Guest blog- Peter Davison on Unquiet Earth at The Bridgewater Hall

Unquiet Earth will be performed at The Bridgewater Hall on Saturday the 23rd of April, 2016 at 3 PM as part of the BWH’s Echoes of  a Mountain Song series. Tickets and additional information available via The Bridgewater Hall website here. 


Clare Hammond (piano) Jane Wilkinson (soprano)
Suzanne Casey (violin) Kenneth Woods (cello)
Peter Davison (narrator)

Despite her short life, Emily Brontë produced one of the most original novels of the 19th century, Wuthering Heights. In a sequence of words and music, we discover more about this enigmatic freespirit who loved the Yorkshire moors.

Todmorden-based composer Robin Walker has set four of her poems, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata about unobtainable love,Adelaide, was among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth.

Finally, Lancashire-based Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth responds to Wuthering Heights’ ambivalent last paragraphs in music of rare pathos.

Beethoven Pathétique Sonata
Robin Walker Four Songs of Emily Brontë
Beethoven Cantata: Adelaide
Mendelssohn Adagio from Cello Sonata No.2
Andrew Keeling Piano Trio “Unquiet Earth”

Emily Bronte

From Peter Davison- artistic director

The emotional heart of this concert will be a new work commissioned from composer Robin Walker who has set four of Emily Brontë’s poems for voice, violin and piano, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings will appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata of unobtainable love, Adelaide, is among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth. Finally, the British première of Andrew Keeling’s Unquiet Earth offers a lyrical response to Wuthering Heights in music of rare pathos

Composer Robin Walker

Composer Robin Walker

Emily Jane Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was a younger sister to Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, and she had also an older brother, Branwell. Shortly after the birth of yet another girl, Anne, in 1820, the family moved to Haworth, where her father Patrick Brontë became perpetual curate – taking up residence in the now famous parsonage. When only a year had passed in their new home, Mrs. Brontë died, and the three oldest sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were consequently sent away to school. Emily eventually joined them, but there was a typhus outbreak, so the children were withdrawn. However, it proved too late for Maria and Elizabeth, who both died at that time.The four remaining siblings were thereafter educated at home by their father and Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister. Patrick Brontë was a strict and rather puritanical father, although he did not deny his children ordinary pleasures such as toys and books. But, during the day, while he worked in his study, the children would have to remain silent in an adjacent room. The siblings had access to a wide range of literature, including works by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Shelley, and it was this combination of intense reading, spiritual high-mindedness and domestic confinement which probably encouraged the rich imaginative fantasies that would be the basis of their mature writings.

At seventeen, Emily attended Roe Head girls’ school, where her elder sister Charlotte was a teacher but, after only a few months, she was overwhelmed by homesickness. Returning to Haworth, her younger sister Anne took her place.The aim of the sisters at this time was to acquire sufficient education to allow them to open a small school of their own. Indeed, Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax in September 1838, but her once again her health deteriorated under the strain of the long and stressful hours. She found herself compelled to return to Haworth parsonage, where she took on many of the domestic chores, while also teaching at the local Sunday school.During this period, Emily was able to teach herself German, and she also became a proficient pianist. The children had always been encouraged to attend concerts, to play music and to sing. The family even acquired a cabinet piano in 1833, which Emily and Anne both were able to play. Emily was particularly gifted as a pianist and reached a high standard. The family possessed a range of sheet music, including William Ayrton’sfamous Musical Library; an anthology in four large double volumes which contained many instrumental pieces and songs by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but also works by Handel, Arne, Boyce, Gluck, Spohr and Mendelssohn. Among the most notable contents of these volumes were simplified arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies, as well as songs by him such as Adelaide. It is easy to imagine the whole family gathered around the piano on a winter’s evening, the hail clattering on the window panes as a wild wind blows across the moors. Emily Bronte is crouched at the piano, before throwing herself into a performance of music by Beethoven.

