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Selected Vocal Works

Peroration (1973) for soprano

PERORATION was written in 1973 in response to a commission from Jane Manning, to whom the work is dedicated. It was stimulated by a few lines from Robert Browning’s ‘Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis’ (The Ring and the Book). The poem recounts the trial of a certain Count Guido Francdeschini, who murdered his adulterous wife and his daughter to preserve his honour. The extracted lines from the conclusion of Count Guido’s defence are in the form of peroration. The use of Latin words and phrases so immediately followed by the English as to give the impression of simultaneous translation, gave the composer the idea for the musical form, namely two almost simultaneous parts. The first and last sections of the piece contain a third part which acts as a kind of commentary. The different parts move between the English and Latin freely. 

Once Did I Breathe Another's Breath (2012) for bass-baritone and piano.

These five songs for baritone and piano take love as their subject. All the poems set were probably written in the first half of the seventeenth century, and the songs in the cycle are also connected to each other by the musical material used. 

The first four songs are concerned with some of the happier aspects of being in love, while the final song regrets that the splendour and bliss of love cannot last: it wanes like the “full-orbed” moon. Once Did I Breathe Another’s Breath was completed in November 2012. 

Three Songs (Christina Rossetti) (2003) for alto and harp.

These three poems were written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) several years apart, yet seem to express similar emotions and concerns. The first was written in 1853 when she was twenty-three, the second when she was in her late thirties and the third, written towards the end of her life, may be the last poem she ever wrote. 

I have wanted to write a work for voice and harp for some time and found the dark and secret world of these poems ideally suited to this sonority. 

The Three Songs were completed in February 2003 and last a total of approximately 15 minutes. 

Brian Elias's music explores a world of vivid colour and imagination…each song was a meditation on sleep, and the music conjured a sensuous, somnolent sound-world…music effectively combined colour with architecture…'

Tom Service, Guardian

Song (1986) for mezzo-soprano and hurdy-gurdy (or drone)​

The text of Song is taken from the Song of Solomon, and is performed without a break. 

One of the many intriguing features of the Song of Solomon is its ambiguity - are the words those of a lover to his or her beloved or of the soul to God? This same ambiguity is present in hymns to Krishna (known as bhajans) which I heard in India. These bhajans were accompanied by various kinds of drone instruments and it is this, which had influenced my decision to have the vocal line accompanied by a quiet, sustained perfect fourth. This interval sounds almost throughout the piece, and the music for the voice is constructed around it. The drone is played on a Symphonie, a type of hurdy-gurdy used extensively in Medieval times.

Song was commissioned by the 1986 b’nai B’rith Music Festival. It was composed during the early part of 1986 and first perfomed by Andrea Baron in the Wigmore Hall on 13 July 1986.

Meet Me in the Green Glen (2009) for solo voice

Meet Me In The Green Glen 
Now Is Past 
Love's Pain 

The first of these songs for solo voice to poems by John Clare was written for the NMC Songbook, a CD collection of songs by a variety of British composers, which was released in April 2009. I wrote the remaining songs in March and April 2009, as I had always intended to make a group of songs to these poems. 

The songs may be performed individually or as a set and by any voice. They may also be transposed as desired by the singer. When more than one song is performed the transposition should be by the same degree throughout. 


I saw a peackock (2020) for baritone and piano

For many years I have wanted to set I Saw a Peacock, a poem that is usually anthologised as a nursery rhyme. Far from being a happy story, it is extraordinary in its apocalyptic and almost biblical imagery. It is a “trick poem”, and if the lines are punctuated with commas, it can be read in two different ways:

I saw a Peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a Comet drop down hail
I saw a Cloud with Ivy circled round


I saw a Peacock
With a fiery tail I saw a Comet
Drop down hail I saw a Cloud

There are six songs in this work in which I have chosen poems that are about dreams and visions. There are strong musical similarities that run throughout the piece but there are no direct thematic connections except for the third song, The Angel, which is a kind of re-working of the first song. The second, fourth and last song (Were the Bright Day, Bethsabe and Will You Come) attempt to evoke a similar atmosphere of dream-like longing.

I saw a peacock was premiered at Wigmore Hall on 28th December, 2023 by James Newby and Joseph Middleton. 

Newby and Middleton performed another world premiere – the song cycle commissioned in 2020, I Saw a Peacock, by Brian Elias. Elias – who has lived most of his life in London but was born in Bombay and has ancestral roots in Jewish Baghdad – reflects his wide cultural background in varied, often technically ambitious works. Like the cycle the opening song is called I Saw a Peacock. While it's often anthologised as a nursery rhyme, Elias himself sees it as a more apocalyptic work and Middleton’s fine piano accompaniment erupted into vivid splashes of colour as Newby excavated the song’s visionary fire. Out of the six songs in the cycle, highlights included William Blake’s The Angel, which began with tornado-like energy before resolving into melancholic stillness, and Edward Thomas’s Will you come? in which the cobwebbed piano accompaniment alternated with almost serpentine shifts of the voice.

Rachel Halliburton,

December 2023

At the Edge of Time (1982) for tenor and piano

AT THE EDGE OF TIME was written in 1982 and was commissioned by Dartington Summer School of Music with funds provided by South West Arts. The work was slightly revised in 2009.


Six poems by Mervyn Peake  (1911-1968) are set as a cycle and are all based on the musical material set out in the first song. Each song is complete in itself, and the sixth is made entirely of recollections of the previous five. The first two songs are played without a break, with brief pauses between the following four.

At the Edge of Time was written especially for Brian Burrows and Sir William Glock and is dedicated to them. They gave the first performance of the work in the Great Hall at Dartington on 27th July 1982.

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