Larkin's Jazz

Speaker/baritone, flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), clarinet in Bb (doubling bass clarinet), soprano saxophone in Bb, trumpet in Bb, cello, piano and percussion (1989)

Larkin’s Jazz was commissioned by Keele University and first performed there with Henry Herford (speaker-baritone), John Harle (saxophone), and the Nash Ensemble under Lionel Friend on 5 February 1990. That performance is on Naxos 8.572287 (2009).

1. Prelude to ‘Reasons for attendance’
2. Poem: ‘Reasons for attendance’
3. Commentary on ‘Reasons for attendance’
4. Prelude to ‘For Sidney Bechet’
5. Poem: ‘For Sidney Bechet’
6. Commentary on ‘For Sidney Bechet’
7. Prelude to’ Love songs in age’
8. Poem: Love songs in age’
9. Commentary on ‘Love songs in age’
10. Prelude to ‘Reference back’
11. ‘Reference back’ and conclusion

My only meeting with Philip Larkin (1922-85) was at Hull University on 30 June 1981. (See account in Peter Dickinson: Words and Music, Boydell, 2016). We discussed musical setting of his poetry and corresponded. On 31 July he wrote: ‘I should be happy for you to set any of my poems (well, almost any) … but I am rather a heretic about such operations, in so far as I believe that a poem – or at least a good poem – contains everything it needs, including music, painting, vocalising and so on. To add these things afterwards is to my mind superfluous, and while not doing the poem any harm will no do it any good either.’ So I gave up any plans I had altogether. On 1 February 1986 I attended his memorial service at Westminster Abbey. It was an impressive occasion that included a jazz group playing Sidney Bechet’s ‘Blue Horizon’ and Bix Beiderbecke’s ‘Davenport Blues’. That cultural confrontation suggested to me how Larkin’s poems could be spoken to a minimal musical background with more elaborate commentaries on either side. I went through all the poems to find jazz references and finally chose recordings of Bechet’s ‘Blue Horizon’ and King Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’. I transcribed these tracks and, in one form or another, they gave me the material for the entire piece.

Then I chose the poems. ‘Reasons for attendance’ provides ‘The trumpet’s voice, loud and authoritative’ as the poet watches the dance in progress through the window from outside. ‘For Sidney Bechet’ comes next and at the end of the poem Larkin celebrates jazz as opposed to the serious music scene, which he calls ‘long-haired grief and scored pity’. There’s a sentimental tinge in ‘Love songs in age’ where an older widow finds the sheet music of the songs she used to play when she was young. For this, Bechet’s blues becomes a waltz played by the cello. Finally ‘Reference back’ mentions Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’ and contains slowed-down versions of both the Bechet and Oliver tunes simultaneously, as the poem focuses nostalgically on the past with the soprano saxophone dying away in the distance.

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson