Works for Orchestra with Soloist(s)
Five Songs to Poems of Irina Ratushinskaya (1987) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra.
Commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Premiered 23/04/1989 by the BBCSO and Elizabeth Laurence at Royal Festival Hall.
I first came across Irina Ratushinskaya’s poetry when the collection ‘No, I’m Not Afraid’ was published in England in early May 1986. The poems, the various circumstances in which they were written and the poet’s integrity, commitment and appalling situation (she was still imprisoned) all had a tremendous impact upon me. I was drawn inexorably into the world she describes so vividly. The powerful imagery of resistance, the acceptance of shattering realities and the fantasies of different kinds of escape made poetry of truly universal significance and urgency, and the idea of a setting for voice and large orchestra followed immediately.
"Brian Elias is not a composer to play for safety. His latest work...takes just about every possible risk, facing technical hazards in setting Russian words and putting them into the most rarely successful of musical forms, the orchestral song cycle and also going for moral danger in taking its texts from Prison poetry....Elias handles her verse with tact and care..there is such abundant inventiveness in this half-hour score. Amply gifted as an orchestral composer....the music responds directly to the mood and image, but finds a great deal else to do as well.....purified intensity, immediacy and unrestrained lyricism."
The Times, Paul Griffiths
Cello Concerto (2017)
Commissioned by the BBC Proms. Premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales and Leonard Elschenbroich, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.
This Concerto is in four main sections that are played without a break. As with most of my work, the music throughout is generated from the ideas presented in the first few bars, and these ideas and their variants appear freely in the different sections. Recurring material and references to earlier sections are used deliberately to create not only a sense of unity but also an impression of familiarity that aspires to induce a dream-like perception of the passing music, a kind of spiral.
The Cello Concerto is dedicated to Natalie Clein.
Laments (1998) for mezzo soprano, choir, and orchestra
Commissioned by the BBC for the Cheltenham Festival in 1998.
For some years, I had wanted to write a work about mourning and lamentation. Therefore, when I found the right text after a long search, many of the musical ideas and sonorities for this piece had been in my mind for a long time. The text I have used is simple folk poetry from Salento, situated in the southernmost part of Italy. The poems (originally sung to traditional tunes) are in a language called Grico, which is basically Greek influenced by Italian, and is still spoken in seven villages. The region was colonised by the Greeks since ancient times, and as in Greece, it has an elaborate tradition of ritualised mourning. As in so many parts of the world, it is left for the women to weep and lament and for the men to do the more formal valedictory praising of the dead.
Women expert in the art of lamentation and keening, often led by a chief mourner or ‘Prefica’ would be summoned once a death occurred. Known as professional mourners in many different cultures, they often carried out these duties for no payment, and although outwardly they sang for one particular funeral, it is clear that they also wept and lamented to express their own losses and grief. I have some childhood memories of this kind of thing, and was excited to find that this tradition, although greatly diminished, still exists, even in parts of Europe.
"In a contemporary music world increasingly full of easygoing crossover and sly ironic games, Brian Elias cuts a figure of old-fashioned musical integrity. He deals with the weightiest topics in a musical language of unabashed expressive intensity…."
BBC Music Magazine
Electra Mourns (2011) for mezzo soprano, cor anglais, and orchestra
Premiered by the Britten Sinfonia at the 2012 BBC Proms. Winner of the British Composer Award 2013 Vocal Category.
The context of the speech I have set from ‘Electra’, a 5th Century BC play by the great dramatist Sophocles is:
A messenger gives Electra and her mother, Clytemnestra, a fabricated account of her brother, Orestes’ heroic death in a chariot race and his funeral. (He had been sent away as a young child by Electra to protect his life after the murder of their father Agamemnon by her mother and her then lover, later husband, Aegisthus.)
But Orestes is not dead; he returns to his home in disguise with his friend Pylades, wanting to test Electra’s loyalty to him. He gives her an urn which he says contains her brother’s ashes. Electra mourns before Orestes while cradling the urn.