In 1842, Emily accompanied Charlotte to the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels where they attended the girls’ academy run by Constantin Héger. They planned to perfect their French and German before opening their own school. However, the death of their aunt meant that they were forced to return to Haworth. They tried in vain to open a school, but were unable to attract any students. The attempts of the sisters to achieve financial independence seemed to be consistently frustrated, but this perhaps served to turn their attention all the more to writing and creativity. In 1844, Emily began going through all the poems she had ever written, copying them into two notebooks. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte discovered them and insisted that the poems should be published. Emily at first declined and was also angry that her secret life as a poet had been exposed, but she relented when her sister Anne revealed that she too had been writing poems. In 1846, the three sisters together published a single volume – Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Each adopted a male pseudonym for the purpose of publication, but preserving their initials. They feared that their work would not otherwise be taken seriously. The collection was well received, and Emily’s poems were singled out for their seriousness and musical qualities.

But this literary triumph was short-lived. Emily knew that her health had been damaged by the harsh climate at Haworth. There were also unsanitary conditions in the parsonage, where the water-supply was probably contaminated by the many diseased and rotting corpses in the neighbouring graveyard. Emily caught a severe cold during the funeral of her hapless brother Branwell, who had died in September 1848. She soon afterwards diagnosed with tuberculosis, her condition rapidly worsening. She died aged just thirty on 19 December 1848, having never experienced the success of her sole novel, Wuthering Heights, which had been published in the previous year.

We know very little about Emily Brontë as a person. Her sister Charlotte recorded that she needed to be free in order to thrive. Emily was certainly a free spirit, emotionally sensitive and physically vulnerable, yet also stubbornly individualistic, possessing a wild imagination which was stimulated by long country walks. She was a day-dreamer, often self-preoccupied, her head full of literary ideas and elaborate fantasies. It was said that she preferred the company of her faithful dog Keeper to any human companionship. Such misanthropic characteristics may well have made her less than appealing to potential suitors, and it is doubtful that she ever experienced romantic love. Perhaps at some time in her life, she had loved from afar, or perhaps she had been cruelly rebuffed but, whatever the truth, she felt a deep wound of separation formed by a childhood filled by painful grief and loss.

Robin Walker, who lives and works close to Haworth, in sight of the same Yorkshire moors which so inspired Emily Brontë’s writing has set four of her poems, which explore feelings of grief and separation against the backdrop of Nature. The absent lover is a blissful presence, but only in memory. There is a pervasive longing to restore the lost flow of life and to recover innocence. Death offers an escape; a way finally to unite with the unattainable beloved. Deep sadness suffuses these poems. There is resignation to a tragic destiny. It is true that Emily found some consolation in her Christian faith, also in the beauty of Nature and in her prodigious imagination, but throughout we feel the cold hand of mortality is beckoning her ever closer. By the end of this song-cycle, her faith in redemption seems as fragile her physical well-being.

The second half of the concert begins with Beethoven’s setting of Adelaide; a song which can be found in the Brontë’s Musical collection at Haworth Parsonage. The poem is by Friedrich von Matthisson, and it expresses unrequited love for an idealised other, who is mirrored ultimately in the beauty of Nature. Once again, we sense that broken love may only be healed by death. Beethoven’s obsessive dedication to music led him to a life at times of extreme self-denial. At all cost, he needed to preserve his creative freedom. Rather like Emily Brontë, this made his human relationships fraught with difficulty. He was at the whim of his muse, which possessed him with grand visions and impossible lofty ideals. His ordinary human needs often collided uncomfortably with his will to greatness and high achievement. It was a tension which also haunted all the Brontë siblings in their different ways and especially Emily. One author, R.K Wallace, has gone so far as to suggest that Heathcliff, the wicked anti-hero of Wuthering Heights, was even modelled on Beethoven, whose appearance, like that of Heathcliff, was wild, dark and unkempt. Beethoven was also prone to violent outbursts of temper. Emily would have known about Beethoven‘s passionate nature from playing his music. She may also possibly have read accounts of him as an uncompromising character in published biographies. But we should not exaggerate this connection. Beethoven was, after all, no ill-educated rustic, just as Heathcliff was no musical genius. By the 1830’s, not long after Beethoven’s death in 1827, the composer was already a towering mythic figure in European culture; an archetype for the heroic Romantic artist living in defiance of convention and who harboured for humanity a vision of universal brotherhood. In this new order, social convention and true nature would no longer be at odds. Emily Brontë must have found such ideas inspiring and attractive, although they must also have increased her frustration at the state of the world around her; so full of iniquities, suppressed feelings and dashed hopes.

