STEPHEN JOHNSON'S ANGEL'S ARC by Christopher Morley


 STEPHEN JOHNSON'S ANGEL'S ARC
 by Christopher Morley
                                             

Stephen Johnson is a broadcaster, presenter and writer well-known to music-lovers. Not so well-known is the fact that he is also a highly communicative composer, as I first discovered when I heard his Behemoth Dances given by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pavel Kogan at Symphony Hall three years ago.

He currently has a new work going the rounds, recently premiered in London's Cadogan Hall, repeated in Guildford, and about to be performed in the Arts Centre at the University of Warwick in Coventry. This is a Quintet for clarinet (Emma Johnson) and strings (the Carducci Quartet), with the title Angel's Arc.

Stephen explains how this title came about.

" As a teenager, I developed an intense love for the West Pennine Moors, near my home in Lancashire. Their desolate, lonely beauty, contrasting starkly with the rich woodland that has grown up around the encircling Victorian reservoirs, seemed to mirror my own moods as I walked and cycled amongst them.

"The wildest expanse of moorland bore the striking name Angelzarke, and I remember someone telling me that this derived from the Flemish words 'Angel's Arc', or 'Ark', a name apparently given to these lands centuries earlier by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in the Spanish Netherlands.

"The image stuck in my mind. I loved the idea of a displaced people finding refuge in those hills and expressing gratitude to them in the name they conferred on them. I thought I found evidence of them in the ruined hill-farms scattered about the moorlands - wrongly, of course, but many of the most useful poetic ideas have their origins in a mistake.

"It was some time after I began work on a clarinet quintet in 2017 that I realised that memories of those hills were flooding into my mind as I wrote, and so I decided to take that once-treasured name 'Angel's Arc' as the title for my own piece.

"At the same time there were echoes of music associated with people who had been important to me, and whom I had lost: my aunt, Elizabeth Johnson, and my father-in-law, Canon Harold Jones. Harold's favourite line from the Anglican Communion Service, 'Lift up you hearts', along with the response, 'We lift them up to the Lord', morphed in my mind with the idea of looking up towards the hills. "

And landscape has always been important to Stephen and his perception of music. He particularly loves the music of Scandinavia, and lives in Herefordshire, deep in Elgar country. There are aspects of Angel's Arc which bring to mind the spooky countryside within which Elgar composed his Piano Quartet.

"I really understand Elgar's attraction to particular places, not just the sights and sounds but the spirit within, and perhaps beyond the landscape," Stephen comments.

"Elgar's Quintet was inspired by a sinister, desolate but magical location - or at least the opening was. That's how the West Pennine Moors were for me, in certain moods, though they could also be ravishingly beautiful. Memories of them kept flooding into my mind as I 
was writing."

Angel's Arc is the centrepiece of a dream programme from Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet, framed by the world's two greatest clarinet quintets, those by Brahms and Mozart. Looking at Stephen's score, I couldn't help but me reminded of the arabesques which adorn Brahms' clarinet writing.

" I love the way Brahms always has the carinet's vocal qualities in mind, even when he's writing pretty florid stuff," says Stephen.

" There are times when you can almost hear words. I wanted to do the same. I'm rather tired of hearing new works that strive mostly for effects - and not very new effects on 
the whole. An 'arc' also means for me a long-arching singing line - and that's what I really wanted to create."

How on earth does Stephen allocate his time between, writing, presenting and composing?

"Do you know, I don't know! I divide up my time, set myself deadlines - just like freelance journalism - and out it comes. One thing I've learned is to trust my unconscious mind.

"I had to break the Quintet for three months to finish a book for Faber. When I'd got that sent off, I didn't have a lot of time left, and I was sure I'd have to struggle a bit. But when I went back to the music desk, there it was, waiting for me - looking at its watch impatiently. I realised as I wrote that ideas had been developing even while I thought my mind was fully preoccupied with the book. Our brains really are extraordinarily resourceful, if we 
don't put obstacles in their way.”


*Stephen Johnson's Angel's Arc is performed by Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet at the Arts Centre, University of Warwick on February 28 (7.30pm).
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