Ophelia drowning

for solo flute, SATB
9 mins.

Programme notes

Ophelia drowning is scored for solo flute and SATB voices, and is a setting of Gertrude’s speech in Hamlet, Act IV scene 7, in which she describes Ophelia’s death. The flute represents Ophelia; the voices are those of the horrified spectators of her death. Their narrative is heard first in a fragmented, hesitant form; then in a fuller version; and finally in its entirety. My aim was to present Ophelia’s state of mind as she approached death, and to underline this with the shock of those who witnessed it; so they tell the story three times, gradually plucking up the courage to fill in the gaps.

The form alternates strophic repetitions of the sung text (varied and developed in the repetition) with solo passages for the flute. A desolate Prologue for flute alone; Strophe 1, in which the voices sing a fragmentary version of the narrative; Antistrophe 1 for flute alone; Strophe 2, in which the voices’ role is fuller; Antistrophe 2 for flute alone; Strophe 3, in which the voices give the complete version of the narrative; and Epilogue for flute alone. The mood of the flute part develops from catatonic despair in the Prologue through wild grief in the two Antistrophes, to acceptance and a measure of peace in the Epilogue.

This piece is a by-product of my opera Hamlet, which was commissioned and then abandoned by Opera North, in Leeds; as a result, Hamlet remains unfinished at the date of writing this note.  Ophelia drowning is dedicated to my dear friend, flautist Philippa Davies, who gave the first performance on 14th October 1996 at the Purcell Room, London, with the choir Laudibus, conducted by Michael Brewer.

Giles Swayne 2010


Swayne: Choral Works
Stephen Cleobury (conductor)
BBC Singers
David Goode (organ)
Philippa Davies (flute)
Classics: COLL15312
Three Shakespeare songs
Magnificat I
Missa Tiburtina
Nunc dimittis I
O magnum mysterium
Veni creator II
The Tiger
Ophelia drowning
Missa brevissima