One autumn day in 2014, my phone rang unexpectedly and I was met with a familiar deep, resonant voice. Philippe Sly and I had first collaborated on the orchestral premiere of my song cycle, The Keats Cycle, while we were both still based in Montreal, and he was now interested in embarking on a new vocal project. Phil remains one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve had the pleasure of working with, so there was no hesitation in my response. We quickly started developing the idea for a large-scale work.
Some years earlier, while researching possible texts to set for a different project, I’d come across D.H. Lawrence’s The Ship of Death. It had immediately drawn me in, sung to me, in a way that I knew I had to set it to music one day. When the new project with Phil came up, I was drawn back to that text, which seemed finally complete with his voice uttering it in my head.
It has taken some time for the circumstances to align just right, but finally we’re pleased to present the results of our collaboration: Into Oblivion, a symphonic song cycle for bass-baritone and orchestra.
Though D.H. Lawrence’s literary oeuvre had largely been dominated by a preoccupation with human relationships, his failing health in the last years of his too-short life prompted him towards some darker topics. The Ship of Death, composed in autumn 1929 while Lawrence was dying from tuberculosis, is a particularly solitary and darkly introspective work in which the poet grapples with his own mortality. Faced with the inexorable approach of death – the obsessively repeated ‘oblivion’ – Lawrence considers how one might best prepare for it, to go into that oblivion with grace and a sense of relief, along the way drawing on ancient conceptions of death from both western and eastern traditions.
Into Oblivion follows the dramatic trajectory of Lawrence’s poem. Each of the ten numbered sections of the poem forms its own movement, and the ten movements are then grouped into three large ‘parts’. Through the first two parts, we follow the poet in his descent as he explores the darker aspects of this most difficult topic, and in the final part we rise with him as he discovers hope within himself, a sense of lightness and peace in his final journey.