The silent land

for solo cello, 8 solo voices (SSAATTBB), 32-part choir (SATB x 8)
22 mins.

Commissioned by Phyllis Lee and first performed at the 1997 Spitalfields Festival by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge and English Voices, conducted by Tim Brown, with Raphael Wallfisch (cello)

Programme note

The silent land is scored for solo cello and choir in 40 real parts. I have followed the example of Tallis’ Spem in alium by dividing the voices into eight five-part choirs; unlike Tallis, however, who uses the line-up SATBB in all eight choirs, I have varied the choirs as follows:

CHOIRS 1 & 2: SATB + solo Soprano CHOIRS 3 & 4: SATB + solo Alto CHOIRS 5 & 6: SATB + solo Tenor CHOIRS 7 & 8: SATB + solo Bass

Each of the choirs, therefore, has an ‘extra’ voice – giving, across the eight choirs, a semichorus of eight solo voices consisting of 2 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses. The other thirty-two parts may (and if possible should) be sung by two or three voices per part. So the vocal strength will be 40 (32 + 8), 72 (64 + 8), 104 (96 + 8) or 136 (128 + 8)

The eight choirs are spaced out as far as possible, to create separation; the ideal would be a wide semicircle. The semichorus should stand downstage of the main choirs, each soloist positioned in front of the choir of which he/she is part; this forms a smaller semicircle within the larger one. The solo cello and the conductor are placed at the centre of the whole.

Most of the words in The silent land are taken from the Latin Requiem Mass and two poems by Christina Rossetti. I have also set one couplet from Dylan Thomas’ poem on the death of his father which has become such an integral part of our language that it is impossible to think about death without it coming into one’s head:

Do not go gentle into that good night:
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Requiem aeternam dona eis . . . et lux perpetua luceat eis.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me.
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree.
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet
And, if thou wilt, remember;
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain . . .

Remember me when I am gone . . . into the silent land.
Yet, if you should forget me, do not grieve . . .
Better by far you should forget, and smile,
Than that you should remember . . . and be sad.

Requiescant in pace.
Requiem aeternam dona eis.

The silent land was commissioned by Phyllis Lee. I first met Phyllis when I went up to Cambridge at the age of eighteen. She taught me the piano for several years, and played the viola in the Trinity orchestra (which I conducted). We lost touch for many years, but met again in November 1994 at a concert at St John’s College, Cambridge, where a piece of mine was being performed. Phyllis had just lost her husband, Hardy Lee, and decided to commission a piece from me in his memory. For some time I had been thinking of writing a Requiem which omitted primitive notions of divine punishment and reward, and concentrated on the acceptance of loss. I had also been intrigued for years by the technical challenge of writing for 40-part choir: for me (as for most composers), Tallis’ Spem in alium is a perpetual challenge. The idea of using a solo cello came out of the Requiem words: the cello represents the dead person’s soul (as only a cello can), the 8-part semichorus the bereaved family, and the 32-part choir the grieving community. The piece could be represented visually by a point (the cello) at the centre of two concentric semicircles – which is how it should ideally be presented in performance.

Giles Swayne 2009


If there were any doubt that Giles Swayne is the most accomplished choral composer in Britain (and in enlightened circles there isn’t), the premiere of his powerful new “requiem”, The Silent Land, would have swept it aside. The work starts with Dylan Thomas’ famous injunction to “rage against the dying of the light”, and in half an hour of highly charged choral music it does just that . . . The cello is the dying soul, the voices are mourners: that much is obvious. But there is nothing obvious about the virtuosic imagination that allows Swayne to extend this lament for so long without diminishing the intensity, nor about the deftness with which he mingles dense clusters with simple ecclesiastical harmonies. The Silent Land is a worthy companion for the heaven-storning Tudor motet that followed it here: Tallis’ 40-part masterpiece Spem in alium. Praise indeed.

Richard Morrison – The Times