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Stephen Brown: Compositions

Brief is the Breath

A five song cycle for medium/low voice and piano using text by the Philip Larkin on old age and death.

Premiere performance
Monday, November 27, 2020, a livestream video concert from Victoria, BC
Anne Relyea - soprano, Gary Relyea - bass-baritone, Richard Epp - piano, filming and editing - Kyron Basu

Audio and film
Brief is the Breath

MIDI Audio and score
Brief is the Breath

Five songs for medium/low voice and piano
Duration 22:30

Swan House Victoria SJB 1383
Score: $25.00

Brief is the Breath
Philip Larkin 1922 - 1985

1. Long Last
Suddenly, not long before

Her eighty-first birthday, 

The younger sister died. 

Next morning, the elder lay

Asking the open door 

Why it was light outside, 

Since nobody had put on 

The kettle, or raked the ashes,

Or come to help her find 

The dark way through her dress. 

This went on till nearly one. 
Later, she hid behind 

The gas stove. ‘Amy’s gone, 

Isn’t she,’ they remember her saying, 

And ‘No’ when the married niece 

Told her the van was coming. 

Her neck was leaf-brown. 

She left cake on the mantelpiece. 

This long last childhood 

Nothing provides for. 

What can it do each day 

But hunt that imminent door

Through which all that understood 

Has hidden away?


2. Cut Grass
Cut grass lies frail:

Brief is the breath

Mown stalks exhale.

Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours

Of young-leafed June

With chestnut flowers,

With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,

Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,

And that high-builded cloud

Moving at summer's pace.


3. Heads in the Women’s Ward
On pillow after pillow lies

The wild white hair and staring eyes;

Jaws stand open; necks are stretched

With every tendon sharply sketched;

A bearded mouth talks silently

To someone no one else can see.

Sixty years ago they smiled

At lover, husband, first-born child.

Smiles are for youth.
For old age come
Death’s terror and delirium.


4. The Winter Palace
Most people know more as they get older:

I give all that the cold shoulder.

I spent my second quarter-century

Losing what I had learnt at university

And refusing to take in what had happened since.

Now I know none of the names in the public prints.

And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces

And swearing I've never been in certain places.

It will be worth it, if in the end I manage

To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.

Then there will be nothing I know.

My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.


5. The Mower
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.