Stephen Johnson (b. 1955):
Angel’s Arc, for clarinet and string quartet
Lento moderato – Con moto, scherzando – Lento moderato
As a teenager, I developed an intense love for the West Pennine Moors, near my home in Lancashire. Their desolate, lonely beauty, contrasting starkly with the rich woodland that has grown up around the encircling Victorian reservoirs, seemed to mirror my own moods as I walked and cycled amongst them. The wildest expanse of moorland bore the striking name Angelzarke, and I remember someone (it might have been a teacher) telling me that this derived from the Flemish words ‘Angel’s Arc’, or ‘Ark’, a name apparently given to these lands centuries earlier by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in the Spanish Netherlands.
I loved the idea of a displaced people finding refuge in those hills and expressing gratitude to them in the name they conferred on them.
Almost certainly this was a fanciful invention: the real derivation was probably much more prosaic, from the Norse for ‘Anlaf’s Hill-Pasture’, or something similar. But the image stuck in my mind. I loved the idea of a displaced people finding refuge in those hills and expressing gratitude to them in the name they conferred on them. I thought I found evidence of them in the ruined hill-farms scattered about the moorlands – wrongly, of course, but many of the most useful poetic ideas have their origins in a mistake. The famous line from the Biblical Psalm 121 – ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ – which I often recited to myself then, turns out to have been a mistranslation; but at that time I could hardly have cared less. The poetic truth was far more relevant.
It was some time after I began work on a clarinet quintet in 2017 that I realised that memories of those hills were flooding into my mind as I wrote, and so I decided to take that once-treasured name ‘Angel’s Arc’ as the title for my own piece. At the same time there were echoes of music associated with people who had been important to me, and whom I had lost: my aunt, Elizabeth Johnson, and my father-in-law, Canon Harold Jones. Harold’s favourite line from the Anglican Communion Service, ‘Lift up your hearts’, along with the response, ‘We lift them up to the Lord’, morphed in my mind with the idea of looking up towards the hills. There is also a memory of a little piece I wrote at the age of 12 or 13, itself naively indebted to the slow movement of William Walton’s First Symphony. These ideas emerge during the elegiac first section. After this comes a nocturnal scherzo, whose sweet-sour alternations recall the moods (and some of the colours) of Mahler’s haunted symphonic scherzos, with which I also fell in love around that time. Finally there comes a transformed recapitulation of the opening slow section, in which, I hope, there can be heard a sense of reconciliation, gratitude, and finally release.
On the subject of gratitude, I must express my thanks to Fiona Costa, Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum and Irina Knaster for their support and understanding, without which this performance would not have been possible. Thanks too to Andrew Jamieson of IMG for initiating and encouraging the project. I hope they too can find an expression of gratitude in this music.
Emma Johnson, clarinet
Carducci, string quartet (based in Cheltenham)
London Cadogan Hall – Thurs 24 January 2019, 7.30pm
Guildford G Live – Sat 9 February 2019, 7.30pm
Warwick Arts Centre – Thurs 28 February 2019, 7.30pm
Brahms – Clarinet Quintet (35 mins, 1891)
Johnson – Clarinet Quintet, Angel’s Arc (14 – 15 mins, 2018)
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet (30 mins, 1789)