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Owen Leech Into the Ring of Dancing Shadows (2005)

For for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano

10 minutes


Owen Leech Into the Ring of Dancing Shadows (2005) for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano


This piece is something of a fresh departure for me, in that it represents a very conscious attempt to trust my immediate musical instincts, rather than bind myself to the kind of rigorous pre-compositional material-spinning that tends to become second nature to an ‘academically’ trained composer.  Though my musical ideas have always been born of intensive improvisation at the piano (I need to physically conjure up sounds), this piece perhaps betrays its genesis more candidly in its unashamed celebration of lyrical melody, dancing rhythm and expressive harmony.  This stands in marked contrast to my previous work for the Schubert Ensemble, the piano quartet ‘A deeper season’, which was significantly more dramatic in character - a musical journey charting a progress from conflict and fragmentation towards resolution and synthesis.  


Whilst ‘a deeper season’ was a wholly abstract in conception (its title was culled from a Cummings poem with which I posthumously prefaced the score), this new piece was directly inspired by a striking poem by the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), beautifully translated by James Greene:


Into the ring of dancing shadows

Which trampled down the tender meadow

I stepped with a song-like name.

Everything melted, there only remained

A mist of sound.

A few days, and I blended with the same,

Dissolved into favourite seraph or shadow.


And again wild fruit falls from the apple trees.


Happiness rolls by like a golden hoop

Fulfilling someone else’s will

And cutting the air with the palm of your hand

You chase the sweetness of Spring.


And it is so arranged that we do not dance away

From these spell-bound circles

In virginal earth resilient hills

Lie swaddled away

‘Poem 123’ (1920) from Tristia (1922)

 Translated by James Greene (Paul Elek, London, 1977)


Though Mandelstam famously perished in Stalin’s purges during the thirties, this piece is intended neither as a tribute to the poet’s courage, nor a reflection of his tragic biography, but simply an intuitive musical response to a resonant and beautiful poem which seems quintessentially Russian in its lyrical and almost mystical or pagan evocation of nature, and spring in particular.  Though there is no direct correlation between poem and piece, I think it is fair to say that certain imagery informs the musical material.  For example, the many references to rings, circles, hoops and turning are reflected both in the blurry piano ostinatos which begin and end the work and in the way that I ‘spin’ melodies from inauspicious rising or falling three-note scales which loop back on themselves as they are gradually extended and elaborated into longer and ever more expressive lines.


© Owen Leech


Into the Ring of Dancing Shadows was commissioned by The Schubert Ensemble with funds gratefully received from Jane and Nicholas Ferguson and first performed for The Newbury Festival in St Mary’s Church, Kintbury on 8th May 2005.


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