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 in the north of England. Their desolate, lonely beauty, contrasting starkly with the rich woodland 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 telling me that this derived from the Flemish words ‘Angel’s Arc’, or ‘Ark’, a name allegedly 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.
It turns out that this was almost certainly a mistake: the real derivation was probably much more prosaic, most likely from the Norse for ‘Anlaf’s Hill-Pasture’. 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 gave them. I thought I found evidence of them in the ruined hill-farms scattered about the moorlands – wrongly, of course, and yet so many useful poetic ideas have their origins in mistakes. The famous opening 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 work for clarinet and string quartet 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, who sent me much-valued scores and recordings during my troubled teens, and my father-in-law, the Revd. 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 in time of need.
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 the first violin softly quotes the Walton, moments before the cello intones the chant-phrase ‘Lift up your hearts’. Elegiac as this music is, I hope there can also be heard a note of reconciliation, of gratitude, and finally release.
On the subject of gratitude, I must express my thanks first of all to Irina Knaster, director of Aspect Foundation, for her support and understanding, and for making this performance possible. My thanks too to Andrew Jamieson of IMG for initiating and encouraging the project, and to Fiona Costa and Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum for their generous sponsorship. I hope they too can hear an expression of profound thanks in this music.
It’s a privilege to be able to focus on three great new musical voices this season with Stephen Johnson’s Angel’s Arc, James Francis Brown’s Lost Lanes Shadow Groves and Jonathan Dove’s Pied Piper all coming up in the next few months. It is a good time for new music!
Emma Johnson (clarinet)
Cadogan Hall, London, 24.01.2019
Emma Johnson (clarinet), Carducci Quartet