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Notes on Iain Hamilton’s ‘The Bermudas

A Forgotten Half Century

On the 30 October 2007 it will be the 50th anniversary of Iain Hamilton’s The Bermudas Op.33. It is a work that does not deserve to have totally sunk without trace. It may not be the composer’s most important work, but there is no doubt that this is a piece that is well written, uses impressive musical resources and carries considerable emotional depth. Additionally, it is a transitional work between his more romantic earlier pieces, the serial compositions and the ‘light’ music of the late 1950s.

Of course, even the briefest look at the Hamilton catalogue reveals a vast amount of music – most of which is rarely performed and virtually none of which has been recorded. Only seven CDs are listed in the Arkiv catalogue with only one of these being entirely devoted to the composer’s compositions.

Yet The Bermudas was a work that was eagerly awaited: Hamilton was a composer who many critics expected to become one of the leading names of the second half of the 20th century.

It is not the purpose of this article to give the biography of Iain Hamilton. This has been well done by Paul Conway on MusicWeb. However a few pointers may be of help for readers who are not familiar with the man or his music.

Iain Ellis Hamilton was born in Glasgow on 6 June 1922. He was later to move to London where he attended Mill Hill School. Music was not to have been his original vocation -in fact he became an apprentice engineer and worked in this field until his mid twenties. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied composition with William Alwyn. After completing his Bachelor of Music Degree at the University of London he divided his time between teaching in both the UK and the States and composition. His teaching posts included being resident composer at Tanglewood and the Mary Duke Biddle Professorship at Duke University.

In 1981 he returned to London where he remained until his death on 21 July 2000.

The composer’s catalogue includes works in virtually every form – including operas, symphonies, concerti, orchestral pieces, chamber and instrumental music. Perhaps his masterpieces are the operas, The Catiline Conspiracy and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

Hamilton’s works in the first half of the nineteen fifties tended to be large scale, romantic pieces making use of complex chromatic harmonies. Perhaps Berg, Hindemith and Bartok were the key influences on his music at this time. Compositions included the Symphonic Variations (1948) the First String Quartet, the Second Symphony and the First Violin Concerto. Yet in the middle of the decade he began to experiment with serial technique. He utilised this tool with more or less strictness in works such as the Serenata for Clarinet & Piano and the Three Piano Pieces. In the last part of the decade Hamilton turned his attention to a number of lighter or perhaps more approachable pieces including the Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and the Scottish Dances.

The Bermudas was commissioned by the BBC in June 1956. The other major work commissioned at this time was the Second Symphony by Michael Tippett.

The Bermudas is a large-scale work written for baritone solo, chorus and large orchestra. The work is basically in five contrasting sections with solo, choral and orchestral interludes. The text is based on extracts from Sylvester Jourdain, a poem by Andrew Marvell and notes gleaned from Caribbean guidebooks and charts by the composer himself.

Hamilton uses a kind of derived serialism for this work. It is certainly not strict, with one of the key features of this piece being the use of repeated chords.

The score was published in 1957 by Schott & Co. Ltd of London. The title page is prefaced with the following words spoken by Ariel from Act 1 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest:-

…in the deep nook, where once
Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vexed Bermoothes…

The Bermudas is divided into five sections:-

  1. Lento
  2. Interlude I Placido – Allegro furioso
  3. Maestoso –Allegro con brio
  4. Interlude II – Lento e calmo
  5. Con moto.

The opening pages begin very quietly and slowly with a short orchestral introduction followed by a near unison recitation of extracts from Caribbean charts and guidebooks. This is a utilitarian text but works extremely well – "Bermuda – lying East-South-East two hundred and thirty leagues from Virginia." Basically Hamilton is putting the island on the map! It is a technique that has been used to great effect by minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. The soloist reinforces this geographical information before the chorus recite a litany of names – "Havana, Trinidad, Grenada" and of course the "Spanish Main." The movement ends quietly.

The first orchestral interlude makes up nearly a quarter of the length of this work. It is a crucial part of the piece and is vital to its overall structure. In fact, critics have been most impressed with this section of the work. It is classic sea and storm music. The Interlude opens with the first violins playing a ‘placido’ theme on high strings. After a brief crescendo the storm begins. Hamilton uses every orchestral trick in the book to achieve his effect – striding bass, arabesques from the woodwind, tremolos on the strings and brass chords which alternate between pure concord and harsh dissonance. Hamilton is never afraid to repeat phrases or chords: neither is he concerned at introducing what could only be described as ‘big tunes’ – not in a ‘romantic’ sense but in being memorable. The music expands and subsides: a wide spaced cello part is pitted against ‘sforzando’ woodwind and harp chords. After an impressive ‘tutti’ the music seems to relax for a moment, only to be interrupted by stressful string and brass chords. The storm cannot quite decide to abate. Rushing strings and woodwind lead to a harsh brass outburst. The Interlude ends with a terrific build up of reiterated chords – mostly dissonant but not horrendously so. The movement ends with a ‘sfff’ chord for full orchestra.

