The Cloud


Duration: 31 minutes

Soprano and Piano

First performance: Charlotte Newstead (soprano) and Christopher Northam (piano), 22 February 2015, Atelier Marcel Hastir, Brussels
Second performance: Charlotte Newstead (soprano) and Christopher Northam (piano), 8th May 2015, Victoria Rooms, University of Bristol
Part of the University of Bristol’s lunchtime concert series.

Listen to The Cloud, a song cycle by Alan Charlton performed by April Frederick (soprano) and William Vann (piano) from the album Cloud and Mirrors:

I Bring Fresh Showers

I Sift the Snow

The Sanguine Sunrise

That Orbed Maiden

I Bind the Sun’s Throne

I am the Daughter

Programme Note

The Cloud is a setting of the poem of that name by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). The poem consists of six stanzas, which Charlton chose to set as a song cycle for soprano and piano. The work was commissioned by the soprano Charlotte Newstead, who  premiered  it with Chris Northam at the Atelier Marcel Hastir in Brussels in 2015. Charlton considered this to be one of his best works.

Due to the poem’s length and complex imagery, Charlton chose to combine several compositional methods. He divided the poem into six different songs, and aimed to create contrasting moods in each one, to match the ‘emotions’ of the unpredictable cloud. These emotions are portrayed primarily in the vocal line, with dynamic contrasts, melismas and use of the extreme ranges of the vocal line. For the piano part, the composer chose another approach. He used his Charltonality technique to create a new universe of sound, which represents not the cloud’s emotions, but its ever-changing physical appearance. In the composer’s words: “I have created a harmonic technique whereby two different musical scales are ‘locked’ together, in the same way that in water, the main constituent of cloud, hydrogen and oxygen are bonded together. While this technique may sound rather restrictive, it actually creates many exciting new sounds: chords, spacings, melodic lines, … which mirror the infinitely flexible appearance of cloud.” 

Each stanza of the poem describes different (yet always cloudy) landscapes, influenced by varying weather conditions and by the moon and sun. The composer aimed to illustrate each different landscape in his musical language. For the first song, ‘I Bring Fresh Showers’ (track 1), he imagined an approaching shower of rain, with raindrop effects in the piano accompaniment. The second song, ‘I Sift the Snow’ (track 2) uses fast, dramatic, icy effects in the accompaniment to illustrate wind, snow and ice on a mountain-top, and then an approaching storm with thunder and lightning. ‘The Sanguine Sunrise’ (track 3), describes a beautiful sunrise, depicted by a warm, glowing accompaniment. ‘That Orbed Maiden’ (track 4) is a description of the Moon, shining through gaps in the clouds. The music alternates between fast and slow, with slow march-like ideas in places and rich, fast textures in others. ‘I Bind the Sun’s Throne’ (track 5) describes a blazing sun, depicted by a fast, rhythmic accompaniment shining with  burning intensity. And the last song, ‘I am the Daughter’ (track 6), illustrates the vastness of the sky with a wealth of rich, expressive chord progressions.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822): The Cloud (1820)

I Bring Fresh Showers 
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers, 
From the seas and the streams; 
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid 
In their noonday dreams. 
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken 
The sweet buds every one, 
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast, 
As she dances about the sun. 
I wield the flail of the lashing hail, 
And whiten the green plains under, 
And then again I dissolve it in rain, 
And laugh as I pass in thunder. 

I Sift the Snow
I sift the snow on the mountains below, 
And their great pines groan aghast; 
And all the night ’tis my pillow white, 
While I sleep in the arms of the blast. 
Sublime on the towers of my skyey bowers, 
Lightning my pilot sits; 
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder, 
It struggles and howls at fits; 
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion, 
This pilot is guiding me, 
Lured by the love of the genii that move 
In the depths of the purple sea; 
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills, 
Over the lakes and the plains, 
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream, 
The Spirit he loves remains; 
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile, 
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The Sanguine Sunrise
The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes, 
And his burning plumes outspread, 
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack, 
When the morning star shines dead; 
As on the jag of a mountain crag, 
Which an earthquake rocks and swings, 
An eagle alit one moment may sit 
In the light of its golden wings. 
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath, 
Its ardours of rest and of love, 
And the crimson pall of eve may fall 
From the depth of Heaven above, 
With wings folded I rest, on mine aery nest, 
As still as a brooding dove.

That Orbed Maiden
That orbed maiden with white fire laden, 
Whom mortals call the Moon, 
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor, 
By the midnight breezes strewn; 
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet, 
Which only the angels hear, 
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof, 
The stars peep behind her and peer; 
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee, 
Like a swarm of golden bees, 
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent, 
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas, 
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high, 
Are each paved with the moon and these. 

I Bind the Sun’s Throne
I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone, 
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl; 
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim, 
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl. 
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape, 
Over a torrent sea, 
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof, 
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march 
With hurricane, fire, and snow, 
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair, 
Is the million-coloured bow; 
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove, 
While the moist Earth was laughing below. 

I am the Daughter
I am the daughter of Earth and Water, 
And the nursling of the Sky; 
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores; 
I change, but I cannot die. 
For after the rain when with never a stain 
The pavilion of Heaven is bare, 
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams 
Build up the blue dome of air, 
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, 
And out of the caverns of rain, 
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, 
I arise and unbuild it again.