Anna Clyne: Night Ferry


Grammy Award nominated composer Anna Clyne was born in 1980 in London. She formally studied music at the University of Edinburgh for her BMus, and then at the Manhattan School of Music for her MA degree in music. She has received tutelage from the likes of Julia Wolfe and Marjan Mozetich. 

Clyne was named composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra alongside contemporary composer Mason Bates in 2010. After completing her four year extended tenure with the CSO, Clyne took up a residencies with the Orchestre national d’Île de France (2014-16) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2015-16).

Her Grammy Award nomination came in 2015 in the ‘Best Contemporary Classical Composition’ category for her double violin concerto, Prince of Clouds. Alongside this, Clyne has also won a number of awards including the prestigious Charles Ives Prize (2010) and the Hindemith Prize (2016). 

Clyne’s catalogue of compositions is full of different genres, collaborations and unique twists and turns. Perhaps her best-known and subsequently most-programmed music comes from her orchestral catalogue. Night Ferry for orchestra was composed in 2012, and has remained one of her most successful works to date.


The Music 

Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during Clyne’s tenure with them, Night Ferry was premiered by the orchestra on February 9th 2012, under the baton of Riccardo Muti. The work is is one single movement and its duration comes to around 20-22 minutes in total. 

The genesis of Night Ferry came from inspiration Clyne found from composer Franz Schubert, who suffered with a mood disorder known as cyclothymia. Clyne writes this about her inspiration in the programme notes for Night Ferry:


“This illness [cyclothymia] manifests in rapid shifts between the two states and also in periods of mixed states whereby symptoms of both extremes are present. This illness shadowed Schubert throughout his adulthood, and it impacted and inspired his art dramatically.

His friends report that in its most troublesome form, he suffered periods of ‘dark despair and violent anger’. Schubert asserted that whenever he wrote songs of love, he wrote songs of pain, and whenever he wrote songs of pain, he wrote songs of love. Extremes were an organic part of his make-up.

In essence, Night Ferry is a sonic portrait of voyages; voyages within nature and of physical, mental and emotional states.”


It’s known that whilst Clyne was composing Night Ferry, that she simultaneously painted a series of seven large canvases for inspiration. She wrote about her experiences of mixing art and music:


“This became my visual timeline for the duration of the music. In correlation to composing the music, I painted from left to right, moving forwards and through time. I painted a I painted a section then composed a section, and vice versa, intertwining the two in the creative process. 

The process of unraveling the music visually helped to spark ideas for musical motifs, development, orchestration, and, in particular, structure. Similarly, the music would also give direction to colour, texture and form. Upon the canvas I layered paint, charcoal, pencil, pen, ribbon, gauze, snippets of text from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, fragments of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for this wonderfully evocative poem, and a selection of quotes from artists afflicted with, and blessed by, this fascinating illness.”


The music immediately sends audiences into a maelstrom with the orchestra whirling and swirling which creates a turbulent, but thrilling seascape. The stormy orchestral movement is not as picturesque as the title may imply. The title was taken from Seamus Heaney’s poem Elegy, which was written in tribute to American poet Robert Lowell. Interestingly, Lowell suffered from manic depression, similarly to Schubert. 

This highly volatile state of mind is represented in Clyne’s scoring, where every sequence has a sense of urgency, even the slower passages. There is no sense of rest throughout the whole 20 minutes, which highlights its perseverance and determination as a piece of music. The compelling emotions brought out throughout the work are dramatic, highly emotional and most importantly, unpredictable. 

Throughout the music there is a clear sense of conflict between the creative inspiration and the mental instability where Clyne has taken so much inspiration from. The furioso passages from the strings and the agitated brass writing comes to life from the first page. There is a dislocation in Clyne’s brass writing, like these parts are falling away from the orchestra on the sea. 

The sea theme is pertinent throughout, with all instruments representing different aspects of this journey. From the high winds represented by the harp and piano to the stormy passages from the percussion Night Ferry stays true to its nautical title. 

Near the end of the work, the music begins to slow down, providing some much-needed solace across the orchestra. A peaceful passage for winds sings out and Night Ferry ends quietly with a sense of peacefulness and triumph. 


Final Thoughts

Anna Clyne’s powerful orchestral work Night Ferry is a compelling piece of music that takes the listener on a psychotic journey across the sea. The work is often commended for its individuality, vivacity and complexity from a then 31 year old composer. The confidence portrayed through Clyne’s music is perhaps the most pertinent, with her keen handling of thematic material and quirky style shining through as always. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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