedding reception. It’s a lighthearted romp through lots of tunes you wouldn’t be surprised to hear at a wedding, including Widor’s Toccata, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel, the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin (‘Here Comes the Bride’) by Wagner, The Wedding March by Mendelssohn, Pachelbel’s Canon and the Hallelujah Chorus by Handel, all in three minutes!
Mid-Atlantic2010
brass quintet7 minutes


more...
Premiered by the Metropolitan Brass Ensemble at No.1 St Paul’s Square, Liverpool, on 7 October 2010.

Sheet music is available to buy here

programme note

Ian Stephens: Mid-Atlantic

In 2010 the law firm Hill Dickinson celebrated its bicentenary. As part of its celebrations the firm sponsored a concert by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on the evening of 7 October 2010 at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, at which the works performed included the Symphony No.4 by Schumann – born in 1810, the year of the firm’s foundation – and music from Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier – composed in 1910, the year of the firm’s centenary.

In 2009 I was commissioned by Hill Dickinson to write a new work to be performed earlier on the same day as the RLPO’s concert, at a bicentenary event in the atrium of their office at No.1 St Paul’s Square, Liverpool.

In writing the piece I was asked to allude to something to do with the company itself, perhaps an event in its history. The event that caught my imagination was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912; Hill Dickinson represented the Titanic’s owners, the White Star Line, after its sinking.

I decided to build the piece around the hymn tune Nearer My God To Thee, which by some accounts was the last tune played by the band on the Titanic before it sank. The piece is structured so that fragments of the tune are revealed in stages, and it’s not until the end that the tune is presented in a recognisable form.

I’ve also worked into it a quote from a piece of church music I wrote earlier in 2010, The Malmesbury Responses. In the original piece the choir’s words are “Lord, have mercy upon us”; here the music to which I set these words is played by the brass quintet. I felt this fitted well with the subject matter.
Dances Overheard2006
string quartet13 minutes


more...

Premiered by Peter Banks, Debbie Darlington, David Dutch and Joanne Clague at Birkenhead Quaker Meeting House on 4 February 2007.

programme note

Ian Stephens: Dances Overheard

Peter Banks is a keen amateur violinist, and is particularly active as a quartet player. Our paths crossed while we were both involved with the Rodewald Concert Society in Liverpool. In 2004 I was delighted to receive a commission from Peter to write a piece to celebrate his 70th birthday that year that he could play with his quartet colleagues. I asked if there was anything he’d like me to allude to in the quartet, and after a while he came back with three British dance tunes – Northdown Waltz, Dick’s Maggot and Haste to the Wedding. These tunes each hold a special significance for Peter, and it was a pleasurable challenge to knit them into the fabric of the piece.

Since its premiere by Peter and his quartet, Dances Overheard has been performed by a quartet from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – James Clark, Sally Anne Anderson, Sarah Hill and Ruth Owens – and the Mavron Quartet.

The World In One City2003
3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba30 seconds


more...

Premiered by the brass of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, on 4 June 2003. For details of an expanded version for orchestra and optional organ, see Orchestral.

programme note

Ian Stephens: The World In One City

Early in the morning of 4 June 2003, I heard the news that Liverpool had been selected as European Capital of Culture 2008. I was so struck by this that I contacted the Phil and asked Gerard Schwarz if I could write a celebratory fanfare to be played at that evening’s concert. He agreed, stipulating that it should be 30 seconds long and for brass alone. It was performed that evening. At the suggestion of my wife Mandy, I based it on a rhythm and melodic shape suggested by the motto of Liverpool's Capital of Culture bid, "The World In One City”.

