London now: Westminster Bridge and Houses of Parliament from the Queen’s Walk
Credit: Lin Mei/Wikimedia Commons
London then: The bridge William Wordsworth visited in 1802 was replaced in 1862. Painting by Joseph Farrington, 1789.
Credit: Stephen C. Dickson/Wikimedia Commons
Westminster Bridge (2016)
World premiere given May 13, 2017
Commissioned by the Providence Singers
and the Wachner Fund for New Music
“I grew up being really interested in British culture. ... I studied for a bit in Manchester and then for two years at the Royal College of Music in London. I love the music of Vaughan Williams and Elgar and that kind of lush, melancholic symphonic music.”
— Ola Gjeilo
William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were beginning a trip to Calais on July 31, 1802, intending to catch a coach for Dover. It was 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning — Dorothy couldn’t recall which — when they crossed Westminster Bridge. The rising sun, flowing river, distant countryside, awakening city, smokeless air, and sense of calm drew the poet into a profound, creative reverie. His sonnet, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” captures the setting, mood, emotions, and deep impressions that moment made on both the poet and his sister, who recorded the experience in her diary. (A later edition of Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes noted the correct date of composition.)
That reverie offered more than impressions of pristine landscape, the customary focus of much topographic or “loco-descriptive” poetry. Wordsworth’s experience of the moment could not help but include evidence of human action in the natural world — ships, towers, domes, theaters, temples — although Westminster Bridge itself is not mentioned. The sonnet found a prominent place in Wordsworth’s body of work, inviting close readings and critical discussions.
Much of the music performed in the world premiere concert conjured a strong sense of time, place, and mood. Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Northern Lights certainly did. Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul spoke of solitude, concealment, and darkness; Across the Vast, Eternal Sky painted celestial flames at sunrise; The Ground, from his Sunrise Mass created a sense of peace and strength.
Gjeilo has a strong appreciation for music that is created for film, music that must improvise in support of time, place, and emotional involvement. His Westminster Bridge finds a strong natural partner in the beauty, simplicity, and power of Wordsworth’s sonnet.
A setting of William Wordsworth’s Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802