[View score online - opens in new window]

Buried Light is an Adagio & Rondo which takes as its starting point Vernon Watkins’ poem of the same name and is written in memory of my cousin, Peter.

I have long been an admirer of Watkins’ work and have written several works either based on or setting his poetry and his choice of subject matter – the landscape of Wales, the elements, loss, longing and rebirth all have a very personal resonance for me. 

Also, the idea of light has an important place in my work and I am fascinated by the various moods created by it – the vibrant colours of the fields in France, diffused light shining through the trees on the roads in Somerset, the sun shining through the bands of rain in the Welsh valleys, the warm shades of dawn and the mystical feeling of twilight.

My large orchestral work, Towards the Light, depicting a storm as an allegory of the souls’ journey from the trials of this world to the triumph of the next, was written to celebrate the Golden Wedding of Peter’s parents and I felt it was fitting that Buried Light should be my tribute to someone I saw as my big brother and who is sorely missed. 

The musical material for this work is derived from an initial note row which has been repeated until it could be divided into equal segments of five notes each and then each segment subjected to row rotation to provide another five, interlinked, variants. This process yields sixty five-note cells which are all inter-related and which provide the basic material from which to build the fabric of the work. Although the building blocks are derived by use of serial technique, the work itself is not serial and has a harmonic structure that is independent of the rotated cells.

I have chosen two, non –consecutive, stanzas of Buried Light to head the two movements of the work. 

What are the light and wind to me? 
The lamp I love is gone to ground. 
There all the thunder of the sea 
Becomes by contrast idle sound. 

Come, breath, instruct this angry wind 
To listen here where men have prayed, 
That the bold landscape of the mind 
Fly nobler from its wrist of shade. 

The first movement is an elegy for the lost light which as now “gone to ground” whilst the much faster, virtuosic, Rondo celebrates the soul “Flying from its wrist of shade.” 

Buried Light was written for, and dedicated to, Gwenllian Haf Richards. 


 [View score online - opens in new window]

The starting point for this work was a painting by Goya of an old, deserted, dark house in the middle of a forest. The image was disturbing and led me to think of the various legends and stories involving forests – Der Freischutz, Siegfried, Hansel & Gretel and Melusine are all examples foremost in my mind together with, of course, the Forest of Arden with Oberon, Titania and Puck. The idea was further reinforced when I received the commission from the Thuringen Philharmonie who are based in the region of the Thuringen forest which is itself a place of myth and legend.

I have suffered from insomnia for many years and rarely enjoy a full night’s sleep. I often work during the long watches of the night whilst snatching such brief patches of sleep as possible. The opening of this work portrays this kind of disturbed sleep when fragments of dreams not only drift in and out of one’s mind but also link together in a perverse way to form a bizarre and surreal narrative. This uneasy nocturne is veiled in mists rather as are the initial ideas for a composition itself. Ideas appear momentarily and then disappear into the mist before one can catch hold of them whilst the shifting harmonic mist is forever present


[View score online - opens in new window]

1              Bright petal, dragonfoil springing from the hot grass
2              Brand lit in foliage, in the heart of summer
3              Who half asleep, or waking, does not hear it

The poet Vernon Watkins (1906-67) is better remembered today as one of Dylan Thomas’s closest associates and a member of the Swansea group. Yet he is also regarded as one of the greatest Welsh poets in English, whose work is essentially metaphysical in nature. Kathleen Raine described him as, the greatest lyric poet of my generation, and Dylan Thomas wrote that he was, the only other poet except me whose poetry I really like today. To Philip Larkin, his poetry, was a vocation, at once difficult as sainthood and easy as breathing. Watkins’s work has been long admired by Christopher Painter and these three orchestral songs set three poems from a set entitled Dragonfoil and the Furnace of Colours, drawn from his Music of Colours (from the collection Affinities of 1962).

