Sally Beamis’s new chamber opera

Sally Beamish's music embraces simplicity, ecomony and honesty
Sally Beamish's music embraces simplicity, ecomony and honesty
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What do composers Benjamin Britten and Sally Beamish have in common? Well, you could say that both found the peace of the countryside to be their preferred place of work – Britten in his converted Suffolk windmill; Beamish in a hut at the bottom of her Stirlingshire cottage garden.

But the truest and strongest connection lies in the very essence of their music. Like Britten, who resisted the temptation to follow the harsh, extreme line of European radicalism, instead creating a wholly individual progressive style embracing tonal and melodic elements as fundamental building blocks, Beamish’s music has also embraced an essential simplicity, economy and honesty.

Why ask the question? Well, for the past year or so, Beamish has undertaken no fewer than four commissions linked to this year’s Britten centenary. And one of them, the chamber opera, Hagar in the Wilderness, which was written as a partner work to Britten’s parable opera, Curlew River, and premiered last month in Wales at the Presteigne Festival, receives its Scottish premiere on Friday as part of the St Andrews Voices Festival, which runs from 3-6 October.

Like Curlew River, a parable about a madwoman seeking her lost son, the Old Testament story of Hagar deals with motherhood and loss. Hagar, a maidservant, bears a son, Ishmael, by Abraham, but mother and son are cast out when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, miraculously gives birth to her own son, Isaac, in old age. An Angel is sent from God to save Hagar and Ishmael.

For obvious reasons, Beamish has scored her opera for the same small ensemble as Britten’s. But, she says, it is a work that can exist in a wider context, which is the case this week in a programme that, instead of opening with Curlew River, is prefaced with songs by Britten, Schubert and Beamish’s own Four Songs from Hafez for tenor and harp, as well as Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp.

These are not arbitrary choices, least of all the Hafez songs. “My songs are particularly relevant, as they are settings of the Persian poet, Hafez, translated by Jila Peacock,” she says. “The texts, like the Hagar story, highlight the similarities between the imagery in the Old Testament – the Song of Solomon – and Persian mystical writings.” Nonetheless, says Beamish, “it will be interesting to see it in a new context.”

That said, there are obvious elements in the Hagar music that not only distance it from Britten’s powerful influence, but give it a more universal and contemporary significance. “Although the parable has its roots in Judaism, the story also appears in the Koran,” Beamish says. “And being about the dispossessed it has such strong relevance today,” she adds, along with a potent reminder that Ishmael was father of Islam, and Abraham and Isaac were the patriarchs of Judaism.

Which is why Beamish makes obvious musical references in her score to Jewish dance music – “when Hagar is preparing food you hear snatches of Klezmer” – and to Koranic chanting. “It’s quite a spare sort of score,” she says, though one that posed some interesting challenges in the process of her collaboration with librettist Clara Glynn.

“The biggest one was seeing Clara’s casual note in her libretto that said ‘we hear orchestrally the sound of water’. That was a poser. I was working only with flute, harp, viola, double bass and percussion, so creating the sound of water without reverting to cliche was a real challenge,” she says.

Whether Beamish achieves that, we can judge on Friday in a performance by the original cast of three singers, soprano Kirsty Hopkins, baritone Owen Gilhooly, and tenor Edmund Hastings. George Vass conducts. But is there a chance we might sense, even without Curlew River, the spectre of Britten hovering over her shoulder?

“I had four Britten-related commissions this year, and each one drew on a different aspect of his work. He was brilliant, accomplished, and everything is tightly controlled,” Beamish says. “And yet there’s another quality there – a kind of spiritual alchemy which transcends the notes on the page.

“I found it hard to shake off his distinctive voice at my shoulder, to write resolutely as ‘me,’” she admits. “So while composing Hagar, I didn’t listen to much Britten – certainly not Curlew River – after the initial re-exploration. But I think something has inevitably crept in.”

Hagar in the Wilderness receives its Scottish Premiere as part of St Andrews Voices Festival on Friday at Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews,