The Marshes of Glynn - Andrew Downes (1950 - )

After being preoccupied with the fear of nuclear war in two of his previous works, Andrew Downes wanted to celebrate what we treasure here on earth and what we could lose. To celebrate the Royal Opening of the Adrian Boult Hall, cultural Shangri-La in the middle of a bustling city, he could find no better setting than the long poem of the 19th Century American poet Sidney Lanier, The Marshes of Glynn, which extols the beauty of nature - the woods, sea and marshes which we yearn for in the middle of an urban environment.
The Marshes of Glynn has three movements which follow each other immediately. In the first movement the poet is in the woods which border the marshes. The scene is set with an introduction of horns and low strings, joined by muted trumpets which straight away convey the grandeur of the landscape. The choir sing of the gloom of the live oaks, the intricate interlacing of the branches and the intimate religious beauty of the glades; and after a timpani roll the tenor solo gives the poet's own view of the woods. They shade him from the noonday sun, and the shafts of light are the roads to heaven. Joined by the choir in a 'spiritual-like' section, he sings of the comfort he feels there, after the travails of life. With the trumpets he announces that he has lost his former fear of the sinister aspect of the marshes. Broad, triumphant chords on the whole orchestra convey his new-found confidence, and beckoning motifs on solo woodwind lead him out to the grey sand beach that runs along the forest. He bids farewell to his friends the oaks, accompanied by a rhythmic ostinato with an ever-widening harmony and then by sprays of colour from the woodwind conveying the fresh sea breeze as he steps onto the ' firm-packed sand'. He ecstatically declaims his freedom. The orchestral ostinato triumphantly rejoins him and brings back the first section to a jubilant close.  
A new scene is set for the open world of the marshes. Soaring melodies from solo flute and violin in counterpoint suggest birds flying free over the plains. These melodies are given broader expression by the choir with tremolo strings describing the curving and winding of the marshes north and south. The vastness of the marsh sea and sky are sung by the soloist and then the choir as the tremolo strings rise up to their highest registers. The tenor again expresses his freedom, and there follows a large climatic fugato passage for chorus and full orchestra describing the great feeling of discovery and comparing it with the understanding of God. Different instruments come to the fore from the large body of sound, and all come together on the words "mighty won God", after which they gradually decrescendo and come to a serene conclusion.    
The third movement begins with a return to the opening theme of the work, this time on a trumpet and high violins, which give a spiritual feel. A solo cello lead into a plaintive melody on a cor anglais representing the marsh hen building a nest. The solo tenor joining with the same melody sings of building a nest to the greatness of God and flying with the freedom of the marsh hen. In another spiritual-like song, unaccompanied, he continues to sing to the greatness of God. Then the tide starts to turn. Glockenspeil, crotales, suspended cymbal, shimmering strings and trilling woodwind convey the rushing of the channels of sea water over the marshes. The choir sing of the gradual covering of the plain, the birds rushing westward, and the setting sun: and, finally, unaccompanied, they announce the stillness as the sea and marsh become one.  
Arpeggios on cellos and vibraphone lead into a coda which brings together the feelings of spiritual warmth and comfort in this landscape and at the same time considers the creatures beneath the waters. The unaccompanied choir brings the work to an exultant close.
Andrew Downes won a choral scholarship to St.John’s College, Cambridge (in 1969), where he gained an MA degree specialising in composition; and in 1974 went on to study with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music.  He is now Head of the School of Composition and Creative Studies at Birmingham Conservatoire. This 40 minute Cantata, composed in 1985, was first performed on February 20th 1986 with John Mitchinson, tenor, and the Birmingham Conservatoire Choir and Symphony Orchestra.

 Cynthia Downes


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