Christopher Painter’s work includes a substantial number of large-scale orchestral and chamber works. Much of his music takes nature in its many guises as a starting point, often using it as a metaphor for the human condition. His Third Symphony, Fire in Snow, premièred in Mexico last June, deals frankly and powerfully with the emotional trajectory experienced by the composer following the death of his mentor and friend, the composer Alun Hoddinott in 2008. 

Christopher Painter was born in Port Talbot, South Wales, and studied with Hoddinott at Cardiff University. Indeed, Alun Hoddinott was a great admirer of Watkins’s work and, during his schooldays, often waited outside the bank where Watkins worked, in order to discuss poetry during their walk home. The score of The Furnace of Colours, commissioned by BBC Radio 3, is prefaced with the words, In memory of my mentor and great friend Alun Hoddinott and dedicated to all the past, present and future members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales - a true furnace of colours.

The music falls into three predominantly slow songs, described by the composer as, calm and reflective, conjuring up the feeling of lazy hot summer days when everything shimmers. The vocal lines float above a wash of orchestral colour and pointillistic textures, reflecting the mood of the poetry through the use of diatonic music that eschews harsh dissonance. The three Watkins poems explore a metaphysical landscape drenched in the summer colours, textures and sounds of nature, celebrating both their vibrancy and transience.

Peter Reynolds
Programme Note for BBC NOW Concert - March 9th

Composer's Note - 

Music of colours swaying in the light breeze,
Flame wind of poppies.
.……. All life begins there, scattered by the rainbow;
Yes, and the field flowers, these deceptive blossoms,
Break from the furnace.

I was first drawn to the poetry of Vernon Watkins when I was in my late teens and his poems have a deeply personal resonance for me. I only time that I have directly used his words was in 1985 with a setting of his Peace in the Welsh Hills for soprano and tenor soloists, chorus and orchestra although I have taken his poetry as a starting point for many of my works.

Watkins was born in Maesteg, as was my father, and worked for many years as a bank clerk in Swansea, refusing promotions in order to have more time to write. I recently discovered that my mentor and friend Alun Hoddinott was not only a great fan of Watkins’ work but, as a schoolboy, had known him and often waited for him outside the bank in order to walk home with him and discuss his latest poems.

Although a prodigious songwriter, Alun never set any of Watkins’ verses; surely a sign of the love he had for them, feeling that they needed no music to enhance them.

For this cycle, I have chosen texts from Watkins’ Music of Colours – a series of poems celebrating the beauty of nature and linking this to both music and to the fact that the Welsh are inextricably connected to their land and history.

Waking entranced, we cannot see that other
Order of colours moving in the white light.
Time is for us transfigured into colours
Known and remembered from an earlier summer,

These texts remind me of my childhood when summers were seemingly longer and hotter and we would run, short-trousered, through the bracken, our legs raw from stinging nettles but never caring, and lie on the grass, in a cloud-watching haze amidst the scent of the flowers.

Furnace of Colours is also my reference to the music of Alun Hoddinott. Alun was blessed (or cursed) with synaethesia which linked his sense of colour to sound and resulted in his mastery of orchestration and his rich use of harmony.

This work is written in memory of my great friend and mentor, Alun Hoddinott, and is dedicated to the players - past, present and future - of his beloved BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Transcript of pre-concert interview - 

1) Can you tell us a bit about the title of the piece?

Furnace of Colours is a setting of texts by the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins and is an evocation of heat and colour of Summer and, I my mind, looks back to those long summers of my childhood where weeks seemed like months and our only concern was whether or not we’d be able to get into the fields to play cricket or up into the hills to walk and lie looking up at the sky.

Furnace marks the end of a personal journey for me, being the final piece in a quartet of Watkins inspired works written following the death of Alun Hoddinott and that, two weeks later, of our cousin Peter. Vernon Watkins has been my constant companion and support on this journey and I urge people to seek out and read his work – it is well worth it.

The journey started with Buried Light a work for violin and orchestra, written for Gwenllian
Richards, who is a member of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and was conducted by my
friend Jonathan Mann with the Cardiff Sinfonietta and was a lament for the passing of our cousin Peter.

