In tune with the Brontës

Rebecca Yorke of the Bront� Society and Bront� Parsonage Museum
Rebecca Yorke of the Bront� Society and Bront� Parsonage Museum
  • A new music installation at the Brontë Parsonage Museum features the first ever compositions for the much-loved family piano. Yvette Huddleston reports.
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The contemporary arts programme at the Brontë Parsonage Museum is a wonderful thing. Presenting a range of responses to the work and lives of the famous literary family, from artists and writers living and working today, it continues to refresh the lasting legacy of the Brontës’ extraordinary creativity.

The latest artist to feature in the programme is Irish contemporary classical composer Ailís Ní Ríain who has created a music installation for the museum, Linger, consisting of six new piano pieces composed for and performed on Emily Brontë’s piano. Each piece reflects the essence of a different room in the Parsonage and invites visitors to stay a while in contemplation.

Ní Ríain, who lives near Haworth, was approached two and a half years ago to create the installation, the first music to be composed for the Parsonage and in particular for the family’s piano, a treasured item of the museum’s collection. “The very first thing I did after some initial meetings was to say that I am interested but I’m not interested in referring to the usual suspects,” says Ní Ríain. “Some of the work I do is quite challenging – I am not a typical Brontë composer, so if you are willing to let me do something different… To be honest my interest was around Patrick Brontë, partly because he was Irish, and also his own story is so interesting – what a life to outlive his whole family. And I was also interested in Anne Brontë – I’m always interested in the sibling that is not talked about as much – and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a ground-breaking piece of literature. I did some research at the Parsonage and played the piano and thought about how I could bring aspects of the writing in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall into the piece.”

The project, Ní Ríain explains, is two-fold. One aspect is the installation in six rooms of the Parsonage and the other, launched alongside it, is a 13-track CD which Ní Ríain describes as “a kind of Brontë concept album”, including the six compositions and other original work featuring performances by leading new music improvisers Seth Bennett, Sylvia Hinz and Kelly Jayne Jones.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – considered to be one of the first feminist novels, way ahead of its time, and controversial for its candid portrayal of addiction through the protagonist’s husband’s alcoholism – provides the inspiration for an additional four soundscape pieces, extracts of the text of the novel read by an actor and a song performed by Bradford-born singer-songwriter Tasmin Archer who had a huge hit in 1996 with Sleeping Satellite.

“I wanted one song on the album and everyone thought I would go for a classically trained singer but I wanted Tasmin and eventually I managed to track her down,” says Ní Ríain. “I wrote the song Safe at Last for Tasmin – it is taken from the scene in the novel when the main character and her child leave her alcoholic husband – and she sings it brilliantly.”

For the installation Ní Ríain spent time at the Parsonage absorbing the atmosphere, thinking about what it would have been like for the Brontës living there occupying themselves with music, embroidery and reading each other’s work. “I wanted to combine elements to say something fresh about the Brontës,” she says. “Some of the pieces are quite tonal and pleasing and others are a little more challenging with an element of dissonance. My training is in contemporary classical music so you are writing music that’s developmental, that leads you somewhere emotionally, but I felt very strongly that it doesn’t need me to tell people to feel sad, so the pieces deliberately don’t develop. They have a great deal of stillness to them and quite a bit of repetition – and it’s kind of eerie because you are hearing all these snatches of piano pieces but you can’t really know for sure which sounds are coming from where. It’s a little bit ghostly.”

For Ní Ríain playing the Brontë piano was something really special. “I was overwhelmed with the privilege of being able to do it and having the opportunity,” she says. “It was all a bit surreal. I had to do all this at night-time after hours, so I would turn up just as the museum was closing and it would get quieter as the last visitors left. When I sat at the piano the house would be absolutely silent apart from the ticking of the grandfather clock which is quite loud. The CD is quite unique in that it includes the sounds of everything that was in the room. You have the clock’s ticking and chiming and the birds outside the window. You can sometimes hear the footsteps of the museum staff. I kept all those sounds in because they contribute to the atmosphere.”

The piano’s own qualities also had a bearing on the pieces created for it, coupled with Ní Ríain’s emotional and intellectual responses. “The instrument has a really beautiful tone, the notes are very shallow compared to a modern piano and it’s got a smaller keyboard,” she says. “While I was playing I was thinking about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and also about how it must have been for these three women living together in the Parsonage. My own view of it is that it must have been a very claustrophobic situation and I wanted the music to represent that kind of controlled antagonism. None of the music gets over-emotional or flowery – it is very measured.”

• Linger is at the Brontë Parsonage Museum until January 3. The CD is on sale at the Parsonage and online.