everything grows extravagantly, the new song cycle for Oxford Lieder Festival, was inspired by the diverse range of plant life at Oxford Botanic Garden. Music composed by Cheryl Frances-Hoad sets words written by poet, Kate Wakeling, in celebration of the Garden's 400th anniversary.
The work traverses horticultural subjects and engages the senses in a conversation between the living collections. This exchange speaks to the Garden's hidden rhythms, expressing melodiously the minutiae that goes unnoticed, and revealing their otherwise concealed inner workings.
The songs were performed by award-winning Baritone, Marcus Farnsworth, and outstanding pianist, Libby Burgess, at St John the Evangelist Church in Oxford. Receiving ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ in the Times, and featuring in their Top picks of 2021, the best of classical, the premiere garnered critical acclaim, and received a standing ovation.
For a song composer to draw inspiration from flowers and trees is almost a cliché. Rarely, however, have I heard a new vocal excursion into nature’s realm that satisfies on so many levels — musical, verbal, emotional and philosophical — as everything grows extravagantly.
Richard Morrison, The Times
For a Garden
'Is it enough to write about a tiny, little thing?' asks Cheryl Frances-Hoad, in her third and final year as Associate Composer for Oxford Lieder Festival, speaking of the individual flowers of field madder that are scattered throughout wildflower meadows.
For her commission, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Oxford Botanic Garden and the 20th anniversary of the Lieder Festival, Cheryl has composed a collection of songs inspired by the diverse range of plant life here. Her music sets words written by poet Kate Wakeling, that are a conversation of the Garden's rich history and living collections. Together, they explore all the things a garden could be.
Tying in the recent history of Storm Ciara - the extratropical cyclone that swept through the UK and struck the Garden's oldest tree - the song cycle takes us from the Garden's founding in 1621, through the civil war to the present day. The narrative is intermingled with distinct jewels that reflect on individual specimens from the Garden's diverse catalogue of plants.
'I'm guilty of plant blindness,' Cheryl admits. 'This commission encouraged me to really look at the details; I wanted to communicate through music something that you wouldn't otherwise notice.'
In the pond next to the Rock Garden, many of the water lilies are hybrids developed in the nineteenth-century by the French botanist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, who also developed the water lilies that so inspired Monet. This sparked a poem inspired by their contemplative stillness, as observed by the painterly gaze.
To represent these in her compositions, Cheryl uses the piano in inventive ways that conjure the mood of the specimens, resulting in more contrast and drama than you would imagine. The music is sparsely written, with notes lightly dancing on the surface of the water like a paintbrush. With the sustain pedal down, things become blurred and extend a moment that would otherwise pass in seconds. This extraordinary sound will stick with you and, the next time you see a water lily, you might pause to absorb these little details.
For the Mandrake, a strange specimen from the nightshade family that is highly toxic and steeped in folklore, the music is more atonal and ambiguous. Some poems, Kate says, 'sprang to life almost immediately'. The text itself has the feeling of a curse or spell as the mandrake, with its eerie human-like roots, was once believed to have all sorts of terrifying connections to ideas of 'madness'.
The Foxglove, similarly toxic, has medicinal uses that promote the regulation of the heartbeat. For this piece, pianist Libby Burgess has the challenging part of keeping three different tempi, sliding in and out of sync and ticking as three clocks would, while baritone Marcus Farnsworth sings short, regular syllables and beats.
As an exercise in being directly inspired by the nuances of each plant, Cheryl's music embodies Kate's words, expressing their curiosity. 'The ferns are so serious, I couldn't tell you why', Kate writes, partly in response to the way each frond in a 'crown' of ferns slowly unfurls. Mirroring this motion, the music widens and becomes both lighter and deeper. The composition reaches out as if the ferns had long been in search of a solution.
'They're also living fossils, and you can walk right past them and not realise they've been here for so long. It really makes you appreciate those things.'
The examination of time plays a key role in this song cycle: Kate's writing speaks to the 400th through spending time in the Garden while also reflecting on its long and colourful history. 'I was struck by an almost overwhelming quantity of stories and possibilities.'
The early years of the Garden ran alongside the English civil war and, at a time when Oxford’s fortifications had been established, Jacob Bobart was cataloguing plants and preserving them 'for thy inspection'. These parallels and contrasts are spliced together in 'To Catalogue / To Fortify': a rapid, energetic song between two different parts of the piano brings about the discord of these two coinciding timeframes.
'I especially love how Cheryl has set this text – it is somehow beyond anything I could have imagined, while also conjuring exactly the sort of uneasy atmosphere I had in mind when thinking about this disjuncture between a war's bloodshed and the quiet cultivation of plants and trees.'
Like the yew, which has an incredible ability to renew and rejuvenate itself, Cheryl's music has subtle differences that come to life and allow you to notice something new each time you revisit the songs. Kate's poems are written with a similar depth: You can enjoy them for their wordplay, they're fun to listen to, dynamic and entertaining in their energy, but beneath the surface they tell a deeper story. They have that ability to talk about something specific, specimens that are a strong characterising of an image, and then bring that into the wider context. This fact is unsurprising when you consider that Kate took inspiration direct from the source, such as the University's Xylarium, a 'wood library' that represents 10,000 different species from across the globe.
There is an eclectic range of emotions and textures in this song cycle: from light and fast, soft and gentle, to overwhelmingly beautiful moments when the sound of the instrument takes on the persona of the plant and, like the night-flowering cactus, becomes the unadulterated star. These atmospheres have a life beyond the festival and will leave a lasting impression.
The theme of observing the present speaks to the Garden's focus on wellbeing. Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715) was one of the first prominent female gardeners and who corresponded regularly with Jacob Bobart the Younger. She was also one of the first people to make this link between gardening and wellbeing, commenting on how 'soothing and uplifting' she found it to be among plants.
Kate wholeheartedly believes in this link between gardens and wellbeing. 'Working on these poems and being immersed in these plants and trees for all those months was a magical experience.'
What journey the listener will go on will be their own, individual experience, but the collection of songs share a common interpretation that is: to be mindful. Cheryl and Kate manage to communicate this magical feeling of connectedness, encouraging us to slow down, be present, and notice those tiny, little things.
Written for piano and baritone, everything grows extravagantly was premiered on 20 October at St John the Evangelist church to commemorate and celebrate everything about Oxford Botanic Garden in its 400th anniversary year.