This Friday, 28 October 2022, sees the launch of Richard Causton’s second full-length album, La terra impareggiabile, with NMC Recordings. Featuring performances from baritone Marcus Farnsworth, pianist Huw Watkins, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo, the album brings together Causton’s large-scale orchestral work Ik zen: NU (I Say: NOW) (2019), and his song cycle La terra impareggiabile (The Incomporable Earth). Written primarily between 1996 and 2007, and further refined over the subsequent decade, La terra impareggiabile is a set of 10 songs for baritone and piano composed to poems by the Sicilian-born poet Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968). In the following interview for the Music at Cambridge Research Blog, Professor Causton tells us how he came to write La terra impareggiabile.
Perhaps you could start by telling us a bit about yourself.
I’m a composer and I grew up in London. In those days, free instrumental tuition was provided in state schools like the one I went to, and I attended the Centre for Young Musicians, a Saturday music school then held in Pimlico where there were also choirs, orchestras, musicianship classes etc – all at a very high standard. Later on I studied at the University of York, the Royal College of Music in London, and the Scuola Civica in Milan, where my teachers included Franco Donatoni – one of the greats of twentieth-century Italian music. After that I freelanced, writing pieces for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Nash Ensemble and others. Fast-forwarding to today, alongside writing music I teach here at the University of Cambridge, where I’m Professor of Composition and a Fellow in Music at King’s College. I’m also a dad of two kids, aged 12 and 8. So life can be pretty hectic…
What brought you to Italy and how did your time there influence the direction of your compositional work?
I did the ERASMUS student exchange scheme in the early 90s, travelling from York to Cremona (partly by bike. But that’s another story…). However, the way the UK university terms and the Italian university semesters worked didn’t really line up, and so I was only able to spend three months in Italy at that point, which was frustrating in terms of learning the language and understanding the lectures: I was only just managing to make sense of them when it was time to pack up and come home. So I returned to Italy after the end of my studies at the Royal College of Music and ended up teaching English in Milan, which at that time was the most reliable work I could find. However, I was fortunate enough to meet several leading Italian composers at that time, including Luciano Berio and Franco Donatoni; and their approach to composition was hugely influential in helping shape the way I thought about music.
How did you come across the work of the Nobel Prize winning Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo? And why did you find his poetry so inspiring?
In the late 1990s I taught English for various companies which held their classes in offices, factories, industrial plants etc. One day I was working for a US software company that had its offices on the outskirts of Milan. On that particular day only one student showed up, and we ended up talking about poetry. He copied out on the blackboard Quasimodo’s famous verse Ed è subito sera (And Suddenly it’s Evening):
Each one stands alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of sunlight:
and suddenly it is evening.
Its Haiku-like concentration and intensity knocked me sideways, and as soon as I could I went and bought a volume of the Complete Poems. Although I never set Ed è subito sera to music, I found ten other poems which, together, provide the framework for La terra impareggiabile.
It’s taken you many years write La terra impareggiabile (The Incomparable Earth). Why has it taken so long?
It’s partly a question of practicalities: when a new piece is commissioned, there’s a deadline for completion of the score, a date for the first performance, etc. But for a piece which a composer writes simply because they want to, that framework doesn’t necessarily fall easily into place. This was a particularly personal piece for me, and I wrote it in between other projects (commissioned orchestral pieces, chamber music, and so on). But on the other hand, because there was no deadline by which the piece had to be completed, I was able to take as long as I needed to make each song exactly how I wanted it to be.
How did you go about setting Quasimodo’s poetry to music? Was it the sounds of the words, the words themselves, or a combination of both? And why did you choose a baritone voice?
The actual sound of the words was hugely important, certainly; but Quasimodo has the most extraordinary way of using a very few words to create an intense poetic sensation or atmosphere. There is the most breathtakingly beautiful imagery, which, however, is often tinged with tragedy. This is surely what led to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959: as the jury said at the time, it was awarded ‘for his lyrical poetry, which with classical fire expresses the tragic experience of life in our own times’.
The reason for choosing baritone voice is really that – if I were a singer (which I’m definitely not!) – my voice would fall in roughly that range. And I can also play the piano a bit. So when I was working on the piece, I could sing and play, making all the sounds needed for the music I was composing – which is quite an unusual situation for me when composing. But it meant that there was a very direct physical relationship with the music, as they were songs I could sing myself.
Do you have any tips for young composers setting poems to music?
There are so many different ways to approach this, and vastly contrasting ways in which things can be made to work really well. But I would often suggest learning the poems off by heart, repeating them both aloud and in your head again and again, so that the music of the words – their rhythms, accentuation and flow – can really enter your consciousness. Whatever comes next in the creative process comes out of a profound knowledge of the words, because they have been internalised.