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“I found someone I could be serious about, and the focus of music was addictive”

Opera singer Gabrielle Haigh (Clare 2010) uses favourite memories to conjure emotions in her performances, and says her time at Cambridge is a rich source.

- 3 minute read
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    Pianto Antico (first set)

    Giuseppe Martucci

    This song reminds me of a wonderful walk I took with the man I’m now married to, through the graveyard in Newmarket Road. We went to pick blackberries, and it was like a memento mori, with the fruit and the fog. The song is about the bittersweet contrast between fruit trees that renew, and humans, who die. Later, when I performed all three sets in this piece, I understood it as the contrast between the natural world and something darker in humans. That walk was bittersweet because we had just graduated and had the world in front of us, but UK immigration policy was not friendly to Americans at the time. Door after door was closing on us and, although we wanted to stay in Cambridge, we knew we probably couldn’t.

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    Acqua from Deità Silvane

    Ottorino Respighi

    This song feels so much like punting down the Cam. It has the slow, steady pace of a languid stream, and the lyrics refer to musty damp smells – also like the Cam. I remember the beauty of the willow trees falling into the greenish water, and how you smelled slightly of river afterwards. I seemed to punt a lot when I had my dissertation to write; it cost almost nothing to take a boat out all night, and you could bring a bottle of Pimm’s. I did once fall in, stepping between two boats at Clare Bridge. I can confirm the river is both cold and smelly.

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    Quattro Liriche Dai Rubaiyat

    Elsa Sangiacomo Respighi

    Like the music of John Tavener, this piece has a very ancient, Byzantine sound world and takes me back to my days in the Clare choir. It reminds me of Compline, a Wednesday evening Vesper service at Clare Chapel – in plain chant, candlelit and very atmospheric. Being in the choir was very intense, very challenging, but very rewarding musically. It was like being in a large, slightly dysfunctional, slightly incestuous family. We performed every few weeks to a small but determined congregation, but we were really singing for each other. It was an intimate, meditative experience. We had to be in perfect unison, so people you liked or didn’t, or dramas that had happened, didn’t matter. We were singing, and our focus was absolute.

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    Ottorino Respighi

    In my third year it snowed, and King’s Parade was suddenly so quiet and peaceful you could hear your own footsteps. I love how, in the UK winter, darkness comes so early and the buildings are lit up so you can really see them. The music has a tranquil, plodding quality, and, walking in a quiet place in the snow, your heart turns to cares and worries and yearning. From the age of six, I had wanted to be a professor, live in Cambridge and have a bicycle and a red door. I was obsessed with Greek mythology and planned to publish a leading monograph. I thought music was a precarious career and I worried I’d struggle to achieve financial stability or have a family. But at Cambridge I found somebody I could be serious about, and I began to find the focus of music addictive. When I sing, the rest of the world goes away, and, as someone with anxiety, that is very helpful.

Gabrielle Haigh is a soprano and composer based in Chicago.

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