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Death and the Maiden

12 Ensemble

Album liner notes


Schubert - Death and the Maiden (arr. 12 ensemble)

There’s already a well-known and much-recorded string orchestral arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet by Gustav Mahler. We decided not to use that.


At first glance, it might seem an attractive choice to rely on an established arrangement by a master composer, automatically lending an assumed sense of authority and authenticity to both the concept and execution of re-working Schubert’s masterpiece. However, after time spent with Mahler’s arrangement both in the rehearsal room and in concert, we were left with more questions than answers, and lots of it just didn’t feel right.


In truth, what Mahler actually left was far from a complete arrangement. There was a fashion at the time for conductors and composers to re-orchestrate chamber works in order for them to be performed in larger concert halls. But having started work on the Schubert, Mahler abandoned it without completing a score, leaving only sketches and notes on orchestration, dynamics and articulation that were realised long after his death by two Mahler scholars.


Regardless of whether the final score is in Mahler’s hand or not, it’s his approach to altering the articulation and dynamics that posed most problems for us. Many of Schubert’s original dynamics are altered or disregarded completely, and Mahler’s addition of specific instructions, such as hair-pins, accents and articulation markings, result in phrasing and colour changes that we felt are at odds with Schubert’s original intentions. The end product leaves the music feeling like a richly stylised, early-20th-century interpretation
of the work; far from Schubert’s own musical language and emotional message.


So we went back to basics, using Schubert’s own quartet parts and creating a double-bass line that adds impact and depth when required but is sensitive to the delicate balance of Schubert’s orchestration. We were also conscious of retaining the expressive and personal nature of solo lines when transposing them onto a tutti section of three or four players, and have left certain sections as solos to this end. With the ensemble’s compact size (as far as a string orchestras go), lack of conductor and fundamental approach being one of freedom, flexibility and communication more commonly found in chamber music, we hope we’ve created an arrangement that honours Schubert’s musical intentions whilst bringing a heightened palette of contrast, colour and intensity to this great work.


Tavener - The Lamb

John Tavener’s choral work The Lamb has become one of the composer’s most recognisable pieces, gaining huge popular appeal since its completion in 1983. Surprisingly, far lesser known is this arrangement for strings, completed by the composer himself. Originally a setting of the William Blake poem of the same name, this largely over-looked version beautifully illustrates the haunting simplicity and emotional power of Tavener’s music.

Oliver Leith - Honey Siren

Oliver wrote Honey Siren especially for the 12 ensemble in 2019. He writes; "I was thinking about sirens; the wailing kind, not the bird women singing on rocks. They make these beautiful, huge oblong sweeping glissandi between high and low, like a machine crying. They usually signal something ominous; these sirens do not. They are honeyed, dripping in globules of sweetness, golden and moving between solid and fluid. Like a smiling alarm.”


Sigur Rós - Fljótavík

Back in 2016, the ensemble was lucky enough to visit Iceland for an artistic residency in the remote eastern fjord town of Seyðisfjörður. Both the sheer natural beauty and elemental power of our surroundings, coupled with the openness and generosity of the people we met, had a deep and lasting effect on us. In memory of our time there, ensemble member Guy Button came up with this string arrangement of the song Fljótavík by Icelandic band Sigur Rós.


We’ve performed it ever since (usually as an encore at concerts), and audiences have often made a point of telling us how moving they find it, so we decided to commit it to record. Aside from being a beautiful piece of music that lends itself perfectly to string playing, the original lyrics to the song really resonated with our
experience; “We're sailing, stretching ourselves...We're sailing into land, unknown place...I felt myself happy there...we are really thankful.”


© Max Ruisi



12 Ensemble

Album liner notes


Lutosławski - Musique Funébre
Lutosławski’s Musique Funébre was completed in 1958 and dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók. As a composer similarly marginalised by the Soviet Union, this was a very personal ode to the deep connection he felt with Bartók’s music, and in writing this piece was clearly particularly influenced by some of the ideas and concepts in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. A simple arching form, the importance of the tri-tone as a thematic interval and the use of a ‘tonal’ 12 tone technique are all important concepts in both work. Yet Lutoslawski still manages to create powerful new music that sounds wholly unique, even heralding a change of direction in his own style.


Consisting of four individually labelled sections that flow into one another, the work begins with a mysterious Prologue introduced by two solo cello lines and built upon by the gradual introduction of the rest of the parts, all based on the 12 tone scale. Ending with the repeated interval of a tri-tone, the next section (Metamorphoses) takes the established themes and expands upon them heavily. The music steadily builds in texture, dynamic and tempo to a dramatic climax at the Apogee, where all the instruments finally come together in terrifying rhythmic unison on a single chord consisting of all the 12 tones, referred to in German as the Mutterakkord - the Mother of all chords. The final Epilogue then takes us on a reverse journey of the opening material, with the final phrases played-out by a hushed solo cello line that hauntingly disintegrates, note by note, into nothing.


Originally scored for a larger string orchestra, this unique interpretation by the 12 ensemble brings fascinating clarity to the musical architecture of the work whilst preserving Lutoslawski’s palette of colours and textures with a vitalness afforded by the group’s chamber-music sensibilities.


Kate Whitley - Autumn Songs (world premiere recording)
British composer Kate Whitley wrote Autumn Songs for the group in 2014. A long-time collaborator and friend of the ensemble, Kate had the unique qualities of the ensemble in mind when composing the single-movement work. Scored for twelve solo strings, the work delicately weaves alternate solo lines through mesmerising, ethereal textures, with every individual part highlighted during the course of the piece.


Kate writes: ‘I was finishing the piece when staying in Italy in a house surrounded by huge trees at the beginning of autumn, so had the idea of calling it Autumn Songs. The fast falling notes are like leaves and all the songs have a sad, nostalgic character, which is similar to the Chanson d’automne (Autumn Song) by Paul Verlaine.’


Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur
Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l'heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;
Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Chanson d’automne by Paul Verlaine

John Woolrich - Ulysses Awakes
John Woolrich’s 1984 work Ulysses Awakes is an evocative rescoring of an aria from Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Drawing on the story of Homer’s Odyssey, the work’s rich narrative tells of Ulysses being shipwrecked and washed ashore on a deserted foreign land, unsure of whether he is dead or alive, asleep or awake.


In Woolrich’s powerful reinterpretation of the aria, the solo line is lent a dark and elegiac quality by its transformation on the viola. The composer gently coaxes the original renaissance work through skilful transformation, passing it through a prism of modernity with the introduction of subtle dissonances, de-constructed harmonic progressions and inventive scoring.

© Max Ruisi