Roads Shining Like River Up Hill After Rain   Ghost Shards for choir and cello

Edward Thomas was killed on 9th April (Easter Monday) 1917 in Arras on the western front when a German shell passed so close to his body that the air was sucked out of his lungs and he died without a mark on him. The contents of his pockets, sent home to his wife, contained his diary, a photograph, and a letter on the back of which were scribbled some fragments of incomplete poetry including the lines: ‘Where any turn may lead to Heaven,  Or any corner may hide Hell,  Roads shining like river up hill after rain.’

The text has been fashioned from fragments of his collected poetry (including the lines found in his pocket) as a metaphorical journey from his home village of Steep to the Western Front. It uses the poem ‘Roads’ as a guiding text throughout and

The text has been arranged by Robert Macfarlane drawing on lines, images and fragments from Thomas's poetry (including the unfinished verse found in his pocket) as a metaphorical journey from his home village of Steep to the Western Front. Each section closes with a stanza from the poem ‘Roads’ which threads through the whole piece. Thomas is the ghost and spirit-guide to Macfarlane's bestselling 2012 book about paths, walking and memory, The Old Ways, and Macfarlane wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Thomas's Selected Poems and Prose. Macfarlane has written extensively about the poet.

Described by Ted Hughes as ’the father of us all’, Thomas came late to poetry and it was only through his close friendship with Robert Frost that he finally turned to the form, writing all his work in just a few years before his death in the First World War. He was a regular walker of his surroundings on the South Downs, which are the focus for much of his poetry, and this sense of place, connecting past and present is central to his work. The act of walking helped him to shake off some of the depression and self-doubt which plagued him all his life. 

The solo ‘cello acts as both an embodiment of Thomas himself as well as providing the sense of travelling through a landscape with the rhythmical suggestions of walking. It plots a melodic pathway allowing the text fragments to act as viewpoints or reflections on the journey. Rather like the evolving perspectives of a walk, where one landscape merges into the next in an ever-changing perspective, so the fleeting fragments of the incomplete poetry, like unfinished thoughts, mingle together to form suggestions rather than anything complete.

The piece is also imbued with a flavor of that Edwardian melancholy which pervades Elgar’s Cello Concerto of a few years later, as well as an intimacy, which couples the wonder of nature with a dark yearning. The choice of ‘cello obbligato is party suggested by this, and partly because of the highly personal (and song-like) nature of the instrument.

The creation of this new work has been supported by the Hinrichsen Foundation, to whom I am most grateful.

The premiere took place on Easter Saturday 2017 in New College Chapel, Oxford at 3.15pm. It was premiered by the Oxford Bach Soloists (conducted by Tom Hammond-Davies) who then performed it again at the STartford Literature Festival. The solo 'cellist was Gabriella Swallow. Other performances of the piece then took place throughout 2017 by the Wooburn Singers, Pegasus and Rodolfus choirs.

"The Stratford Literary Festival was delighted to host the Oxford Bath Soloists performing Colin Riley’s piece to mark the centenary of the death of Edward Thomas. We began the event with some of Thomas’ poems and some biography to put the music into context, and the response from the audience to the work was tremendous. Many were deeply moved. It was a pleasure to work on the project.”


Link to blog about the creation of 'Roads Shining Like River Up Hill After Rain'