Five Bells was written during the summer of 2010 in response to a commission from the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association for the 2011 Arizona All-State Orchestra. The work was intended for talented high school musicians, so I didn’t make too many concessions. I did try not to make the piece too difficult to put together as they only had a couple of days to rehearse. This caused me to stay away from complicated rhythms and intricate ensemble passages. But it never really was a problem, and they did a good job.
The title, Five Bells, refers to a haunting poem by the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor. I was already into the piece when I noticed I was planning prominent use of five chime strokes at two different climaxes. So I googled “five bells” and found the poem. I was taken in by the poem’s story and imagery and decided to write the rest of the piece with the poem in mind.
Slessor, who was also a journalist, wrote the poem in memory of a colleague, an editorial cartoonist, who drowned after he jumped off a ferry in Sydney Bay and tried to race it to the dock, being swept away by the treacherous currents. His colleague’s robust life and tragic death still haunted Slessor after nearly a decade. The poem, with its vivid and dramatic imagery, asks “Why do I keep thinking about you?” He has no answer. The five bells refer to marine time, the moment when his friend jumped off the ferry. It becomes a symbol of both the moment of death, and the incessant and indifferent passage of time, as opposed to how we perceive time emotionally.
Besides the chime strokes, the mood of the poem seemed to be sympathetic to the mood of the music, and everything fell into place. Near the end of the piece, there is an oblique but noticeable reference to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The reference is from the spot in the Strauss where the subject has died and is beginning his march to Judgment. In the context of the Slessor poem, however, the reference is meant to infer that those who are truly transformed by death are the living.
Slessor’s poem has reached “national treasure” status in Australia. Australian painter John Olsen painted Salute to Five Bells in the rear foyer of the Sydney Opera House, which is built out over Sydney Bay where Slessor’s poem is set. The poem has also inspired a book of the same name by Gail Jones. The poem is reproduced on a bannister in Kenneth Slessor Park in a Sydney suburb.
As I was considering whether or not to actually name the piece after the poem, I received word that a good friend of mine had been killed suddenly in a car accident. That event instilled the poem with personal emotional clarity, and convinced me that the title was both appropriate and fitting. It will, correspondingly, haunt me for quite a long time as well.
Glenn Stallcop: Five Bells