This was followed by a chamber work, The Spring of Vision for the Machynlleth Festvial which
was my personal tribute to Alun and was dedicated to Rhiannon Hoddinott who, I am delighted to say, is here in the audience today.

The third work in the quartet was my Third Symphony, Fire in the Snow, commissioned by the Welsh conductor Alun Francis and conducted by him in Mexico City in June of last year. The
symphony charts my progression from grief and loss to acceptance and optimism and is dedicated to all those family and friends who helped me along the way.

Furnace concludes the quartet and is my final goodbye to Alun and is a celebration of a long
friendship. Those who know Alun’s work will hear many echoes of him here including a recurring motif which Alun often used in his works which is my acknowledgment that he will always be present in my music. Indeed, right at the very end the solitary trumpet plays as if Alun is there in the distance watching us. The piece then concludes with solo viola in recognition of Alun’s prowess as both a violin and viola player and brings us back to the present.

2) What about the text - where does it come from?

The text is from Watkins’ poem Dragonfoil and the Furnace of Colours which is part of his Music of Colours series. It deals with the colours of summer and allies them to musical allusions and the transcient nature of this world.

3) You've dedicated the piece to Alun Hoddinott - how did he influence you and your music?

Alun has been a huge influence upon me and was I was his pupil, copyist, publisher and, most
importantly for me, his friend for 27 years. I cannot underestimate the guidance and support that I, and many others, received from him. He will always be present in my music and I hope that
Furnace acknowledges this. It is particularly fitting that this, my first BBC commission, should be taking place in Hoddinott Hall, just two days before the third anniversary of his death.


[View score online - opens in new window]

The starting point for this work is Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name which deals, on the surface, with Marco Polo’s descriptions to Kubla Khan of the fantastical cities which he has seen on his many travels. Although he describes many cities he is, in fact, describing many facets of the same city, Venice. 

The sub-plot of the novel deals with people’s varying perceptions of the same scene and also with perceptions of time and its continuity. This problem of a single scene causing different reactions and emotions in different people lends itself, musically, to a continuous process of symphonic variations where the same material is woven together to form diverse images. 

I was further influenced by a visit to the Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes exhibition at the National Gallery. Canaletto’s paintings with their intense detail depict the glory of Venice but it is a Venice that never existed as he painted it. Many of his views are painted from impossible viewpoints with obstructing buildings removed or with the perspective altered so as to show more of the scene than is actually visible. These paintings are a tangible example of what Calvino is describing, the view as Canaletto perceived it not as it actually was. I was particularly impressed by both The Stonemason’s Yard and, more importantly, A Regatta on the Grand Canal and had these in mind during various stages of the composition. 

I was also conscious of the musical history of Venice and the many composers who have been associated with it. It is possible to discern the ghostly shadows of some of these composers moving through these invisible cities should one wish to look for them. 

The work is continuous and is cast in four sections, Moderato; Allegro malevolente; Lento tranquillo; and Allegro giocoso

The musical material is derived from a specially derived set of note-rows which have been manipulated to provide the threads with which the fabric is constructed. These note-rows are used contrapuntally and have no bearing on the harmonic (vertical) structure of the work but are linked to the tonal scheme of the sections. 

The form is derived from Venice’s golden period with much use of canzona, fugue, ostinato and ritornelli

I have chosen the following descriptions from Calvino’s text as my images whilst composing this work. They are not necessarily presented here in the same order as the music as the listener should feel free to conjure their own images according to their perception of the music. 

 ...three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind.

...there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle.

 ...most of the corpses are seated around laden tables, or placed in dancing positions, or made to play little trumpets...

...the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on, and in the limpid air, the pink of the settlement can be discerned spread out in the distance below: where the windows are more concentrated, where  it collects the shadows of gardens, where it raises towers with signal fires; and if the evening is misty, a hazy glow swells like a milky sponge...

