Daryl Runswick
     The Phoenix and the Turtle    back to Concert Music
 
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Shakespeare's weird and atmospheric poem The Phoenix
and the Turtle
is about the death of beauty (represented by
the Phoenix) and truth (the Turtle Dove). My setting, for voices, percussion and double bass, was composed in 1977 and given
just two performances.
      Terry Edwards' then newly-formed London Voices
(containing John Potter and Linda Hirst as well as Terry)
were the vocal consort and I played the bass. Since then
the piece has languished on a shelf. It is difficult to
programme, needing as it does six top-notch singers
and an improvising double bass player. But in 2013
I decided to get it out again and record it. London Voices
look very different now, but today's young singers are
every bit as virtuosic and characterful as their predecessors.
I'm the double bass player again, and I thoroughly enjoyed
resucitating the old piece.

 

 

Let the bird of loudest lay,[1]
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be:
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shriking harbinger,[2]
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king,
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,[3]
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,[4]
That thy sable gender mak'st,
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence,
Love and Constancy is dead,
Phoenix and Turtle fled,
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they loved, as love in twain,
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none,
Number there in love was slain. [5]

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen,
'Twixt the turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right,
Flaming in the phoenix' sight;[6]
Either was the other's mine.[7]

Property was thus appalled,[8]
That the self was not the same:[9]
Single nature's double name,
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together:
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,

That it cried, how true a twain,
Seemeth this concordant one,
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts, can so remain.

Whereupon it made this Threne,
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of Love,
As Chorus to their tragic scene.

THRENOS

Beauty, Truth, and Rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed, in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix nest,
And the Turtles loyal breast
To eternity doth rest.

Leaving no posterity,
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married Chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be,
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she,
Truth and Beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair,
That are either true or fair,
For these dead birds, sigh a prayer.


London Voices:
Joanna Forbes L'Estrange,
Rachel Major, sopranos
Joanna Marshall, mezzo
Benedict Hymas, tenor
Ben Parry, baritone
Nicholas Garrett, bass

Daryl Runswick, double bass and percussion

Voices recorded by Rob Kelly
at The Strongroom, London
Instruments recorded by Daryl Runswick
at The DReam Room, London
December 2013

Edited and mixed by Daryl Runswick

 

 

[1] In the myth the Phoenix, a bird of dazzling
beauty and sole of its kind, dwells on a lofty tree
in an Eastern Paradise. Every thousand years it flies
to a palm-tree in Arabia and there builds itself a
nest of spices. Here it is consumed by its own fires
and reborn.

[2] The screech-owl is a bird of ill-omen.

[3] can: is skilled in. The swan was popularly supposed
to sing before its own death.

[4] Although crows were said by Pliny to live nine times
the time of a man, probably the even longer-lived raven
is intended. They were held to conceive their offspring
by an exchange of breath.

[5] The logical impossibilities of a completely mutual
love are set out in scholastic terms. In two persons
was the one substance (essence). Though distinguished,
they could not be divided: the terms are from logic.
Though they were two, they were one and ‘one is no
number'. Mathematics, or numbering, was made impossible.

[6] 'He saw what was his in her eyes.'

[7] Each was the other's treasure, and equally there was
no distinction of 'mine' and 'thine' between them.

[8] Property: what belongs to an individual (proprium);
identifying characteristics.

[9] the self: the self-same. Language here fails as
mathematics has before it. Reason, recognizing
its own defeat celebrates its overthrow in the
rest of the poem.

Notes quoted from The Metaphysical Poets
(Penguin, Ed. Dame Helen Gardner).