Friday 3 March 2017

Beyond the music: Rowan Williams' 'Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995'

Rowan Williams
Rowan Williams
In this article I take a look at Rowan Williams' poem Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995  which forms the text to my song Winter journey which features on the new disc of my songs, Quickening, for which we are currently crowd-funding. Williams' poem was written in response to the death of his friend Gillian Rose, a Jewish philosopher and critic who was baptised on the day of her death, and was originally published in his collection Remembering Jerusalem (2001) and is currently available in The Poems of Rowan Williams (Carcanet Press).

Talking of his poetry, Williams has said that 'I dislike the idea of being a religious poet. I would prefer to be a poet for home religious things mattered intensely'. His poetry has been described as 'visionary yet earth-rooted' with a genius for embodying abstract ideas.

The main subject of Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995 is a journey which Williams made to go to the bedside of Gillian Rose, who was dying; a problematic and complex journey full of missed connections. The poem is structured in three, Morning, Afternoon and Evening, and around the harness of the journey itself Williams weaves recollections of events and ideas arising from the journey, and from his relationship with Gillian Rose. Whilst recording my setting, with baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann, we found ourselves often coming back to the allusions in the poetry, teasing out references and emotional contexts.

Rowan Williams talked about the poem in a lecture he gave in 2009 which is published on the Archbishop of Canterbury website. In he says:

 'It's a poem in memory of a friend of mine, Gillian Rose, a great philosopher who died on the ninth of December, 1995. I was travelling to visit her in hospital that day and arrived to find that she'd died just a little while earlier and that to the considerable surprise of myself and many of her friends, she'd been baptised on her deathbed. A very passionate and articulate Jew, she had finally made a journey that puzzled, bewildered, offended some, but found herself at last at home in a place she'd never expected to be. And the poem, Winterreise for Gillian Rose, ninth of December, 1995 falls into three sections: morning, afternoon and night. Shaped by a train journey on a very foggy winter morning up through Gloucester in the Midlands towards Coventry, and an extremely disruptive journey back, sitting around in Swindon for what felt like an eternity because, thanks to the events of the day, I'd missed all the connections I'd planned.'

Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995

The flat fields tramp towards the Severn.
I know there is no cliff to drop from
their edge, only the sand and the wet still sheets.
This morning, through, the thick and chest-constricting
light, the level, rose-grey clouds and the remains
of icy fog stand between fields and water.

For the full poem see the Archbishop of Canterbury website

I can't really explain why I set the poem, as with many of my songs it was simply something in the text which drew me. I had acquired the book of poems out of curiosity and found the text of this particular poem particularly appealing.

Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano) perform my setting on our new disc Quickening: songs to texts by English and Welsh poets which will be coming out on the Navona Records label. Please do support the crowdfunding for this,

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