Full programme

  • Thorvaldsdottir, Dreaming  (17mins)
  • Britten, Les Illuminations  (21mins)
  • Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.1 (Winter Daydreams)  (45mins)


  • Headshot of Gergely Madaras

    Gergely Madaras

  • Headshot of Ian Bostridge

    Ian Bostridge



A journey into the realm of dreams. Composers often delve into the subconscious to draw inspiration for creating transcendent sonic landscapes. Tonight’s programme is all about dreams, desires and illusions: three distinctly different yet interconnected compositions, exploring the profound depths of the human psyche.

"Dreams" by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir invites listeners into a sonic dreamscape characterized by delicate textures, shimmering harmonies, and expansive atmospheres. In a multidimensional space, where every group of instruments have a personal story to tell, Anna evokes the mysterious and elusive nature of dreams, transporting us into a realm where reality merges with imagination. The role of the conductor is unusual: first I need to conduct in the traditional sense, and at certain points my role is merely to inspire and encourage the musicians by my motionless presence.

In contrast, Britten's "Les Illuminations" enlightens the vivid imagery and surrealistic themes found within Arthur Rimbaud's visionary verses, presented by the powerful yet eloquent voice of Ian Bostridge. Lush string sound and emotive melodies blur the line between real life and the subconscious world of dreams. The music unfolds like a series of luminous vignettes, each painting a lively portrait of the dreamer's innermost thoughts and desires.

Tchaikovsky’s 1st Symphony, subtitled "Winter Daydreams," transports us back into a wintry landscape tinged with nostalgia and yearning. Through sweeping melodies and dramatic orchestral gestures, it depicts the endless, snow-covered and frosty Russian countryside, evoking a sense of introspection and longing. And at the same time, warms our hearts by reminding us of our happiest childhood memories about the enchanting beauty of winter.

I invite you to a journey into the depths of the human psyche, where reality intertwines with fantasy, and the boundaries between dreams and waking life are undefined.

Have a dreamy and illuminating evening!

Programme Notes

The frosty magic of the Russian winter inspired Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony: music so tuneful, and so fresh, that you can almost see your breath in the air! Anna Thorvaldsdottir dreams of the vast stillness of Icelandic nature. And the great Ian Bostridge – possibly Britain’s finest living tenor – leads a wild parade through Britten’s shimmering, magical musical dreamscape. This promises to be a truly gripping evening…


Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977)

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s notes and instructions to musicians are often as poetic as the works themselves. In several of her scores, she writes ‘When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you have to carry in your hands.’ Often, the music which follows can have an urgency, a sense of extreme anxiety in the face of pending crisis such as 2021’s Catamorphosis. Her first major orchestral work, Dreaming (composed in 2008) is less apocalyptic and considerably more serene. But its beauty is stark, rather than consoling. It offers an invitation to be both awestruck at the ongoing cycle of nature, and mindful of its flower-like fragility. As well as musical themes (predominantly those which gently rise and fall), the sounds the instruments produce often resemble moans or cries, or the simple act of inhaling and exhaling. In the central section the texture thickens to create an atmosphere of great melancholy.

Thorvaldsdottir notes the following list in the score to Dreaming:

flow free

She adds that ‘the orchestra becomes an ensemble of soloistic events’. Effectively, the instrumentalists, and even the conductor, become solo travellers in the musical landscape; elements of a single, dreaming consciousness, but free-ranging in their own time zones. The conductor, rather than beating time throughout, gradually becomes an observer, simply listening to the emerging sounds. By the end, their presence is one of support around which to coalesce, rather than the usual role of holding the ensemble together with the baton. The Thorvaldsdottir encourages a meditative space for the instrumentalists, occasionally punctuated by disquiet, and for the audience as well: ‘A quiet soundworld is born from silence…Time is redundant. The cycle continues.’

Les Illuminations

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

I. Fanfare: Maestoso (poco presto)
II. Villes: Allegro energico
IIIa. Phrase: Lento ed estatico
IIIb. Antique: Allegretto, un poco mosso
IV. Royauté: Allegro maestoso
V. Marine: Allegro con brio
VI. Interlude: Moderato ma comodo
VII. Being Beauteous: Lento ma comodo
VIII. Parade: Alla marcia
IX. Départ: Largo mesto

At first glance, Britten and the French poet Rimbaud make an unlikely pair. Take a look at their respective teenage years. Britten was born in Suffolk to a middle-class family, took himself neatly and precociously to music college aged 16, enjoyed sponge pudding and custard and was rarely seen without a tie. By contrast the 16-year-old Rimbaud frequently ran away from home, got drunk and wrote rude poetry, and shortly after launched into a torrid affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine, fuelled by hashish and opium. However, while outwardly wildly different, Britten’s own subversiveness was often to be found boiling under the surface – even if sometimes needing encouragement to break free. WH Auden introduced Britten to Rimbaud’s vivid, proto-surreal poetry and Britten wrote something quite unique in response. It was not the first time he had set French words – one of his teenage experiments had been Quatre chansons françaises for voice and orchestra – but it was the first time he’d let rip on such exotic scenes: castles of crystal, silver chariots, a ‘Paradise of mad grimaces’.

