Setting Sally Purcell's Songs

Setting poetry to music involves a psychic intimacy which leaves the composer with a sense of a poet’s fragrance similar to the physical memory of a lover. To call the experience erotic is too easy, for it leaps right over that territory to end within a domain of the soul where memories of relationships are stored as a dynamic accretion to one’s own self.

A few years ago I made this journey into Sally Purcell’s poetry, and it was one of the most rewarding of my creative life. There is often a tension as to whether text or music is the senior partner—a clue lying in whether the term poetry or lyric is used—but in my experience of setting Sally’s poetry there was no tension of a hierarchy; just a reciprocal flow of language and music entwining to enhance the emotional meaning.

I feel I can use her Christian name even tho I didn’t ‘meet’ Sally until 14 years after her untimely death. An Oxford contemporary gave me her collected works in 2012, and I was immediately transported to another world. It was like entering a stranger’s house and knowing you were going to fall in love. There was an immediate openness between souls. ‘My friend speaks my mind’ is the phrase used in Quaker circles.

Entranced by her delicate precision of language and the refined awareness it displayed, each night before falling asleep, for a couple of weeks I enjoyed reading a couple of her poems. Immersing myself in the dense and richly mysterious images was like nodding off in a perfumed room.

There seemed to be two main themes in her poetry: erotic love and the spiritual dimension/s of life. Or if you prefer, a single theme: the relationship/s formed by personal and trans-personal love. And what makes her writing so luminous is that, unusually for an educated modern, she saw no a distinction between the two.

Being first attracted to set her Sestina for soprano, tenor and piano that June, I followed it immediately with a themed selection of 11 short poems I titled The Arc of Love. But I could see further diamonds buried within the pages hinting in perfect metaphor at aspects of the perennial mysteries of faith; and in August one of these, Temenos, caught my meditative eye as an ideal text for a poor man’s Spem In Alium.

The poem evokes the magic of sacred space created between humans, and I first thought to emulate the majesty of Tallis’s 40 voices; but as I began I encountered some of the logistical problems that Tallis himself must have faced notating 40 staves of music four centuries ago, the first being to find manuscript paper large enough, compounded by a contemporary consideration now that all scores are computerised, that I would’ve required a 60” screen to be able to read and work on the whole score vertically at any reasonable resolution. As I have only a pair of 27” screens to work on I compromised by using 20 voices as five spatially separated quartets who share and echo canonic exchanges. To be honest noone can actually hear a difference between 20 and 40 parts since there are only seven notes in the scale.


Sally was truly a poet of kairos. She captured jeweled snapshots of rainbow moments where all the mercurial elements that float in the ether of our lives align. Hers was a quantum craft wherein she crystallised the randomness of life into moments of moral coherence, like a great photographer who uses even ambiguities of focus for expressive effect.

Where I feel kinship is that Sally didn’t write for approval or applause, she wrote because she had seen truth. She understood that truth is both eternal and transient, and that kairos lies in the momentary intersection between them; and it was her faith in an ultimate reality, an ultra-reality that transects and interpenetrates terrestrial existence, that gave her the courage to see and to live under the perpetual whiplash of a vulnerability most of us dim by allowing as-it-were a protective moral cataract to form :: which is the world’s lie disguising the nature of the power, privilege and precariousness of existence.

The pieces I’ve referred to setting were all solitary creative experiences as performers have not yet shown interest in them; however my final excavation of Sally’s rich seam of poetry was to make sequence of poems which trace the outlines of the liturgical year, which I called The Quiet Spaces. And I am delighted that six years on these have been brought vividly to life by Greg Skidmore’s Lacock Scholars.

My decisions about how to treat these poems: Eternal Image – First Mystery –Poem for Lent or Advent –Magi – I see them walking in the Air of glory – Rilke: came about this way. I’d had a composition performed in Manchester, whose timing allowed us to take a circuitous route home via a unique concert of William Byrd’s late motets given by The Cardinalls Musick in Stondon Massey, Byrd’s ‘own’ parish church in Essex.** Hearing his five-part motet Beata Viscera exquisitely sung in this resonant space—accompanied by the spectacular aerial display of an excited bat—was to feel the veil of time dissolve.

On my return the music for each poem came to me as fast as I could write out the previous one. My intention was that the first five motets should be performed together as they share a transpersonal dimension, and then after applause, the sixth, Rilke, be offered as a subjective encore featuring solo voices singing ...
    Even if we know love’s landscape
    and the little churchyard with its mourning names,
    and the frighteningly silent ravine for which others are bound,
    time and again we walk together under ancient trees,
    time and again lie down among the flowers opposite the sky.
Lake and Labyrinth 1985

To enjoy The Quiet Spaces I recommend turning captions on to display the text.

What I adore about Sally is how she illuminated the mystical realities of faith real without surrendering an iota of the complexity of a modern viewpoint. Like Olivier Messiaen she retains a naive belief in the ultimate goodness of Life with a kind of intensity that Tallis or Byrd would have recognised. Both modern visionaries offer a way forward for contemporary consciousness which sidesteps the sterility of intellectual art, and in Sally is the more remarkable for sustaining an authentically feminine vision within a life that offered precious few material comforts, and probably an unfair amount of gender discrimination.

Temenos, the 20 part motet, exists only with synth voices. As it makes great demands of the singers, time alone will tell whether I shall hear it with my physical ears or the ears of spirit – but I know that I will eventually because it speaks of the perennial truth that Sally expressed, which cannot be crushed or extinguished because it is Life itself. Whatever my state when it is performed I expect to clasp Sally’s spirit hand, and we shall be like two separated parents acknowledging the graduation of the child they conceived but could not raise together.

**Ironically, as a fierce recusant Byrd was regularly fined for his refusal to attend Anglican services. Notwithstanding which, there is a memorial in the church to him which records the obituary where Byrd was cited as ‘a father of music’.