The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Skempton, Howard (2016) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. [Composition]

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My setting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was commissioned by Maurice and Sheila Millward. My normal practice is to respect the integrity of the text, so for several weeks, I was strongly of the view that I should set the whole poem. Maurice’s doubts about this led me to devise my abridged version. My aim was to make as few cuts as possible, and these occur mainly towards the end where the imagery is more elusive. I resolved to introduce brief instrumental interludes where sizeable cuts had been made.

The instrumental ensemble to accompany the baritone (Roderick Williams) began with the piano quintet, a startlingly traditional choice for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, to which a horn was added, perhaps to herald the more supernatural turns of events. Lastly, I decided to add the double bass; the sea is, after all, commonly known as the “deep”.

Coleridge’s poem is a ballad - a “Lyrical Ballad” - and I set out to capture that essential aspect of its character. The opening tune is like a folk song. Only six notes are used, but this diatonic material is part of a 9-note mode of limited transposition, allowing the musical language to become easily and naturally chromatic. This happens immediately after “the harbour cleared” at bar 69.

The narrative unfolds, but stanzas are set in groups, so the form of the whole piece is like a song cycle. The harmonic language is modal. Canon is an abiding principle, and its use in the passage from bar 533 is notable: “The western wave was all aflame”.

The aim throughout the setting was to follow speech rhythms. A clear example is at bar 200: “Came to the mariners’ hollo”.

The accompaniment is relatively spare: never more so than at the end, with the baritone accompanied only by the double bass playing open strings.

Item Type: Composition
26 May 2016Published
Subjects: CAH25 - design, and creative and performing arts > CAH25-02 - performing arts > CAH25-02-02 - music
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Design and Media > Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
Depositing User: Andrew Ingamells
Date Deposited: 20 Feb 2021 15:10
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2022 16:54

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