Michael Stimpson: Dylan, a song cycle for baritone and harp

October 26, 2023 by

In honour of the 70th anniversary of the passing of Dylan Thomas, The Dylan Thomas Birthplace and composer Michael Stimpson have anounced an extraordinary event that will take place in the poet’s cherished home in Swansea.

“Dylan,” an immersive performance of Stimpson’s captivating song cycle, will transport audiences through the life and works of the iconic Welsh wordsmith. The event blends spoken excerpts and musical settings, featuring the acclaimed baritone Gareth Brynmor John and Royal harpist Alis Huws.

The performance will be held in Dylan Thomas’ historic Swansea birthplace, allowing attendees to explore the poet’s home both before and after experiencing the evocative music.

To ensure this memorable event reaches a wider audience, the performance will be live-streamed by World of Sound.

Due to the overwhelming response and enthusiasm, additional performances of “Dylan” are planned in New York, where the poet’s life came to an end. The first performance will take place at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on 11 November, home of The Welsh Congregation of New York. An additional performance will be held at St John’s in the Village the following day, 12 November.

“Dylan” promises to be an unforgettable experience, fusing the power of words and music to celebrate the enduring legacy of one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century.


Michael Stimpson discusses the special project:

Can you speak to the importance of commemorating and preserving the legacy of Dylan Thomas, especially on the 70th anniversary of his passing?

I consider the legacy of Dylan Thomas to be very important indeed. It is all too easy for the work of an artist to fade with time, and the reasons for that are often varied and complex. Perhaps their work was linked with a particular time period, is in or out of current fashion, or as we are seeing so much at present, influenced by changes within society. Thus, even the work of the finest can be affected and so an anniversary such as this serves as a vital reminder of some of the most wonderful poems and texts written in the 20th century.

Can you tell us about your involvement in the special event marking the 70th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ passing? How did you become a part of it?

Although I wrote the Dylan song cycle some twenty years ago, being aware of the forthcoming 70th anniversary I wanted to bring something new to another performance of the work. The first was to have it played in the birthplace of Dylan Thomas in Swansea, and the second was to fulfil an aim of mine for many years, to have a US premiere in New York where Dylan died. A visit to Dylan’s birthplace soon showed that the most evocative concert could take place in the living room of the house, which has the bedroom where Dylan was born directly above. The rest of the house is full of atmosphere and character, whether it be his childhood bedroom which in my mind still hides his earliest thoughts, or the stairwell where I could imagine the young Dylan charging around. I was captured by the idea of the music ringing throughout the house.

A few days after this concert on November 4th the performers and myself travel to New York for two concerts the following weekend.

Could you describe your song cycle ‘Dylan’ and how it celebrates the life of Dylan Thomas? What inspired you to create this piece?

The song cycle is for baritone and harp and it has some distinctive features: it is constructed to be a chronological account of Dylan’s life; it only uses the words of Dylan Thomas; the texts used are as close as possible to a given period of his life; and each song is preceded by a spoken text. It was premiered in 2003 for the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s death, at the Brangwyn Hall before going to the Wigmore Hall in London a few days later.

The inspiration came from writing a piece for the harpist Sioned Williams who for many years was principal harp with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We were literally on the stage of the Purcell Room in London running through the work for the performance that evening. When chatting generally we briefly mentioned the possibility of a new piece based around Dylan Thomas. With the Welsh background of Sioned and the harp being so closely linked with Welsh music, the idea seemed perfect for a new work and the thinking began.


Gareth Brynmor John

Dylan Thomas



Where Dylan Thomas was born


Alis Huws

Michael Stimpson


How did you approach the composition process for ‘Dylan’? Did you draw from specific aspects of Dylan Thomas’ life and work as inspiration?

A song cycle of this length, it is almost 50 minutes, needs a structure with shape, highs and lows, different feels and atmosphere, and as with any piece of music, direction and momentum.

All the main periods of Dylan’s life were drawn on, from his earliest years to the end of his life. And although as mentioned the texts were chosen to relate to that period, I decided to use his most famous work, Under Milk Wood, to form the first and last spoken text, almost acting as bookends to the piece. What drew me to this was the way the last line or so could set the atmosphere of the piece – ’And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now’ permits a gentle beginning from the harp which leads to a bright, lighter feel of joy for those younger years.

Songs two and three move Dylan through his teenage years to become a young man with the success of his first poem. Marriage to Caitlin makes up song four before the structure is broken with a series of variations for harp which are loosely based on ’Bread of Heaven’ and interspersed with spoken interjections such as ‘Cold beer is bottled God!’.

Gradually the song cycle becomes more and more serious, with a more tired/worn down feel, which reflects years of poverty, alcohol, incessant travel, and more. This took me to the end of Dylan’s life, ’The Thin Night Darkens’. Even now I find this last song one of the most striking, the dramatic and sharp lines of the harp gradually calm until the close of the work when it momentarily flashes back to brighter /earlier parts of the cycle, and these heighten the power of Dylan’s words, ’Rhianon, hold my hand’, ’Why are you putting the sheet over my face?’.

Could you share some insights into your collaboration with Welsh singer Gareth Brynmor John and Royal harpist Alis Huws for this performance?

The collaboration with Gareth and Alis has been warm and friendly, and we have all appreciated the difficulties of such a complex project, not least waiting for the US Government and work visas. But with a short time to the concerts we are now all set and the real reason for the project starts to take pride of place – the music, and the celebration of the writing of Dylan Thomas.

The event will be live-streamed and available on demand for online audiences. How do you think this accessibility will impact the reach and appreciation of your work and Dylan Thomas’ legacy?

With such a small venue the stream is ideal for widening access to Dylan’s work and I hope it brings his writing to those who may not know of it, or be less familiar, but I also hope that it brings a slightly different take to those who know his work well.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the in-person tickets are being made available on a ‘pay what you can’ basis, in order to ensure no-one is excluded from the performance on financial grounds.

What do you hope attendees and online viewers take away from your performance and the overall event in honour of Dylan?

That is an easy one – that the listener turn back to Dylan, enjoy again their favourite texts, look up one from the song cycle that they might not know, and lift a glass to toast Dylan Thomas, I think he would have liked that!

Are there any future projects or collaborations related to Welsh literature, culture, or history that you are excited about?

Ideas for new works are always floating in my mind and two have strong Welsh connection, another opera is one, and I would love to write for male voice choir, there is a sound that is so haunting and perfect for blending with brass or orchestra. I have always been so warmed by the links between Wales and my music, a brass quintet and clarinet quintet were premiered in Aberystwyth, the Dylan song cycle was recorded in Llandudno, and a work for harp, The Drowning of Capel Celyn, based on the flooding of the village in North Wales to form a reservoir, was one of the most evocative pieces that I have written.

Tickets for “Dylan” are available now at



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