Oboe Quintet2014
oboe, two violins, viola, cello20 minutes
more...
Premiered by Jonathan Small and the Brodsky Quartet at at St George’s Hall Concert Room, Liverpool, on Sunday 12 October 2014.
programme note
Ian Stephens: Oboe Quintet
dedicated to the memory of David Dutch and Monica Nurnberg
I wrote the Oboe Quintet in 2014, though its gestation has been much longer than this. The idea came from the committee of the Rodewald Concert Society in 2012, and was prompted by the deaths of two former committee members, David Dutch and Monica Nurnberg. Both were oboists, and both were important figures in Liverpool’s amateur music scene.
David was a founder of the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra and Merseyside Youth Orchestra (now the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra). As well as the oboe, cor anglais and oboe d’amore, he played to the viola in later years. I had the pleasure of playing alongside him in the Crosby Symphony Orchestra, the Wirral Symphony Orchestra and in string quartets on occasion. Monica was a founder member of the Metropolitan Cathedral Orchestra and took a leading role in running it for many years. Both were regular participants in orchestras and chamber groups across the region.
The piece is in three movements, and takes about 20 minutes to perform.
One theme, a melody which grows from a falling minor third, heard at the very opening on the oboe, is central to the two outer movements.
First movement A free introductory statement on the oboe opens the Quintet. At the agitato entry of the strings, another element central to this movement is presented: a rising chain of symmetrically-constructed chords. After a brief return to the first theme, a vivace section begins. Mainly in a lopsided 7/4 rhythm, it builds in intensity before relaxing into a calm, seemingly improvised duo between oboe and first violin, over a silvery chord on high harmonics. After a climactic section, the vivace material returns; the movement ends with the cello rising higher and higher, finally passing the melody to the oboe.
Second movement: Passacaglia I contacted the families of both dedicatees and asked them to let me know some of the dedicatees’ favourite bits of oboe music, with a view to integrating some elements into the composition. Lots of pieces were suggested, but I settled on Ich habe genug (I have enough), a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach with a beautiful and prominent oboe part. The chords which underpin the first section of Ich habe genug form the framework of the Passacaglia second movement. The movement is in seven sections, with each section in a different time signature, though the bar-length stays identical throughout. The time signatures have ever fewer subdivisions: 9/8, 8/8 (= 4/4), 7/8, 6/8, 5/8, 4/8 (= 2/4) and finally 3/8. In each section the Bach-derived theme is used in a different way. The final 3/8 section is built from half-heard fragments of Bach’s music.
Third movement The finale is mainly quick. Marked molto vivace, the opening statement sets up a dialogue between a striving oboe melody and an off-kilter chorale in the strings. This leads into a wild folk-inflected dance section with a driving yet unpredictable rhythm. At the core of the movement is an expressive Adagio, in which the main theme passes from oboe to first violin and back again. Then the wild dance returns. After a reprise of a climactic episode from the first movement, the oboe is left alone to end the Quintet in rhapsodic flight. I am grateful to Alan Jones and the Rodewald Concert Society for their tireless work in ensuring this piece comes to fruition, to the funders for their generosity, and to Jonathan Small and the Brodsky Quartet for bringing the music to life so magnificently.
The Rodewald Concert Society expresses its gratitude to Arts Council England, the Rushworth Trust and the following for contributions to the Sounds Creative scheme, which supported this commission: Joseph P Connell, Elspeth Dutch, Paul Herbert, Alan Howe, Alan Jones, Tom & Ellen Lyon, David Norris, Lesley Smith, Richard Waller and 13 anonymous subscribers.
Heart Variations2014
string quartet35 minutes
more...
Premiered by the Liverpool String Quartet at St George's Hall Concert Room, Liverpool, on 11 April 2014.

Score and parts available to buy here.

programme note

Ian Stephens: A Wailing on the Wind

Heart Variations was commissioned by Egle Mei, with support from Arts Council England, Liverpool City Council, Dawsons, Oxford University Press and Brain Machine. The music takes as its point of inspiration a series of electrocardiograph readings, and a scenario of five life stages devised by Egle Mei.

The five movements have titles as follows:

Consumerism
Self-Alienation
Awareness
Hope
Love

Video of the 1st movement appears here
Video of the 2nd movement appears here
Custom Tables Plugin 05a1a29bdcae7b12229e651a9fd48b11

Note: This list is on the internet available for all with number and mail, I take only not so high private data from it.