Clive Whitburn is a composer living in Sussex, who has written a wide range of music, including chamber, orchestral and electronic music, as well as performing with two acoustic duos. As an experienced choral singer himself, many of his more recent compositions involve choirs and singers. He describes his music as 'usually, but not exclusively, tonal and melodic, ... rooted in the classical and baroque traditions as well as modern popular styles'.
In 2016, he was inspired by Messages From The Sea, a collection of letters and notes washed ashore on beaches, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were compiled by Paul Brown in a book released in September 2016. Messages found washed up in bottles and boxes on beaches were published in newspapers around the world, and Brown collected these. They tell a wide range of tales, some tragic, some romantic, and some containing intriguingly unsolved mysteries.
Whitburn has taken four contrasting messages and set them to music, creating a fascinating short Song Cycle for soprano, baritone, harp and piano.
The first, ‘Thompson’s Message’, tells of the demise of a passenger steamship sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Liverpool in 1870, never to arrive. It is set for soprano, harp and piano. After the announcement of the date and location, the message contains just four short, sad phrases, telling us that the sea is sinking, and the writer says a brief goodbye, asking for his boy to be looked after. The harp and piano exchange rippling rising arpeggios and a repeated octave motif, with the soprano line gradually sinking on each phrase. The combination is highly effective and mournful, dying away to nothing at the end.
Next comes ‘Charles Pilcher’, a startling confession (spoiler alert!) of a man telling us that he murdered a woman, Margaret Hutchinson, and now, consumed with guilt, unable to sleep and seeing visions of her, he has decided to throw himself overboard at sea. The message was found in 1896 between Dover and Folkstone – but the mystery remains unsolved as to who Pilcher or Hutchinson were. Over an incessant repeated pattern on the piano, the harp tolls chords, and the soprano and baritone intone the confession. Rising key changes as the story unfolds add to the dramatic effect, increasing the tension, until finally, the tale told, the music is allowed to die away. Whitburn communicates the inherent unsettling nature of this tale well here in this effective setting.
‘Miss Charlesworth Presents’ is another fascinating vignette. Violet Gordon Charlesworth was a young fraudster who claimed to be an heiress, and then faked her own death to escape debts. The message in a bottle that turned up in Wexford Bay in 1909 was considered to be a hoax, as Charlesworth was subsequently found in Oban, Scotland, charged and sentenced to five years hard labour. The message is a quirky, cheeky announcement of ‘Au revoir’ ‘to the press, police and public of Ireland’, and Whitburn’s setting is great fun, with a folksy, bouncy rhythm on the piano underpinning proceedings and the soprano and baritone sometimes singing together, sometimes in sequence, but maintaining the momentum of this sprightly tale. The rhythmic pace and dynamic is a great contrast to the preceding, more subdued songs.
The cycle concludes with ‘All Is Well’, for soprano, baritone and harp. After the darkness of the tales thus far, the final message announces the birth of a baby boy, the captain’s wife having given birth on board. However, even this joyful message has a macabre connection – the message in a bottle was found near Dundee in 1873 inside an 11ft shark! The setting here gives long lyrical lines to the soprano, imitated by the baritone, over simple, chordal accompaniment from the harp, ending with touching repetition of the phrase, ‘all is well’.
You can hear the full cycle on YouTube (see below) or on Soundcloud here.
The songs are given strong and evocative performances by soprano Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and baritone Alex Roose, with Alexandra King on harp and Adam Swayne on piano.
You can find more of Clive Whitburn’s music on Soundcloud here.