William Cowper’s pocket watch, gifted to him by his cousin Theodora, has inspired a new piece of music for bassoon by composer Lara Poe.
Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition (RÊVE) is a project and website which showcases and shares Romantic texts, objects, and places through collaborations between academic researchers, museums, galleries and other cultural groupings.
10 objects from the Cowper & Newton Museum are explored as part of this online collection under the theme of ‘Romantic Dwelling’. The dwelling of course is Orchard Side, the home of William Cowper between 1768 and 1786 and famous from Cowper’s death in 1800 onwards.
A further strand to this project was the commissioning of a musical suite where composers were asked to respond to any object in the REVE collection. The Museum was delighted that Cowper’s pocket watch selected for inclusion by Dr Will Bowers, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Thought, was also chosen by Lara Poe, a Finnish-American composer who is currently based in London.
Dr Bower’s full article , ‘William Cowper’s Pocket Watch’, can be found on the REVE website.
Lara Poe – Composer
‘The starting point for me was the mechanical aspect of the watch. Indeed, the function of this watch is to mark off regular intervals of time, which is something I make use of throughout the piece. In particular, the concept of some sort of metaphorical “repeater” (which also appears in Cowper’s poetry) is something I found as an interesting starting point, and I use certain material to mark off different sections of the piece.
There are two types of primary material: a more mechanical, staccato material that evokes the ticking of a clock, which is distorted and appears in different guises throughout the piece, and a smoother, more sustained material, which grows and develops. In the middle, these are combined when longer lines and passages are punctuated by accented multiphonics (a technique used to achieve a particular type of rich, resonant, sound containing multiple notes) and high notes, which then proceed to break down into loud, resonant sounds that are constantly shifting.
As with a lot of my work, there was close collaboration with my performer, Olivia – lots of questions to make sure things were working as I had imagined, or to ask about specifics regarding certain extended techniques.’
A Pocket Watch composed by Lara Poe and performed by Olivia Palmer-Baker
Olivia Palmer-Baker – Bassoonist
I think the bassoon was a smart instrument for Lara to choose when responding to the Cowper watch. It would have been too obvious to choose percussion, and perhaps the higher-pitched instruments can’t access the ‘depths’ that a bassoon can, both in a literal sense but also in the sense with regards to the character of the timbral possibilities in the extended sound-world – particularly unique and unplaceable sounds. The piece was a microcosm that passed through many precise worlds; it was a challenge to transition so quickly between the ideas, but a fruitful challenge, as the material was worth persisting upon and polishing. As you can hear, there are a variety of sounds employed: the slap tongue and key noise, like a ticking watch; chromatic descending ‘multiphonics ‘ – simultaneous clusters of tones; exploring the natural harmonics of a ground tone; and of course the rich variety of harmonic material. Lara skilfully brings these complex ideas together and creates a piece showcasing possibilities of the bassoon, whilst staying true to its reflection of the Cowper watch.
For me personally, learning this piece and performing it in almost complete solitude (during COVID lockdown) was both a challenge and a blessing; whilst I had no audience in performance to react upon, I had the possibility to find a space with the right acoustic and the right atmosphere in which this piece requires. One feels very vulnerable playing as a complete soloist and, instead of reacting upon other musical material, one must either react to the environment or to something within themselves. With live performance environments in this time often limited to being a recording device and a camera in a practice space, the latter method is something I have had to utilize more, for sure in this case, and that has been a challenge but a challenge worthwhile, as part of our collective need to urgently keep creating – the end of these times are almost in sight!
William and Theodora had hoped to marry. Although they were first cousins, it seems that her father (William’s Uncle) Ashley Cowper forbade the match due to William’s lack of prospects and the tendency of the pair to ‘melancholy’, a form of depression. Theodora never married and continued secretly to send William money and gifts throughout his life. She outlived William, and it was only after her death that his poems to her surfaced and were published. In these poems William calls her his ‘Delia’.
Letter to Rev John Johnson from Lady Harriot Hesketh (William Cowper’s cousin and Theodora’s sister)
‘I Rejoice from my inmost Soul that the dear Soul himself thought of giving, I mean his Watch to my Sister Theodora. Yes, indeed he said very truly ” that is well known ” — it is well known to me, that watch was given to him by my Sister and was a Repeater of my Father’s — She gave it our dear Cousin because she knew he would value it for that Reason — pray dear Johnny take great care of it—wind it up exactly at the same hour every night, and take the first good and safe opportunity that may
offer of sending it to Mr. Hill, who, I will take care shall deliver it to my Sister who I believe you once saw at my House. I am indeed so rejoiced more than I can describe, that he thought of giving it her and that he said those words, which shall be faithfully transcribed to her with the Watch and will make it seem a Diamond!’