Earth, Sweet Earth


I – Repeat that, Repeat!
II – Binsey Poplars
III – Inversnaid

Duration: 18 minutes

SATB chorus and strings (

First performed by the William Byrd Singers and Cappriccio, cond. Stephen Wilkinson, 22 November 1998, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Winner of Premiere Competition for Composers, 1998, funded by the Arts Council of England

Listen to extracts of Earth, Sweet Earth by Alan Charlton, performed by the William Byrd Singers and Cappriccio, conducted by Stephen Wilkinson:

Opening of Repeat that, repeat!

Ending of Binsey Poplars

Programme Note

‘Earth, Sweet Earth’ is a setting of three pastoral poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the title being taken from the opening title of Hopkins’ ‘Ribblesdale’. In setting these poems, my main aim was to communicate the depth of feeling underlying these texts and to convey the overall message of each of these three poems. The texts also offered a golden opportunity for musical imagery, both in the vivid and striking images conjured up by the words and in the sound-painting that already exists in the poetry, in the phonetic content of the words themselves. In ‘Repeat that, Repeat’, a poetic fragment celebrating the density and endless variety of the sounds of nature, I tried to capture the poem’s many levels of bustling activity, echoing the inherent repetition of the texts, the sounds described (such as “cuckoo” and “rebound”) and the feelings of elation that these arouse (“open ear-wells, heart-springs”).

In ‘Binsey Poplars’, Hopkins’ highly charged reaction to the felling of his “aspens dear”, I attempted to portray the poet’s distress through contrasting the harsh, percussive “strokes of havoc” dealt by the axe with his warm, affectionate and heartfelt descriptions of these trees. Thus very angular, percussive music is juxtaposed with warm, tender, lyrical ideas.

The last poem, ‘Inversnaid’, chronicles the sharp and colourful changes of scenery that occur along the course of “the darksome burn”. Over a wash of swirling semiquaver figuration, I tried to echo in the music both the striking visual images conjured up by the poem (for instance, “a wind puff bonnet of fawn-froth”, “a pool so pitchblack”, “wiry heathpacks” and “the beadbonny ash”), and the onomatopoeic content of the words themselves (such as “roaring down”, “dappled”, “flitches” and “treads through”). The figuration disappears for the closing stanza of this poem, however, which forms the emotional crux of the settings and delivers a plea that is still as pertinent today as it was in 1881.