Catching up 6: Isolario (Book of Islands)
In May 2021 Caspar Vos, pianist and artistic director of the Schiermonnikoog Music Festivals approached me with the request to write a piece for the 20th International Schiermonnikoog Chamber Music Festival. For the first anniversary of the Festival I had written a fun piece for the Syrene Saxophone Quartet yet this time the idea was to write something serious and Caspar very kindly gave me ‘carte blanche’. After a few phone calls and deliberation it was agreed that a longstanding wish of mine would be realised: to write a cycle of songs for voice and string quartet. Schiermonnikoog is a beautiful small island in the north of the Netherlands and that makes the Music Festivals there very special, so the idea to choose poems based on an ‘island’ theme seemed to be a very natural choice. Because of my love for roman languages that would be the focus.
When searching for poems in italian it was my wife writer Saskia Törnqvist who suggested to have a look at the so-called Isolari: ‘books of islands’ where small maps of (at first) greek islands are combined with poems to describe them. These books were made from the 14th till the 16th century and one of the very first was written by an unknown writer by the name of Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti (sometimes also spelled Bartolomeo) published in 1485 in Venice. Cartography is one of my other passions so this was a great find indeed and not only did I choose ‘Per Namphio’ (for Namphio – in present day called Anafi) to end the cycle but I also decided to name the suite ‘Isolario’.
Another not too well known poet opens the suite: Alphonse Beauregard (1881-1924) was a romantic french-canadian poet and his ‘Les Îles’ might very well be the ultimate island poem, describing the intense joy of visiting an island in splendid isolation to ‘splendidly have been oneself’ (last verse).
The second poem comes from the wonderfully talented Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), very famous in Argentine but less so outside of the country. The reference to ‘island’ is very brief here, just the first line: ‘se fuga la isla’ yet it is of such remarkable beauty and sets the atmosphere for the entire poem that it would be unthinkable not to include ‘Salvación’. Finally this first line will end the full cycle.
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1924) is of course one of the greatest poets ever. I based another piece (for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble and Ana Moura) on his poem ‘Tormenta’. ‘As Ilhas Afortunadas’ have been set to music by many artists, and I decided to use just one line taken from this poem and compose a mainly instrumental version, thus trying to capture Pessoa’s lines in the string quartet.
I finished Isolario on a small island on the east coast of Sweden called Norra Skeppsholmen, hence the dedication to the owners of the lovely house where my family and I spent part of the 2021 summer: Henrik & Irma Willers.
Isolario was premiered on the 1st of October 2021 at the International Schiermonnikoog Chamber Music Festival by Karin Strobos and Club Classique: Myrthe Helder, Maren Bosma – violin, Lotus de Vries – viola & Leonard Besseling – violoncello.