Nearly a year ago I received a phone call from conductor John Hancorn who said he was involved in an exciting new piece of music, the Phoenix Cantata, written by local composer Helen Glavin. He and Helen were planning a workshop version of the piece, to be performed in September 2011 in Lewes’ Foundry Gallery. The subject matter was the old Phoenix Ironworks and the people who worked there.
A cantata, historically speaking, is usually a sacred text set to music, with arias, recitatives, ensembles and so on, and indeed this work is a modern rendering of the form. And while Ms Glavin’s texts are certainly not sacred, they have strong spiritual overtones. Glavin says she got the idea for the Phoenix Cantata by hearing the stories of workers from the Phoenix Ironworks in Lewes. As she listened to their oral histories, she was also “inspired by the elemental forces of fire and water and the surrounding presence of the South Downs.” She says, “…the Cantata narrative weaves the human with the mythic and themes such as war and the power of nature. The musical language has elements of classical, folk and sacred choral music.” And though the story of the Cantata begins in a foundry, “the path of iron returns to the source, to the Neolithic, to the forests that once covered the land, the sheep still graze as we follow the river to the sea…”
That’s powerful imagery and rooted in the history of Lewes itself. The Ironworks was established here in 1832 and contributed to the South Coast’s piers and seafronts, railway stations and bridges, and provided tools and machinery for local agriculture. Lewes even produced the iron for the railings of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Regarding the composition itself, Glavin says: “The music is mostly tonal, quite modal, ranging from lyrical melodies to stark harmonies and strong rhythms.”
Originally from Ireland, Helen has lived in the Lewes area for 10 years. She studied piano and singing at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and has composed for theatre, concert and ballet.
Aside from the instrumentalists and soloists who will be involved in the piece, Glavin created The Everyman Ensemble to sing the choral numbers. An odd sidebar––I assumed the name came from John Every, founder of the Phoenix Ironworks, but Helen says that she came up with the title herself and the connection had never occurred to her. At any rate, this is a group of local male singers whose presence represents the industrial and agricultural workers.
As I previously wrote in my article for Lewesclassical.com, whenever an artist decides to create a piece that derives from the sweat and blood and chalk and clay of our local environs, we owe it to ourselves to experience it. And this one represents the 99%––the average working person.
The Phoenix Cantata is being produced in collaboration with Artemis Arts Ltd,
and in partnership with Glyndebourne Opera Education. The premiere performance will take place at 7PM 19th May at The Foundry, 32 North St in Lewes as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. Tickets can be purchased through Union Music Store 012373 474053 or the Tourist Information Office.
As an added note, the Phoenix Cantata has now had its workshop premier and was heralded a success by most of the audience members present. We will likely present a follow-up article soon on where Ms. Glavin’s Cantata goes from here.
See also An interview with Helen Glavin here in Lewes Classical.