The longest part of The Bermudas is given over to an exposition of words by Sylvester Jourdain. This text is derived from his book "A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils" (1610).

The history of this book is interesting. In June 1609 Jourdain had set sail from Plymouth Harbour on board the passenger vessel Sea Venture. This ship was one of nine that carried some 500 colonists known as the ‘Third Supply.’ They were bound for Virginia. According to tradition this voyage was to become the source for Shakespeare’s great play, The Tempest.

The fleet of ships was caught in a mid-Atlantic hurricane. One of them was sunk and the Sea Venture was wrecked on the coast of Bermuda. For three days and nights the plucky crew tried to keep the ship from running aground on the rocks. They held the boat long enough for the passengers, crew and provisions to be saved and salvaged. After the event Jourdain published his book and this become something of a best seller in England. One of the characteristics of this volume was to present Bermuda as a hospitable place, not as a wild, dangerous land where no-one could survive.

This section opens with a fortissimo statement by full choir that "Upon the eight and twentieth of July sixteen nine after the extremity of the storm was somewhat qualified." Word rhythms announce that …"we fell upon the shore at the Bermudas." Attractive unaccompanied music supports Jourdain’s contention that Bermuda was formerly regarded as a "most prodigious and enchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, storm and foul weather."

The relatively simple, but dissonant harmonic structure of this section lends mystery and even fear. Of course, because of the reputation that these islands had, no man ever made for them against their will. A few bars of bass chords leads to the baritone solo. The mood has changed: it is as if sunlight has appeared from a cloudy sky. Jourdain insists "Yet did we find there the air so temperate and the country so abundantly fruitful of all fit necessities." Relaxing music underlines the statement that "…it is truth the richest most pleasing land.

An ‘allegro brio’ permits the chorus to get going with some exciting reflections of their own. They tell that fish is abundant: that they are fat and sweet, there are many varieties. There even seems to be a kind of pig on these islands and naturally there are plenty of fowl in the air. This is fine music that explores the glory of the island in an impressive manner.

A semi-chorus comments on the fruits growing on the trees and the great store of silk worms; the orchestral accompaniment here is particularly will o’ the wisp and is totally effective. Syncopated woodwind and strings lead back to the full chorus. Jourdain notes that there is a "great store of pearl… and some good quantity of amber…" Much use is made of un-tuned percussion in these bars. Lovely chords support the idea that "There is also a great plenty of whales…"

The baritone solo returns with the bald statement that "Now having finished we prepared and made ourselves ready to ship for Virginia." The remainder of the movement is given over to Delius like ‘La la la’s’ and declamations of Caribbean place names – Trinidad, Havana and Honduras. The soloist once again notes the location of Bermuda in the Atlantic.

The strings introduce this second orchestral interlude with a figure which is almost like a barcarolle. An interesting bit of counterpoint unfolds before the woodwind provide quiet supporting chords. This is what a friend of mine once called ‘soft serialism’ - there is nothing here that could possibly offend the ear of people who were not attuned to modernism. Yet as the interlude continues the melodic line becomes a little more disjointed with larger and larger intervals between notes. The strings soar higher before the timpani announce a huge chord that is reiterated four times and diminishes from ‘ff’ to ‘pianissimo.’ After a single note on the bassoon, the last movement begins.

This is a setting of the great poem by Andrew Marvell "Where the remote Bermudas ride." A few words about the poet may help understand the reason why Hamilton chose to finish the work with this poem.

Andrew Marvell was a poet, politician and a Puritan. It is perhaps in ‘Bermudas’ that the poet reveals his thoughts about the English expansion into the New World and in particular the theology sustaining this project. The bottom line was that settlers were prepared to leave the relative security of England and sail into a harsher climate in the search of a spiritual and commercial paradise. The present poem is effectively a song of praise raised by the mariners, giving thanks to God for leading them through the ‘watery maze’ to an island that was unknown to them yet was deemed to be more temperate than their homeland.

Literary critics would suggest that Marvell’s descriptions of Bermuda are not of a literal island, but an idealised place where people are free to begin the new dispensation. It is an ephemeral place that is probably just beyond reach but which can inspire mankind to create a better world free from evil and corruption and one that is truly in the image of the Garden of Eden.

In an era of insecurities caused by the Cold War and imminent death in a nuclear holocaust these sentiments would have resonated strongly with the composer.