At times the wind brings a music of bass drums and trumpets, the bang of firecrackers in the light-display of a festival; at times the rattle of guns...

Recurrent invasions racked the city...in the centuries of its history; no sooner was one enemy routed than another gained strength and threatened the survival of the inhabitants


The idea of a set of musical postcards was suggested to me some time ago by A.J. Heward Rees, retired Director of the Welsh Music Information Centre and long-time editor of Welsh Music. These Postcards are not descriptive vignettes of the landscapes involved but more of a personal response to the strong impressions created by them.

The three movements are set before the listener as my sketch of the atmosphere of each location rather in the way of a snapshot rather than an in-depth painting.

The work is written as a concertino for three solo instruments (flute, oboe and clarinet) and a chamber orchestra consisting of a pair of horns and strings. In each movement one of the concertante group takes prominence whilst the other two have a more supporting role.

The musical material is constructed from fragments of note sets which have been manipulated in several ways to produce a set of ordered cells which can be used in relation to the tonal structure of the unfolding work.

The movements are:

1.        Sker Point: Storm at Sea  - Allegro

Sker Point on the Glamorgan coast can be a wild and violent place. I grew up not far from there and spent many happy days walking there as a child. The sheer majesty and power of the sea never ceases to amaze me and this place with the derelict Sker House and the legend of the lost town of Kenfig, which was buried in a sandstorm, shows how insignificant we are against the power of nature. There have been many shipwrecks here in the past, many caused by smugglers luring ships onto the rocks from the turret of Sker House, and ghost ships and sailors are said to be seen off the coast when the storms come. The music is forceful with a rhythmic impetus that works on several levels to try to portray the various currents and undercurrents of the sea together with the power of the wind.

  1. Tryfan: Morning Mists and SunriseLento

In April 2003 I visited Bangor and, as the train approached the town, was struck by the expanse of mountainous terrain surrounding it. I looked at Tryfan and saw the mists rolling over it and revealing the snow still clinging to its sides. Then, out of this mysterious atmosphere, the sun shone brightly through a gap in the cloud to light up one side of the mountain. This phenomenon of the sun shining through a hole in the cloud has always made me think that a higher power is looking down and watching over us and I find this comforting. The harmonic movement is slow and almost static whilst high strings portray the mists and snow with the solo flute, the classic pastoral instrument, bringing light.

  1. Brecon Beacons: Wild and spiritedAllegro vivace

I often have to cross the Beacons and always find them a wondrous place. The mood can change in a second and the colours of the landscape and the sky are amazing. There is a wicked playfulness and subdued terror about the landscape and weather which I hope is conjured by this wild and frenetic scherzo which is led by the solo clarinet.

Commissioned by the Beaumaris Festival and first performed by Dewi Ellis Jones (percussion) and Paul Davies (solo dancer) with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hose at Beaumaris Leisure Centre on 26th May 2007

The idea for this work sprang from many visits to Lake Vyrnwy and an interest in its folklore. I have written several works that have been influenced by this magical place which was made by flooding the valley to create a reservoir to supply water to Liverpool. The tales of spirits inhabiting the valley and the thought of the old village submerged beneath the lake have provided me with a strong stimulus and make this one of my favourite places.

The first movement deals with the story of the evil spirit, Yspryd Cynon, who had been trapped in a bottle by the magician Dic Spot after wreaking havoc on Anglesey. Yspryd Cynon was released to cause havoc in the valley when the large stone (careg yr yspryd), under which he was trapped, was dynamited when the reservoir was being constructed. The movement starts with three explosions before the spirit is released and gathers strength before embarking on a trail of evil deeds across the valley.

The second movement is in the nature of a nocturne and features almost exclusively the marimba. The music conjures up something of the atmosphere of night at the lake with thoughts of the submerged village and of the creatures of the night (Lake Vyrnwy has been used as a location for Transylvania in several films) flitting around in the semi-darkness.

