Although I had heard of British composer Nigel Clarke (born 1960), I do not believe I have heard any of his music before, or watched any of the films that he has written scores for. I was pleasantly surprised with The Prophecies of Merlin (2021). It has great vision and scope and some very effective orchestration. This is the work's first recording.
The idea for this piece came from the soloist Peter Sheppard Skærved, with whom the composer has enjoyed a long collaboration, and was first mentioned at the beginning of the COVID epidemic. The work is inspired by the writings of the twelfth century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. In De gestis Britonum and Vita Merlini he depicts Merlin who, dispirited with events in his life, is basically driven mad and pronounces a series of dire prophecies concerning his native land. After drinking from a spring in Wildwood, eventually his mind clears and he renounces the prophecies.
The piece is in five tapestries and is described as a symphony for violin and orchestra, the violin being representative of Merlin's feverish mind, and the orchestra - here the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neil Thomson - sets the mood and often supports Merlin's visions.
The first tapestry is entitled 'Calidon Wood' and this was where Merlin first wandered in retreat. It starts rather gloomily and very softly in the bass instruments, and after a while the violin solo emerges, soaring above the gloomy carpet. There is something quite magical about this section, and percussion and woodwind figures help create this magical feeling. The music becomes frantic with rousing and quite savage writing for the orchestra, and the solo violin weaves in and out of this texture. Ultimately it all subsides and the music ends almost as mysteriously as it started.
Listen — Nigel Clarke: Tapestry I - Calidon Wood (The Prophecies of Merlin)
(8.579127 track 1, 15:36-16:35) ℗ 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The second tapestry, 'Calaterium Forest', appears to be the site for one of Merlin's prophecies:
Next a Heron shall emerge from the Forest of Calaterium and fly round the island for two whole years. By its cry in the night it will call all winged creatures together and assemble in its company every genus of bird. They will swoop down on to the fields which men have cultivated and devour every kind of harvest. A famine will attack the people and an appalling death-rate will follow the famine.
The music is evocative of this prophecy, it is often quite edgy and filled with a veiled tension, both in the writing for the orchestra, but also in the violin writing. The movement ends rather ominously dark and quietly.
Listen — Nigel Clarke: Tapestry II - Calaterium Forest (The Prophecies of Merlin)
(8.579127 track 2, 4:30-5:18) ℗ 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The third tapestry, 'Severn Sea', is the place where the sea would burn for seven months, all the fish would die, and out of their carcasses would emerge fearsome serpents. This is the shortest of the movements and is also quite tumultuous and energetic, but again ends quietly.
Listen — Nigel Clarke: Tapestry III - Severn Sea (The Prophecies of Merlin)
(8.579127 track 3, 1:06-2:00) ℗ 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The next tapestry, 'Canute's Wood', is the longest movement at just under twenty minutes. It deals with an element of the prophecies where the river divides into three streams and each of them has its own poisonous qualities. A woman manages to quell the streams but ultimately becomes cursed herself, and eventually is impaled on the horns of a stag. The work starts softly and there is an extensive bassoon solo, to which the violin solo is added, and the rest of the orchestra begins to make itself felt. There is a rather frantic section about two thirds way through where the solo violin and percussion are predominant. This does soon quieten down, and the movement ends calmly and peacefully.
Listen — Nigel Clarke: Tapestry IV - Canute's Wood (The Prophecies of Merlin)
(8.579127 track 4, 12:13-13:08) ℗ 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The final movement, 'Daneian Forest', is probably representative of the part of the prophecy that says:
The Daneian wood shall be stirred up, and breaking forth into a human voice, shall cry: Come, O Cambria, and join Cornwall to thy side, and say to Winchester, the earth shall swallow thee up.
The movement starts with a strange descending figure that contracts on itself and elements of it are used in the violin figure. This develops in quite a fantastic and rather brutal way and climaxes before a final violin figure that perhaps indicates that Merlin's madness has ended before a final quick flourish at the very end.
Listen — Nigel Clarke: Tapestry V - Daneian Forest (The Prophecies of Merlin)
(8.579127 track 5, 9:10-10:08) ℗ 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
This is a most effective and exciting work, and even though the style is unmistakably modern and at times brutal, one gets captured and carried away by the story and imagination of the composer and the fine musicians who bring this to life. Peter Sheppard Skærved certainly rises to the occasion in this demanding work. The programme notes are informative without attempting to explain what is happening in each of the tapestries. I found this link that tells the prophecies most helpful. This is a disc that will intrigue and delight many listeners and it is highly recommended.
Copyright © 10 June 2023