It was composed for high voice (originally soprano, but often performed by tenors) and string orchestra and produced over several months in 1939. By this stage a veteran of several works for string orchestra, including the very successful Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Britten was experienced in drawing out a great variety of colours from string instruments. The orchestra plays fanfares in the opening, strums like a guitar in ‘Antique’, melts into sumptuousness in ‘Being Beauteous’ and frequently gives way to exquisite solo spots. Rimbaud’s texts are mostly prose, apart from ‘Marine,’ but Britten holds them together with a refrain which appears three times (and in three different moods): ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’. The singer acts as a kind of host to the bizarre scenes that follow – think of the suave but sinister MC in Cabaret – ranging in tone from declamatory to gentle to somewhat eerie.

Throughout, perhaps sheltered by the non-English language here, Britten seems to be letting his hair down and channelling some of Rimbaud’s free-wheeling spirit. There is an unhinged quality not often heard in his vocal works, notably in ‘Marine’ and ‘Parade’. But there are also moments of tenderness that are bold indeed for the times. ‘Being Beauteous,’ the most soaringly erotic song of the group, is dedicated to P.N.L.P, Peter Neville Luard Pears, with whom Britten was just embarking on a 37-year long relationship.

For the full text and translation of Britten's Les Illuminations, please see the PDF programme.

Text by Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91). Translation by Helen Rootham, provided by Britten Pears Arts from the 1977 Aldeburgh Festival programme. Reprinted from “Prose Poems from Les Illuminations of Arthur Rimbaud”.

Symphony No.1 (Winter Daydreams)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

I. Allegro tranquillo
II. Adagio cantabile ma non tanto
III. Scherzo: Allegro scherzando giocoso
IV. Finale: Andante lugubre - Allegro moderato - Allegro maestoso

Tchaikovsky was often beset by self-doubt but generally managed to compose at a furious pace. However, he found his first Symphony something of a mountain to climb. Having completed a version of it in 1866, which was crushingly poorly received, he worried at it for years afterwards. Even while writing the first draft, he experienced appalling physical and psychological stress. His brother Modest later wrote ‘No other work cost him such effort and suffering... As a result of this exceptionally hard work he began to suffer from insomnia, and the sleepless nights paralyzed his creative energies.’ Tchaikovsky also had hallucinations and numbness across his body. The composer did, however, feel that suffering was, or even should be, part of the artistic process. And despite finding that period profoundly difficult he later wrote fondly of his First Symphony: ‘I still nourish a weakness for it, because it was a sin of my sweet youth’.

Tchaikovsky had recently been appointed to the Moscow Conservatory and found that his colleagues were somewhat conservative with regard to musical form. Part of the reason Tchaikovsky met with such disapproval was his apparently disrespectful attitude to the almost sacred form of ‘Symphony’. The first two movements have poetic titles (‘Dreams of a Winter Journey’ and ‘Land of Desolation, Land of Mists’) and are more like tone poems than conventional symphony movements. The opening ‘Allegro’, after a somewhat shivery start, is a richly scored adventure in melody and texture, with beautifully-paced recurrences of the principal themes, often to very dramatic effect. (There is an intriguing moment for the horn section after about four minutes which seems to anticipate the famous ‘Dance of the Flowers’ in the Nutcracker more than thirty years later). The slow movement demonstrates Tchaikovsky’s remarkable ability – which would bring him so much admiration later on – to create musical magic out of endless, soaring melody. The opening twelve-bar theme generates the material for most of the rest of this atmospheric, ‘misty’ movement. For the third movement, Tchaikovsky thriftily recycled an early piano sonata, producing a lighter-than-air Scherzo. The finale, after a mournful, folk-like start, builds into a majestic, sometimes boisterous celebration for the full orchestra. The more sombre, ‘wintery’ mood returns occasionally, as if recalled from a distance. But the final bars dispel such chilliness with a rambunctious, all-guns-blazing conclusion. Relief for the composer, perhaps, that he eventually got to the end.

© Lucy Walker

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