Winter Afternoons

Cantata for six solo voices AATTBB and double bass (1971)

Text: Emily Dickinson

Winter Afternoons was commissioned by The King’s Singers with funds from the Vaughan Williams Trust and premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 19 January 1971, with John Gray, double bass, and it was later made the basis of a TV film on BBC 2 directed by William Fitzwater, produced by John Amis and shown on BBC TV Music on 2 on 16 July 1972.

The work is a sombre cantata based on three poems from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Faber & Faber, 1970). One of her major themes is death, treated in finely polished stanzas owing much to the metre of hymns. The King’s Singers often used a double bass in their lighter numbers so a serious use of a virtuoso player seemed appropriate, possibly as a symbol of death with the instrument’s characteristic baleful sound. The bass player is the accompanist, although there are solo interludes, and the main material of the piece is derived from the series of bell-like two-part chords in harmonics heard just before the voices enter.

The first poem, ‘One dignity delays for all’, deals with the ceremonial of funeral rituals; the second, ‘There’s a certain slant of light’, introduces a hymn-tune (North Coates by T. R. Matthews, 1826-1910) in canon between the high double-bass and the three lower voices; finally ‘Departed – to the judgement’ opens with some hysteria but then leaves the soul alone, with the voices unaccompanied until the return of the bell-like chords intoned by the double-bass. The hymn-tune used is North Coates by T. R. Matthews (1926-1910).

One dignity delays for all –
One mitred Afternoon –
None can avoid this purple –
None evade this crown!

Coach, it insures, and footmen –
Chamber, and state, and throng –
Bells, also, in the village
As we ride grand along!

What dignified Attendants!
What service when we pause!
How loyally at parting
Their hundred hats they raise!

How pomp surpassing ermine
When simple You, and I,
Present our meek escutcheon
And claim the rank to die!

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air -

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death -

Departed – to the Judgement –
A Mighty Afternoon –
Great Clouds – like Ushers – leaning –
Creation – looking on –

The Flesh – Surrendered – Cancelled –
The Bodiless - begun –
Two Worlds – like Audiences – disperse –
And leave the Soul – alone -

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson