The Owl and the Pussycat I

for Narrator (baritone spoken and sung), 2 flutes, 2 violins, 2 cellos, piano.
9 mins.

Commissioned by Michael Lake, and first performed at a private concert in Accra, Ghana on 10th June 1993.

Programme notes

Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat is such a source of joy and magic that I have set it several times. The first was in 1968 when I was a student – that version was for tenor, wind quintet and piano, and too naïvely derivative of its models (Britten and Nicholas Maw) to be allowed out on its own. This piece was my first mature effort, and was written in 1993. It was commissioned by Michael Lake, who was then the European Union Delegate to Ghana. I was living in Ghana, in a hilltop house overlooking a plain dotted with small villages, woods and pineapple farms. Michael, a keen amateur musician, wanted a birthday present for his wife Ingred, so I scored my piece so that they and their three daughters could all take part.

For this reason, the piece is technically quite simple to play. It is also (as befits a birthday-present) light-hearted and comic; but it makes few concessions to “easy listening”, and is a grown-up little piece. The narrator declaims the poem – except where he takes the part of the Owl, and serenades the pussy-cat:

O lovely Pussy,
O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are . . .

whereupon he breaks into passionately amorous but excruciatingly out-of-tune song. The celebratory dance by the light of the moon is a saucy little number in 7/16 which, as I remember vividly, the Swiss ambassador’s wife (who was playing first flute and had a sketchy grasp of rhythm) nearly scuppered at the first performance. Only the alertness of the conductor (me) averted disaster . . .

Giles Swayne 2008