Terrible Beauty


mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble of 7 players
Mezzo-soprano, Mixed Chamber Ensemble
Extracts from 'Illiad' by Homer and 'Anthony and Cleopatra' by Shakespeare
solo M-S

Commissioned by the Nash Ensemble

First Performance
6.3.07, Wigmore Hall, London, UK: Susan Bickley/Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend

Score and parts for hire

Programme Notes

When I was asked to choose a text from Shakespeare, I looked for a passage of description, appropriate to either a woman's or a man's voice, and decided on Enobarbus's eulogy of Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra. Enobarbus paints a dazzling picture of Cleopatra in her gilded barge, as she progresses down the River Cydnus attended by her gentlewomen dressed as sea nymphs, and watched by the citizens of Tarsus. Only Antony stays away, but he invites her to supper; she responds by inviting him, and that evening her plan of seduction is accomplished. Shakespeare's text is closely modelled on a passage from Plutarch's life of Antony; Plutarch in turn quotes from Homer's account of Hera's seduction of her husband Zeus in the Iliad. In my piece a few lines from this episode of Homer, in the original Greek, set the scene for Cleopatra's entrance. This prologue is written for voice and harp in a style somewhat similar to Cretan folk music, which may still have a link to the music of Ancient Greece. The main part of the piece is in the form of an operatic scena, with a mixture of recitative and arioso. A central instrumental interlude reflects on Antony and Cleopatra's love. The music is mostly slow and sensuous, but there is a brief fast aria ("I saw her once / Hop forty paces . . ."), which leads to the work's climax, a passionate outburst on the famous lines: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety." The music dies down, then returns swiftly to the opening of the piece. The final, decisive G minor chord hammers home the dramatic and tragic consequences of both seductions: in one case, the fall of Troy - for Hera succeeds in distracting Zeus from his support of the Trojans; in the other, Antony's downfall and death followed by Cleopatra's suicide. My title Terrible Beauty - which comes from Yeats's poem 'Easter, 1916', another kind of tragedy - was suggested to me by my composer friend Julian Broughton. The beauty of both goddess and queen is indeed terrible, yet irresistible; and my piece does not attempt to weigh love and death in the balance, but acknowledges the power of each to give our lives meaning. Terrible Beauty was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble.

© David Matthews

Licensing Information

News & Reviews

'Terrible Beauty' reviews

'David Matthews’ Terrible Beauty for mezzo-soprano (Susan Bickley), flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet, is both more substantial and more searching. A Nash Ensemble commission with Arts Council funds, it is a beautifully wrought operatic scena. Bickley’s mezzo moved ardently between supple recitative and sensuous arioso as she gave voice to Enobarbus’s great Antony and Cleopatra. The instrumental playing seemed to echo both the light dancing metre of the Greek preface (an extract from H Read more

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