We find these conflicts at the heart of Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, where the central theme is the conflict between social convention and the wildness of Nature. The privileged world of the Linton family, restricted by the mores of polite society, is contrasted with Heathcliff’s feral world on the moors, where passions rage uncontrolled and where vengeful mischief is aimed at those who have put him down. Heathcliff had been a mysterious swarthy child plucked from the streets of Liverpool. As he grew up, he was physically abused and mocked, eventually seeking revenge upon his tormentors; those who conspired to steal his beloved Cathy away from him. The intense feelings between Cathy and Heathcliff threaten diabolical consequence for the civilised world, for their desires cannot be repressed, yet nor can they find a form that would not transgress established moral laws. Tragedy must inevitably follow, for Cathy knows that the price of a virtuous and privileged life as Mrs. Edgar Linton entails an unbearable loss of soul. With pagan intensity and reckless longing, Cathy laments her predicament to her servant Nelly:

‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. …. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven…It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’

We can only speculate on the inner frustrations which may have motivated Emily Bronte to pen Wuthering Heights, as she languished at home, devoted to her clergyman father and plagued by ill-health. Creative fantasy and long walks offered some consolation, but her life in many ways embodied the collective conflict of those times which women in particular endured through prejudice and prohibition. Desire and ambition were walled in by domestic duty and the call to obedience. Nature was thus pitted against the human world. Individuality was often trapped in conformity to rigid social conventions. The artist was often cast in the role of the outsider attempting to redefine moral laws and boundaries. These struggles were common themes in 19C art, music and literature, and we can hear such an opposition in the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata. A traditional Lutheran chorale, in the style of Bach, is played by the piano. It symbolises conventional faith, enduring value and moral steadfastness, but the cello plays a plangent ‘song without words’, which disrupts the purity of the chorale. Mendelssohn resolves this tension when the piano finally acknowledges the cello’s sorrow, re-integrating what had previously been excluded from the community of faith.

If Wuthering Heights expresses something of the deep psychological conflicts at the heart of Victorian society, it does not mean that Emily Brontë was always pessimistic about the human condition. At the end of her novel, there are glimmers of hope that differences in society can be overcome by patience, understanding and universal education. But, it is far from an idealistic outcome in the context of the novel’s preceding pages. In truth, Emily Brontë vacillated between peering into the abyss and a visionary sensibility that looked to the stars. Her volatile moods and profound perceptiveness are explored in her essay, The Butterfly, written in 1842, while she was living in Belgium. In a state of deep melancholy, her experience of Nature is meaningless, for one creature must devour another in order to live. Nature’s beauty, she feels, is a deception. She observes a caterpillar eating the petals of a flower and is disgusted by it, filling her with existential doubt and rage:

All creation is equally mad. Behold those flies playing above the brook; the swallows and fish diminish their number every minute. These will become, in their turn, the prey of some tyrant of the air or water; and man for his amusement or his needs will kill their murderers. Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction…This worm lives only to injure the plant that protects it. Why was it created, and why was man created?”

But then a butterfly draws itself to her attention, reminding her to look more generously upon the transformative potential of Creation:

…like a censoring angel sent from heaven, there came fluttering through the trees a butterfly with large wings of lustrous gold and purple. It shone but a moment before my eyes; then, rising among the leaves, it vanished into the height of the azure vault…

In the metamorphosis of the caterpillar in to a butterfly, Emily Brontë could sense the symbolic promise of a release from earthly woes and the cruelties of Nature. Perhaps, she believed, there could yet be some resolution of the conflict between the high spiritual ideals of Beethoven and the low earthly passions which she would later portray driving Cathy and Heathcliff to mutual destruction.

Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth (2006) was inspired by the final paragraph of Wuthering Heights. The novel ends with tantalising ambiguity. The main characters all lie dead, but the novel’s narrator returns to the scene of the tempestuous events and perverse relationships which made the story. We are compelled to reflect in these last pages upon what may follow. Where Nature has been so rigorously denied, must there always be ghostly echoes of those thwarted desires? Must cries of anger and despair resound through successive generations? Will the souls of the dead continue to haunt the living, as victim and victimiser entangle in an eternally destructive embrace? Or – do the dead rest in peace, finally free of their unhappiness and their need to strive to fulfil themselves?

….the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen the two of them looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since Heathcliff’s death:—

…. I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

For more information about this event click here:  https://tickets.bridgewater-hall.co.uk/single/eventDetail.aspx?p=29781

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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