Rethinking the Repertoire #2: Anna Clyne’s “Night Ferry”

It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the second in a multi-part Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to

Anna Clyne --

Anna Clyne — her compositions are often intensely theatrical and colorful.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

One of the notable facts about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) composer-in-residence program is that, for 22 of its 28 years, it’s boasted at least one woman in the post, beginning with Shulamit Ran (1990-97) and continuing with August Read Thomas (1997-2006). Between 2010 and ’15 Anna Clyne shared the spot with Mason Bates and, currently, Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams fill the roles.

At the time of her appointment, the London-born, New York-based Clyne was the CSO’s youngest composer-in-residence. Yet her music speaks, as a general rule, with a depth of expression and emotional immediacy that belies her age. It’s not too much to say, for instance, that her 2008-09 elegy, Within Her Arms, a memorial to her mother, offers the experience of hearing one of the most cathartic and heartbreaking scores written in the last hundred years.

Much of Clyne’s music has been written with collaborators in mind: she works regularly with filmmakers, visual artists, and choreographers, in addition to “innovative and risk-taking” musicians. As a result, her output is often intensely theatrical and colorful. It also doesn’t hide its debts to the past but places them in striking contexts that allows us to hear them in new ways. Her 2014 collaboration with video artist Josh Dorman, The Violin, channels, in its seven movements, a myriad of styles and pieces including, prominently, the finale of Bach’s G minor violin sonata. These waft in and out of focus as the music progresses, weaving a haunting, often serenely beautiful, tapestry of memory and loss.

Not all of her music is melancholy. Brimming with energy is Masquerade, a snappy concert opener Clyne wrote for Marin Alsop and the BBC Proms in 2013. Pairing a festive, original tune with a 17th-century English country-dance called Juice of Barley, it overflows with mirth and good cheer. Also remarkable is her first concerto, Prince of Clouds, written for violinists Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo. Taking the motif of dialogue as her starting point (between teachers and students, soloists and ensembles, composers and performers, etc.), Clyne crafted a score of bounding energy and complex yet engaging virtuosic musical conversation.

Many of these same characteristics also define Night Ferry, Clyne’s first big commission for the CSO. It was composed in 2011 and premiered the following spring. According to Clyne’s note on the piece, the music depicts two main ideas: voyaging, generally, and the extremes of manic depression, the latter the result of CSO music director Riccardo Muti’s suggestion that she take her inspiration for the piece from Schubert (since it was first heard on a concert otherwise devoted to Schubert’s music). Certainly there’s no mistaking Clyne’s style for Schubert’s, but, with its emotional intensity and obsession with exploring the darker corners of human experience, Night Ferry is more than a little bit Schubertian.

It begins with music that Andrew Patner described as “evok[ing] the launch of Verdi’s Othello”: a tremendous orchestral thud gives way to swirling eddies of notes. Rhythmic pulses enter, build, and fade away. Menacing brass swells punctuate the texture. It’s all fantastically disorienting and violent, like being at sea in a storm. And, after a big, brassy yawp and a collapse of the running sixteenth-note motive, it suddenly stops, only to begin anew following the briefest of pauses.

The second iteration of storm-tossed music gives way, though, first to a series of rhythmic tattoos that pass between strings and brass; then to a gentle, simple pentatonic tune. After a few interruptions, this melody takes over. Throughout Night Ferry, this lyrical passage is regularly present in a variety of textures, sometimes clear as light at other times more obscured, always appearing, though, like a lodestar.

Two other themes are of importance. The first is a descending scale figure that belongs primarily to harps, piano, and pizzicato strings. This is followed by a fast, wild violin gesture that often explodes on the scene, bursting out of nowhere in particular.

With these several building blocks, Clyne crafts the whole of Night Ferry, its moods alternating often unpredictably and tempestuously. Eventually, the music builds to a driving climax before dissipating – though now a step higher than where it began (hovering around E minor rather than D), implying an arrival at some new musical (and expressive) destination.

In all, Night Ferry proves to be an ambitious, absorbing score, filled with music of great color, vitality, and expression. In his 1854 text on aesthetics, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (On the Beautiful in Music), Eduard Hanslick wrote that “an art aims, above all, at producing something beautiful which affects not our feelings but the organ of pure contemplation, our imagination.” With its motoric energy, inventive command of orchestral resources, sheer sonic power, and darkly luminous beauty, Clyne’s Night Ferry that does just that. It also possesses (to apply Hanslick’s system of values) the secondary ability of affecting some deeply held feelings. For both reasons, it makes its own case for frequent and regular hearing.

Now, give it a listen and decide for yourself:

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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