The Heaventree Of Stars

The Starry Night by Van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I’ve recently been exploring the orchestral music of the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott. It’s no short task: at his death in 2008 at the age of 78, he left a large body of work in a wide range of forms, including six operas, ten symphonies, and twenty concertos.

If you’re not familiar with Hoddinott, a good introduction to his sound-world is The Heaventree Of Stars, a short ‘poem’ for violin and orchestra. Commissioned by the BBC, it was first performed in 1980 by Christopher Warren-Green and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes.

Much of what I’ve heard of Hoddinott’s music uses modern harmonic language, but it doesn’t revel in the brutality of dissonance. He has an affinity for sensual textures and quietly brooding ambiguity. His scores often create an atmosphere of dense mystery, with wells of rich colour and moments of eerie calm.

Hoddinott had a busy career as a composer and Professor of Music at Cardiff University, but he took a keen interest in the wider arts. His homes were filled with paintings and sculptures, and he had a large personal library. The Heaventree of Stars takes its inspiration from a line in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. A famous exemplar of modernist prose, with its highly inventive language and wide-ranging allusions, it’s a book that rewards close and imaginative readings.

The two characters at this point in the novel, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, step outside into the latter’s garden and contemplate the night sky. Joyce describes the sight that meets them:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

We might spot how ‘midnight’ is hidden within the words here. And John Simpson has noted that the idea of a ‘heaventree’ links to Polynesian and Malay beliefs. But simply on a poetic level, this sentence is both atmospheric and musical. Say it aloud: the consonant obstacle-course and cluster of ‘u’ sounds makes ‘hung with humid nightblue fruit’ feel like eating a peach.

We cannot discount an erotic resonance in this steamy air and dangling fruit either, especially given the sexual episodes of the novel. After seeing the stars, Bloom returns home to his wife Molly and, in another oft-quoted line, the curves of her body are compared obsessively to melons. However you read it, this night seems charged with possibility.

Three Cliffs Bay on the Gower Peninsula, where Hoddinott lived in his later years. Photo by Allan Hopkins, Creative Commons, cropped.

‘Humid’ could be a good description of Hoddinott’s orchestral style too. Quite often a draught of Welsh damp seems to waft in; I particularly like his habit of combining long chords on woodwind and brass with sustained translucent string lines, like misty tendrils over dark hills.

I wanted to understand more about his orchestration, so I tracked down the score to The Heaventree Of Stars. What I found was a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript rather than a neat engraving. But this provides the advantage of a more personal impression of the composer.

As you’d expect from its nocturnal theme, much of the piece is relatively quiet. But it calls for three percussionists, with a much larger range of instruments than I imagined. Hoddinott uses this constellation of timbres in a way that suggests the heightened aural awareness of standing outdoors at night, hearing faint sounds of indistinct origin. Among these, a kind of gentle bending moan comes from a strange little contraption called the ‘flexatone’.

But the effect of this night sky is dramatically offset by an opening crescendo. This crashing wave of sound is like the crossing of a liminal space. It could be the ‘big bang’ that brings these stars into being, or – given the instruments include a wind machine and a thunder sheet – perhaps a passing storm.

When it subsides, our starry sky appears with high string lines. Particularly magical are softly fluttering arabesque figures that Hoddinott scores for woodwinds. He notates these with a series of pitch values, beamed but open-voided, and then a simple wiggly line to show continuation. This impressionistic device is used for various other instruments throughout the piece.

When it enters the scene, the solo violin part is rhapsodic, and unsurprisingly treads a lot of high-pitched ground. We could think of its climbing trills and undulating arpeggios as a modern chromatic equivalent to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, with the jostling playfulness of Joyce’s prose replacing the lyrical ease of George Meredith’s poem. There are numerous differences in approach of course, but both scores excel in distilling a moment of enraptured stillness – of stopping to look up.

Towards the end of the work, the orchestra builds to a climax with Hoddinott’s typical slow-burning intensity. Languid chords from the bassoon and horns underpin a roaming melody on the violins and string figurations. But it passes, and nocturnal stillness returns. The solo violin finally ascends with a series of simple harmonics, met by a soft, ambiguous cadence on the strings. The sound is darkened by wind machine and tam-tam as it evaporates into the warm night air.

In a 2008 Guardian obituary, Geraint Lewis described Hoddinott as ‘the genial father-figure of Welsh music: he, more than anyone, directed its postwar path to full professionalism and creative renewal’. In the 1970s, with this internationally-recognised figure at Cardiff University’s new music department, he writes that ‘it felt as if musical life in Wales had suddenly been catapulted into a different dimension’. After the composer’s death, the concert hall at the Wales Millennium Centre was named BBC Hoddinott Hall in his honour.

Doors to BBC Hoddinott Hall. Wikimedia Commons.

If you’d like to venture on to something with bigger symphonic bones than The Heaventree Of Stars, I recommend Hoddinott’s vibrantly colourful Landscapes. You might also try his final orchestral piece, Taliesin, which shows that he composed with undimmed imagination right to the end. Its subject is an ancient poet, shrouded in the mists of legend, whose supposed works feature in a Middle Welsh manuscript. A fitting valedictory theme, for a man who gave so much to Welsh cultural life.

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