13 November 2020 - 12 February 2021

Songs for Life

Music often marks the important moments in life. From the first lullaby a parent sings to their child, to the ‘our songs’ that transport us back to past loves, to the tender lament that celebrates a life lost – music can express the emotions that we sometimes cannot put into words.

In this special intimate filmed performance, Karen Cargill joins us for something of an emotional rollercoaster, celebrating the power of song to communicate those deepest emotions. Karen’s glorious voice and infectious personality will sweep us through songs of nature, love, childhood and loss, all framed by evocative works for strings that pack their own emotional punch.

The film also allows you to join us backstage, with glimpses of the preparation that goes into telling musical stories like these. And as for singing along with the final number: it’s optional…but encouraged.

This concert was filmed in Covid-19 secure, socially-distanced conditions in October 2020, and will be available to view for 3 months until midnight on 12 February 2021.

  • Featuring works by:
    Walton | Mahler | Britten | Purcell | Walker | György Kurtág | Chick Corea | Beethoven | Janáček | Dvořák | Caroline Shaw
  • Fri 13 November 7:30 pm
    Online  Filmed Performance

Film Trailer

Watch the trailer for the filmed performance Songs for Life.


  • Mezzo-soprano
    Karen Cargill
  • Director/Violin
    Jonathan Morton
  • Violin
    Daniel Pioro, Liza Johnson, Kate Suthers, Tristan Gurney, Laura Ghiro, George Smith
  • Viola
    Jane Atkins, Felix Tanner
  • Cello
    Alison Lawrance, Naomi Pavri
  • Bass
    Diane Clark

Film Credits

  • Director
    Miranda Stern
  • Director of Photography
    Julyan Sinclair
  • Music Director
    Jonathan Morton
  • Recording Engineer
    Jonathan Green
  • Filmed at Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow

Notes on the Music

by Rosie Davies

We had to begin, after months of not being able to play together, with a burst to life. Our first notes, impossible to ignore, are a call-to-attention – and then off we go, swept along in a tide of frantic, urgent exuberance, flecked with hints of Beethoven, of Bartók, even Gershwin’s easy swing, bounding with energy until the last. We hope you’ll be able to feel what a joy it is to make music together, in the same room.

No celebration of the distillation of life in song could be complete without Mahler – but where to start? Whilst all the major German composers took a stab at Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an enormous volume of folk poetry, Mahler’s same-titled collection of songs is arguably the most tenderly nuanced, the most deeply shaded; a collection of personalities, stories and tableaux through which the more complex emotion of what could often be treated as a two-dimensional range of characters was beckoned out, and given space to feel.

Above all, the passion and intensity contained within these short songs reminds us of the symbiosis between the stories stitched deep into our history – passed down through generations, and used to make sense of our existence – and the age-old, universal human compulsion to honour the emotions of these stories through song.

Suddenly – the splayed wail of grief that opens Britten’s Funeral March signals our shift from love, and nature, to death. Whilst Britten’s cinematic, over-saturated lushness seems to pin us up somewhere high, forcing us to feel our grief, with the opening notes of Purcell’s famous aria, we are led down, down to the very bottom of the well of grief where Dido’s Lament resides – bare, sparse, final. The aching simplicity of Purcell’s melody and Dido’s words combine to remind us, in this quite perfect song of despair, of the truly transformative power of combining words and music.

Finally, Walker’s Lyric for Strings, dedicated to his late grandmother and, as you may be able to hear, openly inspired by Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In capturing that same sheer, flowing quality of the piece he so admired, Walker conjures the feeling of looking back at our emotions through the shifting gauze of time, memory, recollection.

With Kurtág’s strange, scalic wisps, appearing from and dissolving into nothing, we invite you to join us at a point of stillness.

Tiny fragments of life: breathing, blooming, fading.


Can the specific feel and shape of childhood be captured through song, through music? The deeply complex emotions of childhood have long fascinated artists, writers and poets, but song is, in some way, deeply and inextricably connected with this precious – and strange, dream-like – time.

Britten explores this in his Charm of Lullabies song cycle, gently pulling at our notion of the traditional lullaby. The Nurse’s Song almost gives us one – but it refuses to settle between soothing, conventional resolutions and that eerie, chromatic melancholy. The Highland Balou plays with half-rocking the child between two notes – but also has our mezzo-soprano leaping around in a rousing adventure across the Highlands, sending no-one to sleep.

Stepping into the daylight, the seventh song from jazz pianist Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs captures not only the hopeful buoyancy unique to childhood, but the way in which the innocent, wide-eyed wonder of a child morphs and expands. It’s followed by the breathless chase of the Presto from Beethoven’s 13th string quartet – can you feel the heart-racing, limb-tangling energy and fizz of childhood games?

From the confines of childhood, we expand onwards and outwards with a contemplation of all that life goes on to offer.

In the final piece from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, we seem to find a microcosm of life itself; of warm humanity, and impassive nature, sitting side by side. Slices of rich chorale – which the composer called an “intimate song of life” – resonate with a feeling of congregation, of unity, its organ-like hum suggestive of the communal shelter of the church. But the feeling is undone by episodes of cold, haunting disquiet, pierced by the call of the owl – persistent and ambivalent as fate.

Dvořák’s Love Songs are an edited version – published 23 years later – of a clutch of love songs written by the 24-year-old composer, thick in the flush of unrequited love. Set to the heady, intense poetry of Czech writer Pfleger-Moravský (“their texts are above all lyrical—think of a boy in love,” said Dvořák), the songs are a heartbreakingly beautiful paean to the depth of feeling that we may, if we are fortunate enough, get to experience as human beings.

The penultimate stop on our journey, Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, celebrates transition, guiding us between landscapes and making us think about where we’ve arrived, and how we got there – which felt particularly important, in a world in which we are all, for this moment, poised in the in-between. (“I love the way some music suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition”, said Shaw).

And so, we arrive at the end. We’ve chosen to part company tonight on a traditional song of farewell – and an invitation to join us in singing it, from wherever you are, whatever memories you may find within the notes or the ritual. Whilst song has the extraordinary effect of translating emotions into sound, singing together has a similar invaluable effect of connecting our spirits. We hope this simple act might help us transcend our physical barriers tonight.


Resources & Downloads

  • Songs for Life - Programme

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