The last movement is an evocation of Yspryd Tan, the fire spirit, which was said to dance around the lake at night. The explanation of this is far more banal in that the spirit was in reality methane spikes igniting around the shoreline of the lake but the story ties in with many in folklore around the world as evidence to our fascination with fire.


The genesis of this symphony stems from reading Vernon Watkins’ poem of the same name and whilst the symphony is not a literal depiction of the poem, certain lines of text did have a resonance for me. 

My use of the term Fire in the Snow refers to the death of the creative spirit in a jaded artist and its gradual rebirth through contact and interaction with younger, brighter, spirits. This is indeed what I experienced prior to writing this work.

In March 2008, my great friend, mentor and patris musicus, Alun Hoddinott died after a long illness. This tragic loss was followed, two weeks later, by the death of my cousin Peter who had become like an older brother to me. These two losses affected me deeply and sent me into a dark world of black moods and listlessness which rendered composition all but impossible. 

Slowly, with the help of my family and some very good friends, I started to climb out of the gloom and my enthusiasm for composition began to return. Apart for a short work for violin and string orchestra which was written in two weeks in the white heat of inspiration for a concert conducted by one of my friends at Christmas 2009, Fire in the Snow is the first large scale work I have written since March 2008. 

This was such a painful and personal journey for me, my family and my friends, that I have decided not to name any of them openly but they will know who they are and that they have my eternal gratitude. 

The symphony is cast in four movements beginning with an extended slow movement meant to depict the frozen landscape of the creative mind which gradually unfolds into a multi-layered passacaglia for divisi strings. Watkins’ first stanza is very apt here: 

White lambs leap. Through miles of snow 
Across the muffled fields you go, 
Frost – furled and gazing deep, 
Lost in a world where white lambs leap. 

The second movement is a spirited, if a little violent, Scherzo which is an homage to Alun Hoddinott. There is minimal development of the material as blocks of ideas are juxtaposed and flow relentlessly to a helterskelter conclusion. 

Into a million eyes of light 
You look, beneath that mask of white 
Where lambs, wrinkled, without sound, 
Bound in the air and print the ground. 

The following movement is marked Lento sostenuto and is a mixture of elegy and serenade and contrasts the sense of loss with a calm acceptance and with a longing for what might have been. The movement features solos for horn, cor anglais and alto flute and is based upon a fragment from a piece which is very dear to me. 

...The brilliant, beautiful 
Sun has dropped, and the noon-cracked pool 
Freezes back. Come, seek from night 
Gloom’s fire, where the unlit room is white, 
I wait, intent, by the firelit stones 
Strewn with chopped wood and fallen cones. 
Come in, and watch with me in dark 
The red spark eating the black bark. 

The symphony concludes with a fiery Allegro vivace with spiky woodwind passages, strings rushing pell mell ever onwards although pausing occasionally for more legato sections, short, sharp brass chords punctuating the sections before the inevitable tutti forza ending signifying the complete re-ignition of the creative and spiritual flame. 

This final movement is an extension and re-working of a movement, now withdrawn, of Forest of Dreams a work written for Alun Francis when he was Chief Conductor of the Thuringen Philharmonie in Germany and is included not merely because I wanted to re-work it but also as a special tribute to Alun Francis who has been very supportive and from whom I have already learnt a great deal. 

I have headed the score not with a specific dedication but with the concluding lines from Watkins poem which have a particular, very personal and private, resonance for me: 

.............and your eyes, most watchful, glow, 
Seeing in the firelight the brightness of snow. 


Depiction of the last closing rays of sunlight of a day in late Summer/early Autumn as the dusk settles and everything dissolves into mist. This piece was written as a companion piece to Forest of Dreams during my time as Composer-in-Residence with the Thuringen Philharmonie.

Première in January 2006 of "Vanishing Light" by the Thuringen Philharmonie, conducted by Alun Francis, at the Congress Centrum Suhl, Germany. A flawed recording in that the harp is over-miked.

No comments:

Post a Comment