Sophocles concentrates on Electra’s character and her motives. He portrays her as someone relentless and insatiable in her grief and in her desire for revenge for the murder of her father by her mother. Sophocles makes us question Electra’s morality and her sense of judgement; she is driven to near madness by her obsessive grieving and wish for revenge.
What sort of daughter would want to murder her mother and stepfather so savagely? What sort of sister would seek to propel her brother into this blood-libel? What sort of person seeks this as her only means of catharsis? Sophocles reminds us that despite the violence of her anger, Electra can still feel love and tenderness towards her brother but that such love may only be alive because she sees him as her sole hope of help in her quest for vengeance.
The work, a scena set in the original ancient Greek, was completed in January 2011. It is scored for Mezzo Soprano, solo Cor Anglais and String Orchestra, and lasts approximately 17 minutes. I am immensely grateful to Francesca Spiegel for her invaluable help with the language and its meaning.
"...a scalding outpouring of grief and outrage..."
Richard Fairman, Financial Times
"I'd be happy to pay another visit to Brian Elias's 17-minute vocal scena, Electra Mourns... The concert's music audibly echoed past traditions, and achieved something otherwise scarce: direct emotional expression."
Geoff Brown, The Arts Desk
A Talisman (2004) for bass-baritone and orchestra
Commissioned by the Cheltenham International Festival. Premiered 18/07/2004 by the National Youth Orchestra Sinfonietta conducted by Geoffrey Paterson.
The amulet that provides the text for this work was intended to protect against the Evil Eye, and was made in Kurdistan in the 19th Century. It is made of silver, is inscribed in Hebrew on both sides and was given to my late mother in 1969 by her uncle, whose family emigrated from Kurdistan to Bombay in the middle of the 19th Century. In an accompanying letter, he wrote, in his inimitable English, "I decided in my heart this holy inestimable Talisman will afford you Relief and check future miseries. I hope it acted favourably for you."
I am much indebted to Shaul Shaked, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for first transcribing the text from the amulet and for his expert guidance. Jeremy Schonfield, Mason Lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, spent an enormous amount of time with me, going through the text word by word and revealing its riches; I am so very grateful to him for vividly illuminating not only the meaning of the words but their myriad associations. My thanks also to Naomi Shepherd, who was so helpful with the translations.
A Talisman was completed in February 2004. The work is dedicated to my brother Ivan.
Capriccio (2020) for bassoon and orchestra
As a musical term, Capriccio is familiar, and implies a light-hearted and lively character with music that is generally fast and free. In Italian, the term also means 'whim' or 'fancy'. I also discovered that the Capriccio, when used as a term in art, can mean an architectural fantasy which combines various imagined buildings and archeological structures. In addition, one of the sources of the word Capriccio is 'capretto' meaning kid, a young goat, with its erratic and unpredictable movements.
These ideas influenced my approach to writing this piece and the way in which the music and its form developed. This concertante work for solo bassoon and string orchestra evolved as a kind of rondo with a short coda, and the music alternates between fast and slow episodes; each of the fast episodes are variants of the original one, and the slow sections develop in a similar fashion. The slow music explores the lyrical character of the bassoon and the lines for the instrument are highly ornamented.
Songs from Sappho (2022) for soprano and orchestra
These four songs to lyric poetry by Sappho (ca. 630-540 BCE) are set to English translations by various poets, three of whom were Victorian. The third poem, My Muse, What Ails This Ardour?, is an adaptation by Sir Philip Sydney (1554-1586), of Catullus’s own adaptation of the Sappho original. It is a famous poem of jealousy and exists in innumerable translations.
The spareness and exquisite beauty of the existing fragments of Sappho’s poetry evoke a distant, dreamy, and enchanting world. The first and fourth songs inhabit the nocturnal atmosphere Sappho creates with such simplicity. The second song, Sweet Child, is set in a dance-like manner and the third , My Muse, reflects the passion and violence of its text.