Text: from Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Instrumentation: Baritone voice, viola
First Performance: Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, January 6th 1994
From Mina Harker’s Journal
I was approached by James Hugonin some time ago to write a vocal piece for a series of concerts linked to exhibitions of his paintings. We met in Newcastle and talked about his work and I looked at a number of pictures. I decided to write something which was, at the same time, a response to the physical context in which the pictures were made (the North East of England) and in an oblique way linked with the culture of the area. I had already written pieces for members of the Hilliard Ensemble which used 7th Century Northumbrian verse, in particular Cadman Requiem with its use of Caedmon’s Creation Hymn.
I chose as text lines from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, especially those which presage the wreck of the mysterious ship Demeter at Whitby. As a child I had spent many summers in Whitby, and it was at Whitby too that Caedmon had written his poetry. I noted the Dracula connection when I began re-reading the book following my friend Tom Waits’ appearance in the recent film version. It was then that I noticed that the Whitby incidents are described from the vantage point of the cliffs beneath St. Hilda’s Abbey, the same place I used to visit, and the same Abbey where Caedmon worked.
For this piece I decided to write for solo baritone voice with viola, and to work in an economical and restrained way moving between the form of the melodrama (spoken voice and accompaniment, like Strauss’s Enoch Arden for example) and song. I plan to write other pieces from subsequent parts of this narrative.
Text of From Mina Harker’s Journal
(Spoken) The day was unusually fine till the afternoon, when some of the gossips who frequent the East Cliff churchyard, and from that commanding eminence watch the wide sweep of sea visible to the north and east, called attention to a sudden show of ‘mares’-tails’ high in the sky to the north-west. The wind was then blowing from the south-west in the mild degree which in barometrical language is ranked ‘No. 2: light breeze’. The coastguard on duty at once made report, and one old fisherman, who for more than half a century has kept watch on weather signs from the East Cliff, foretold in an emphatic manner the coming of a sudden storm. The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly-coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty.
Before the sun dipped below the black mass of Kettleness, standing boldly athwart the western sky, its downward way was marked by myriad clouds of every sunset-colour – flame, purple, pink, green, violet, and all the tints of gold; with here and there masses not large, but of seemingly absolute blackness, in all sorts of shapes, as well outlined as colossal silhouettes. More than one captain made up his mind then and there that his ‘cobble’ or his ‘mule’ would remain in the harbour till the storm had passed. The wind fell away entirely during the evening, and at midnight there was a dead calm. There were but few lights in sight at sea, for even the coasting steamers which usually ‘hug’ the shore so closely, kept well to seaward, and few fishing-boats were in sight. (Add some ‘singing’ tone) The only sail noticeable was a foreign schooner with all sails set, which was seemingly going westwards. the foolhardiness or ignorance of her officers was a prolific theme for comment whilst she remained in sight, and efforts were made to signal her to reduce sail in face of her danger. Before the night shot down she was seen with sails idly flapping as she gently rolled on the undulating swell of the sea.
“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”
(Recitativo) Shortly before ten o’clock the stillness of the air grew quite oppressive, and the silence was so marked that the bleating of a sheep inland or the barking of a dog in the town was distinctly heard, and the band on the pier…was like a discord in the great harmony of nature’s silence. A little after midnight came a strange sound from over the sea, and high overhead the air began to carry a strange, faint hollow booming.
(Singing) Then without warning the tempest broke. With a rapidity which seemed incredible the whole aspect of nature at once became convulsed. The waves rose in growing fury, each over-topping its fellow, till in a very few minutes the lately glassy sea was like a roaring and devouring monster. White-crested waves beat madly on the level sands and rushed up the shelving cliffs; others broke over the piers, and with their spume swept the lanthorns of the lighthouses which rise from the end of either pier of Whitby harbour. The wind roared like thunder, and blew with such force that even strong men clung with grim clasp to the iron stanchions. To add to the dangers of the time, masses of sea-fog came drifting inland – white, wet clouds, which swept by in ghostly fashion, so dank and damp and cold that it needed but a little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death, and many shuddered as the wreaths of sea-mist swept by. At times the mist cleared, and the sea for some distance could be seen in the glare of the lightning, which now came thick and fast, followed by such sudden peals of thunder that the whole sky overhead seemed trembling under the shock of the footsteps of the storm. Some of the scenes thus revealed were of immeasurable grandeur and of absorbing interest – the sea, running mountains high, threw skywards with each wave mighty masses of white foam, which the tempest seemed to snatch at and whirl away into space; here and there a fishing boat, with a rag of sail, running madly for shelter before the blast; now and again the white wings of a storm-tossed sea-bird. On the summit of the East Cliff the new searchlight was ready and in the pauses of the inrushing mist the officers swept with it the surface of the sea. Once or twice a fishing-boat, with gunwhale under water, rushed into the harbour, able, by the guidance of the sheltering light, to avoid the danger of dashing against the piers. Before long the searchlight discovered some distance away a schooner with all sails set. The wind had by this time backed to the east. Between her and the port lay the great flat reef on which so many good ships have from time to time suffered, and, with the wind blowing from its present quarter, it would be quite impossible that she should reach the entrance of the harbour. It was now nearly the hour of high tide, but the waves were so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible, and the schooner, with all sails set, was rushing with such speed that.- “she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell.” Then came another rush of sea-fog, – a mass of dank mist, which seemed to close on all things like a grey pall, and left available to men only the organ of hearing, for the roar of the tempest, and the crash of the thunder, and the booming of the mighty billows came through the damp oblivion even louder than before. the rays of the searchlight were kept fixed on the harbour mouth … The wind suddenly shifted to the north-east, and the remnant of sea-fog melted in the blast; and then, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on deck at all. A great awe came on all as they realised that the ship, as if by a miracle, had found the harbour unsteered save by the hand of a dead man! The schooner paused not, but rushing across the harbour, pitched herself on that accumulation of sand and gravel washed by many tides and many storms into the south-east corner of the pier jutting under the East Cliff..
(Recitativo) The vessel drove up on the sand-heap. Every spar, rope and stay was strained, and some of the ‘top-hammer’ came crashing down. But the very instant the shore was touched an immense dog sprang up on deck from below, as if shot up by the concussion, and running forward, jumped from the bow on to the sand. Making straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the laneway to the East Pier so steeply that some of the flat tombstones actually project over where the sustaining cliff has fallen away, it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed to intensify just beyond the focus of the searchlight.
The men working the searchlight then turned the light on the derelict and kept it there. I was permitted to climb on deck and saw that dead seaman whilst actually lashed to the wheel. (Reduce to ‘singing/speaking’ tone) The man was simply fastened by his hands, tied one over the other, to a spoke of the wheel. Between the inner hand and the wood was a crucifix, the set of beads on which it was fastened being around both wrists and wheel, and all kept fast by the binding cords…In his pocket was a bottle, carefully corked, empty save for a little roll of paper. The man must have tied up his own hands, fastening the knots with his teeth. The dead steersman has been reverently removed from the place where he held his honourable watch and ward till death.
(Spoken) Already the storm is passing, and its fierceness is abating; the crowds are scattering homewards, and the sky is beginning to redden over the Yorkshire wolds. I shall send further details of the derelict ship which found her way so miraculously into harbour in the storm.