Two concerts of music and word make up our Autumn Season in London. In Place and Time fuses spoken word and music in an immersive event at Southwark Cathedral on 20 November, while Scheherazade presents a retelling of the story that inspired one of the most popular pieces in classical music at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 December.
In Place and Time – 20 Nov, 19:30 – Southwark Cathedral
The event, held in the beautiful setting of Southwark Cathedral, represents a unique collaboration between City of London Sinfonia and Faber & Faber to mark the 90th anniversary of the publisher, of which Eliot was a founding member and which Britten joined in 1965, the first composer in the newly-formed Faber Music.
Both artists were unparalleled storytellers in their respective genres, but Britten turned to Eliot’s writing only in the final years of his life, setting two Canticles to the poet’s words. Mixing devotion and drama, Canticle V (The Death of Saint Narcissus) marked Britten’s return to composition following heart surgery, and is performed with tenor Joshua Ellicott.
Sections of Britten’s music are interspersed with sections of Eliot’s poetry including Ash-Wednesday, read by Alex Jennings, the poet’s first major work after his conversion to Anglicanism. Actor Alex Jennings previously portrayed Benjamin Britten in the premiere of Alan Bennett’s 2009 play The Habit of Art, set during a fictional meeting between Britten and W. H. Auden.
Eliot’s 1942 smouldering Little Gidding from his masterpiece Four Quartets, read by Juliet Stevenson (Accused; Truly, Madly, Deeply), fuses with Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings of a year later – written for horn virtuoso Dennis Brain and Peter Pears, here performed with Ellicott and horn player Stephen Stirling – and his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge from the beginning of Britten’s compositional career, based on a theme by Britten’s teacher. Another piece from Britten’s early composition years, Hymn to the Virgin will be performed by the award-winning chamber choir Epiphoni Consort.
Scheherazade – 1 Dec, 15:00 – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Interspersing a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s evocative Scheherazade, four award-winning writers and poets join us and conductor Ben Gernon for an evening of words and music exploring the lure of the legendary enchantress in One Thousand and One Nights. Authors Ruth Padel, DBC Pierre, Daljit Nagra and Hanah al-Shaykh respond to one of the greatest masterpieces of the Arabic world and one of the most hypnotic works for orchestra.
One Thousand and One Nights is one of the best-known collections of stories in the world. Convinced that all women are false and faithless, the Sultan Schariar vows to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night, until Scheherazade ventures into his bedchamber with her bewitching story-telling for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postpones his newest wife’s execution from day to day and finally abandons his bloody vow.
Composers, painters and filmmakers alike have long been enthralled by these tales of folly, lust, jealousy and revenge recounting Sinbad’s adventures, the whims of despots, djinn and shattered love affairs. Above all, it is the heroine Scheherazade whose wit and wisdom seduces the Sultan each night, spinning mesmerising fables of courage, cunning, daredevilry, compassion, and travels to far-off lands.
While rooted in Arabic culture, the stories have a universality that captivates all, not least in Rimsky-Korsakov’s own musical retelling: the music, while not attempting to depict individual episodes, nevertheless beguiles and enthrals listeners. Rimsky-Korsakov’s earlier career as a naval officer may have inspired the scenes at sea and amid storms. As the composer explained:
“All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.”
Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the most acclaimed writers in the contemporary Arab World. She is the author of seven novels, as well as a collection of stories, and her work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. Most recently she published One Thousand and One Nights, an adaptation and re-imagining of some of the stories from the legendary Alf Layla Wa Layla – the Arabian Nights.
“As a female Arab writer my real enchantment was the discovery that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful, they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit, all the time recognising that their behaviour was the second nature of the weak and the oppressed.”
In 2019 Hanan was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Daljit Nagra is a British poet that has published four poetry collections with Faber & Faber. He won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem and Best First Book, and his books have been nominated for the Costa Prize and twice for the T.S. Eliot Prize. As the inaugural Poet-in-Residence for Radio 4 & 4 Extra he presents a weekly programme, Poetry Extra, on Radio 4 Extra.
Before writing his first novel in London, DBC Pierre worked as a visual artist based in Mexico and Spain. His debut ‘Vernon God Little‘ became the first book to win both a Booker and Whitbread prize, and went on to be published in 43 territories. His second book, Ludmila’s Broken English, was published in 2006. Pierre has often attributed his literary career to an unspent passion for music, having never learned an instrument.
Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet, Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was Chair of Judges for the 2016 T. S. Eliot Prize and Judge for the 2016 International Man Booker Prize. A lifelong amateur musician, she grew up playing viola in family string quartets and was first Resident Writer at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Her next collection, Beethoven Variations, will come out in January 2020.
Dates and booking information
- In Place and Time – 20 November at Southwark Cathedral
- Scheherazade – 1 December at Queen Elizabeth Hall
City of London Sinfonia presents ‘In Place and Time: Britten and TS Eliot’ in association with Faber Members. Our London Season is supported by the Cockayne Foundation and John Ellerman Foundation.
Be sure to keep up to date with all our activities on Twitter @cityldnsinfonia, and on Facebook and Instagram (@cityoflondonsinfonia). You can also visit our website for information on upcoming events, as well as our wellbeing and education projects.