David Knotts - Composer, Pianist, Conductor

Composer, Pianist, Conductor

The Alabaster Chambers – BBC4 Broadcast


1 Opening
2 Herbarium
3 Safe
4 Himmaleh

Craig Ogden guitar

I have always been fascinated by the poet Emily Dickinson, whose life is as intriguing as her poetry. Many of her poems remained unpublished at the time of her death and, owing to a family lawsuit, a large collection of manuscripts remained locked in a box for some 30 years. The Alabaster Chambers reflects on both her writing and some of the circumstances surrounding her life.

The first movement imagines the opening of the box of poems: string glissandos (slides) imitate the creaking hinges while repeated bell sounds evoke the passing of time. The solo guitar emerges as the voice of the poet, at times playful, at times serious.

From this dark, interior soundscape, the second movement moves outdoors. As well as being a writer, Dickinson was a keen horticulturalist and gardener: a comprehensive herbarium of pressed specimens exists from her student days and the garden and conservatory at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, provided a constant source of inspiration. Dickinson’s preoccupation with death and the passing of time is reflected in many of her poems. The third movement, entitled ‘Safe’, is the heart of this concerto and is a meditation on one such poem, which imagines the peaceful sleep of the departed – Safe in their Alabaster Chambers, according to its title – while the years pass, ‘Soundless as Dots, on a Disc of Snow’. The guitar melodies are echoed by the horn and accompanied by low strings and wind.

In later years, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive, but the microscopic and interior world of many of her verses is often contrasted with a pioneering sense of adventure. ‘Himmaleh’ is a variant of ‘Himalaya’ and the snow-covered mountain range occurs in some of her poems. In ‘I can wade Grief’, the poet suggests that through the challenge of grief we can find our greatest strength and carry the Himalayas like a giant. This last movement is a virtuoso tour de force, the orchestra evoking the snow-covered mountain range and the soloist embodying an intrepid traveller who, beset with grief, finds the strength to stride out on an epic adventure.

The Alabaster Chambers was commissioned by Jill Lebor in memory of her husband, Stan Lebor (1934–2014)

Programme note © David Knotts