Over the three years in which I worked on it, Continuum changed and evolved, and its final shape bears little resemblance to my original plans for the work. In particular, the vocal element grew to dominate, so that instead of my earlier intention to have two sung interludes, it is the instrumental sections which became more to resemble interludes in what now seems almost like a ‘scena’ for voice and large ensemble (23 players).
Yet if it is a scena, then there is no definable plot: the texts I’ve chosen to set are not narratives, but highly complex and elusive poems. Consequently I’m not sure – since, at the time of writing this note, I’m still too close to the piece to look at it objectively – if I can be more specific about the overall theme, other than using the imprecise words, change and transience.
Two poems by Eugenio Montale (1896 -1981) are the centre of the work, both coming from his first published collection of 1925: Crisalide(Chrysalis) and Casa sul mare (House by the sea). The first of these is set in the original Italian, the second in the fine English translation by Jonathan Galassi. They are framed by two epigrammatic fragments from the French poems Rilke wrote towards the end of his life (coincidentally also from around 1925). I hope that these difficult and dense texts can be left to speak for themselves, and that I can be forgiven for not trying to interpret them other than through their setting.
The instrumental ‘interludes’ – although calling them that belies the fact that they carry equal musical weight – come at the end ofCrisalide: a turbulent continuation of the poem, spilling over into a sombre postlude; and before the final stanza of Casa sul mare – an almost funeral-march like interruption of the poem. The closing Rilke epigram echoes the opening: just as a continuum has no end, so the work spirals back to its beginning.
I am very grateful to Simon Clugston, Simon Rattle and the BCMG – to whom Continuum is jointly dedicated – both for commissioning the work, and for their patience as it changed out of all recognition while they waited for it to arrive. A huge debt of gratitude is also owed, once again, to the Sound Investors, for their faith in a piece before they had heard a note of it.
The opening stanzas of Montale’s “Crisalide” elicit music of extraordinary subtlety from Matthews, their rich and recondite imagery reflected in a languorous, exquisitely crafted canvas…and the scoring becomes even more dazzling as the work proceeds to its close
First performed by BCMG conducted by Simon Rattle at the Barbican, London on 10 October 2000.