Programme Note


My Oboe Concerto is based on Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan, completed in 1797 and published in 1816. The sub-title of the poem, ‘A Vision in a Dream’, gives the concerto its subtitle. The poem itself opens with the line: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree, and as the music progresses, following the main narrative of the poem, the score of the concerto quotes further stanzas, with the oboe soloist acting as both narrator and character portrayer. The work is scored for a modestly sized orchestra, with the addition of harp and solo percussion and lasts around 20 minutes.

The concerto is in five continuous sections, with the sub-titles of Prologue, Duologue, Pastorale, Round Dances and Epilogue, and begins and ends in an unusual but dramatic visual manner (I won’t spoil the surprise here), unfolding an initial three-way dialogue between soloist, percussionist and cor anglais – a kind of concertante group. Here the percussionist represents the impulsive and frenetic character of Kubla Khan, whilst the cor anglais is the calming influence, with the oboe somewhere in between, underlining the first quotation from the poem:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

The rest of the orchestra enters briefly before the concertante group takes off again on their own, but when the orchestra enters the next time the music settles into the Duologue – steady pulsed music (marked ‘with a sense of foreboding’) as opposed to the non-pulsed, ‘free’ and explosive music of the opening, underlining the 2 nd quotation from the poem:

And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

There are two main ideas in this section: the first is highly rhythmic, fragmented, and tonally and harmonically unstable, whilst the second is lyrical and melodic. The music eventually builds to a powerful climax, at which point the oboe enters with the repeated figurations from the very opening, before subsiding into the expressive Pastorale, marked ‘amoroso’. Here the soloist joins with the cor anglais in music that mirrors the quotation:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw…
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me…

Thus, the narrative briefly turns towards the gentler and more reflective side of human emotions, mirrored in lyrical music that begins with brief exchanges between solo strings and oboe, but gradually builds with ‘tutti’ strings into music that uses a highly chromatic and dense harmonic language (with a brief quote from the Berg Violin Concerto along the way), before resolving the tension through a simple modal quasi folk song (‘like a gentle Siciliana’). The soloist then returns to the music of the opening, before leading into the final extended section, Round Dances, mirroring the quotation:

Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Here the lines ‘weave a circle round him thrice’ are musically portrayed by three highly rhythmic Round Dances, each progressively getting faster, until the music eventually incorporates another folk tune, first heard on piccolo, and then taken up by the soloist and orchestra (this simple pentatonic folk tune, Chinese in character, is a reference to the fact that Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan was the Mongolian ruler of a mighty Empire, and the first Yuan ruler of all China, and he might well have danced to such folk tunes!). However, the ‘darkness’ of the earlier music returns briefly in the Epilogue and leads once again to the concerto’s very opening music – repeated figurations on the oboe, answered first by the solo percussion, then by the plaintive cor anglais, as if beseeching the soloist (and thus Kubla Khan of the poem) to return to the peace and tranquility of the ‘symphony and song‘.

The work ends with the dying phrases of the soloist and cor anglais, now resolved in its musical argument, and in so doing perhaps echoes the sentiment of a famous line from another poem: What will survive of us is love.


Written: 2019


Genre: Orchestral

Publisher: Novello

Duration: 20'

First Performance: 8 February 2020
Leeds Town Hall
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Jennifer Galloway, oboe, Ben Gernon, conductor