LEDA AND THE SWAN (string quartet) op.589 (February 2008)

Concert work in one movement
Published by: Highbridge Music Ltd
Duration: 8:14
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Originally composed as music for a ballet commissioned by the BBC, choreographed by Dame Lynn Seymour, opus 249, 1977, withdrawn.

Rewritten as a concert work for string quartet, February 2008

Composer's note (from autobiography): Lynn Seymour visited me at Highbridge Mill one day to tell me that she had been asked to create a television ballet for the BBC 'Omnibus'programme.

'Would you be interested in composing a score?'

'What's the scenario?'

'I don't have one but I want it to be as erotic and sensual as possible. Have you got any ideas?'

I had written the scenario for our ballet [opus 244]'The Court of Love'[/opus] created for Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet for the Queen's Silver Jubillee so this wasn't as surprising as it might have been!

'How about using an erotic poem? For instance W.B.Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan'?'

'Read it to me.'

I took down my 'Little Treasury of Modern Poetry', presented to me when I won the 'Headmaster's Reading Prize' at school. I don't think he would have approved.

[i]'A sudden blow; the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can the body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
               Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?'[/i]

Lynn loved it:

'I will find the most beautiful boy and girl to dance it and in the middle we can have the poem read over the music by Derek Jacobi. How would you score it?'

'Well if it's going to have words over it, it shouldn't intrude too much. Perhaps a string quartet?'


I started work and recorded [opus 249]'Leda and the Swan'[/opus]in July 1977 at Lime Grove with the Delme Quartet. Unfortunately the programme director, Bob Lockyer, didn't take kindly to the idea of the poem:

'No we can't have a poem in a ballet. Anyway we don't have any budget for it.'

It was excluded, which was a pity because without it the ballet didn't make much sense. It was shown on TV and a newspaper headline said, perhaps with some justification:

[i]'A kiss, some feathers and they call it art.'[/i]

I buried the score in a drawer in disgrace and thirty years passed by. In February 2007 I was in Scotland for a wonderful concert given by the Edinburgh String Quartet who proposed a quartet commission:

'Have you ever written one?'

'I've written works which use string quartet - to accompany a singer for instance in [opus 378]Shakespeare Songs[/opus] or a flute in the [opus 493]Flute Quintet[/opus]- but not a serious string quartet on its own.' 

'We heard you had written one.'

'Well I did once write a ballet for string quartet.'

'Could we see it?'

When I got home I took 'Leda and the Swan' out of its drawer and started printing it up on computer. At first I scrapped large chunks of it. It embarrassed me, but the more I listened to it the more I realised that a lot of it did work, even the intentionally under-powered section meant for the poetry-reading, which in some way created breathing space. It had some purple passages in it  but then that's what it was supposed to have had! I took great trouble to try and perfect it.

Related Works

A ballet choreographed by Lynn Seymour
string quartet

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