The movement opens with the baritone soloist quietly expounding the first few lines of Marvell’s poem. He is accompanied by horn and bass clarinet:-

Where the remote Bermudas ride
In the ocean's bosom unespy’d,
From a small boat that row'd along
The list’ning woods receiv’d this song

The basses join in with words encouraging praise to God who has saved them from the ‘watery maze’ and the huge ‘sea monster.’ Meanwhile the altos and tenors give a kind of Delian ‘Mm’ with closed lips: I think that this is surely a weak point of this work and can hardly be deemed modernist! Fortunately, the whole chorus combines to sing of sea monsters and storms

The chorus, now divided into seven voices describes the land that God has brought them to. At the lines:

And sends the fowls to us in care
On daily visits through the air:
He hangs in shades the orange bright
Like golden lamps in a green night,

Hamilton introduces an interesting string phrase complete with parallel sixths in the bass and thirds and fourths in the treble part. This figure is repeated over the next dozen or so bars before the tenors announce God’s generosity to the travellers. Soon the chorus join in with a litany of nature’s cornucopia:-

He makes the figs our mouths to meet
And throws the melons at our feet;
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice.
With cedars chosen by His hand

But then the mood changes: the music starts to build up to towards the climax of the movement. The mariners were to make a temple on the island so as to praise their creator:

He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospel's pearl upon our coast;
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple where to sound His name.
Oh, let our voice His praise exalt
Till it arrive at Heaven's vault,

A huge explosion of praise is given by the chorus with the words:

Which thence (perhaps) rebounding may
Echo beyond the Mexique bay.'

Now the music dies down: the baritone solo sings the last few lines of the poem outlining the mood of the sailors.

Thus sung they in the English boat
A holy and a cheerful note:
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time

Once again the chorus comment on the proceedings with the closed lipped ‘Mm’ The piece ends quietly with reminiscences of the opening movements. We hear soft sung ‘Trinidad, Bermuda and Havana’ split up syllable by syllable amongst the chorus again divided into seven voices. The work finally dies away ‘a niente.’

The first performance of Hamilton’s The Bermudas was given as a part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 1957/8 concert season at the Royal Festival Hall on the 30th October 1957. The conductor on this occasion was Rudolf Schwartz. The other works at this concert included the Symphony No.8 (Unfinished) by Schubert, the Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart and Maurice Ravel’s Choreographic Poem – La Valse. The soloist was Thomas Hemsley and he was joined by the BBC Chorus and Choral Society.

I have located a second performance of this work given on the penultimate night of the 1958 Promenade Concerts. Hemsley was once again the soloist; however the orchestra was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Unfortunately the work seems to have disappeared from view. I can find no further references to performances of this work in the standard musical literature. No commercial recording of this work appears to have been made: there is no entry in the catalogue of the British Library Sound Archive. Information from readers is welcomed!

Mr Clinton Gray-Fisk, writing in the Musical Opinion December 1957 was not over impressed with the ‘unnecessary performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony; however he was impressed with Ravel’s "iridescent and ever-welcome ‘La Valse.’ He is adamant that what most of the audience had come to the concert for was to hear the present work by Hamilton.

He points out that the work "eludes any precise formal definition, but approximates to a cantata." He considers that the music is well organised and is couched in what was then a contemporary idiom. However Gray-Fisk regards this idiom as being indistinctive. The orchestral colour and ‘atmospheric’ effects of the first interlude (storm) were rated highly. Yet there is something amiss in the work - he feels that there is generally a dearth of incident in the remaining movements and reveals the composer as industrious rather than inspired. He condemns the choral writing as being "laboured, ungrateful and enervating in its lack of propulsive momentum." The last sentence of his review is fatal. He writes that the work arouses respect for the composer’s obvious sincerity and honourable intentions, but little desire to hear it again!

Harold Rutland (Musical Times, December 1957) is also lukewarm in his praise for this work. He concedes that the work opens in "finely evocative manner" and that "…much of the writing has a haunting quality: clearly an acute harmonic imagination is at work." However Rutland concludes his review by noting that "the whole composition (which is not a cantata, and certainly not a choral symphony) sounded a little insubstantial for its length."

Geoffrey Madell writing nearly a year later in the Musical Times (November 1958) is a little more impressed. He states that the "piece combines brilliantly evocative orchestral writing with some palely conventional choral writing which almost destroys the central poetic emotion of the work."

The general consensus would appear to be that this work is like the curate’s egg – good in parts. It seems that the critics were impressed by the orchestral interludes, whereas they felt that the choral writing was to a certain extent ineffectual. Additionally there is a feeling that the form of the work is confused. What is the work? Is it a cantata or a choral symphony? Certainly no one would suggest the latter, but it is hardly a cantata either.

A study of the score has convinced me that perhaps Hamilton did not quite get the balance right between the serialism, the incipient romanticism and the willingness to repeat chords many times. Furthermore the words are not always set with consideration for the choir.

However, looking at The Bermudas in the round it would be fair to say that it deserves revival in our day- at least for one recording. It was a work that sat on the cusp of Hamilton’s stylistic metamorphism between romanticism, serialism and lighter more approachable music.

To listeners that have been brought up on the likes of Stockhausen and Berio all of Hamilton’s contemporaneousness and modernity appear very tame. But one cannot help feeling that the work was a brave attempt to fuse words and music and prevailing style. To this end it was probably just about successful.

John France

Brief Bibliography

Clinton Gray-Fisk Musical Opinion December 1957

Geoffrey Madell Musical Times November 1958

H.R. Musical Times December 1957

Grove Dictionary entries.

Times Newspaper etc.



 


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