The Unthanks make songs from Emily Bronte’s poems

The Unthanks recording at the Bront� Parsonage Museum in Haworth this year.
The Unthanks recording at the Bront� Parsonage Museum in Haworth this year.
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Folk band The Unthanks have joined up with the Brontë Parsonage Museum to create songs based around Emily Bronte’s poems. Chris Bond reports.

Emily Brontë will forever be remembered for her powerful gothic novel. But while Wuthering Heights continues to seduce readers, she actually started out writing poetry and it’s her poems that are at the heart of a new project involving The Unthanks.

The acclaimed folk band have taken a selection of her poems and turned them into songs. They will perform their new Emily Brontë Song Cycle for the first time in a concert at Leeds Town Hall a week today.

Yorkshire-born Unthanks pianist and composer Adrian McNally was commissioned by the Brontë Society to create a record, performed with bandmates Rachel and Becky Unthank, to mark the 200th anniversary of Emily’s birth.

Kitty Wright, Executive Director of The Brontë Society, feels it has been a hugely successful collaboration. “As well as writing that one stonking novel, Emily was a poet, she drew and painted, like her sisters, and she liked music and played the piano We wanted to look at her as more than just a writer and that came together with this project and the Unthanks were an obvious choice.”

McNally and his bandmates have worked on historical projects in the past, but he admits they hadn’t appreciated just how popular Emily is. “We weren’t aficionados in any great way and I think it was probably a good job we weren’t. Had we realised quite how revered she is, we probably would have been petrified.”

As it turned out, this distance enabled them to look at her afresh. He created the songs using Emily’s piano which is still housed in the Parsonage in Haworth, where she and her sisters lived and worked.

McNally found playing her rare, five-octave cabinet piano inspiring but also challenging, at least initially. “It requires the pianist to play lighter than they have ever played a piano. It took me a while to realise this but as soon as I did I developed a real affinity with the instrument.”

He wrote the songs in the piano room, penning the music for the whole song cycle in his first evening. “There’s so much of her poetry that is really rhythmic that the poems almost read like songs and they were ideal for putting to music.”

As well as the concert, the 
song cycle is available as a record and the band have also produced a free audio experience, that can be pre-booked at the Parsonage, so that visitors can go on a guided walk. “It means you can listen to Emily’s poetry set to music in those hills where she used to roam.”

Both McNally and the Unthank sisters now count themselves among Emily’s fans. “You feel like you’re reading words of integrity and truth from someone who perhaps never thought her words would be read, and I really admire her.”

The Emily Brontë Song Cycle, December 21, Leeds Town Hall. For ticket details call the box office on 0113 376 0318 or visit www.leedstownhall.co.uk

The audio experience is available at the parsonage from December 17 until March 31, 2019.

The Unthanks’ Emily Brontë’ record is available from the Parsonage Museum shop or via www.the-unthanks.com