Folk band the Unthanks and Adrian McNally have made an audio soundtrack pairing music with the writer’s poems as the listener walks the landscape of West Yorkshire. What is it like?
It begins with a flock of birds taking raucous flight; and even though there are no crows to be seen above the heather-flecked moors around the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth, it’s difficult to discern whether this is reality, or a fantasy. I’m immersed in the latest heritage project dedicated to the literary family: a unique audio experience that combines Emily’s poetry, folk music and West Yorkshire’s grand landscape to produce something quite incredible.
The Emily Brontë Song Cycle, an audio production pairing Emily’s poems and music by folk group the Unthanks, was commissioned by the Brontë Society, which runs the sisters’ old family home the Parsonage as a hugely successful museum. The last couple of years has seen a number of Brontë bicentennial anniversaries; this year marked marked 200 years since the birth of Emily, best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights.
Emily is perhaps less known for her poems; indeed, only one poem used in the production – Remembrance – was published in her lifetime. But it was her verse that composer and pianist Adrian McNally and the Unthank sisters Rachel and Becky turned to, eventually turning Emily’s poetry into songs that marry with the landscape that inspired and informed all three sisters in their own ways.
The final product is a hi-tech audio trail that leads people out out of honey-pot tourist trap of Haworth and up Penistone Hill, along dirt tracks that cleave the bleak and beautiful countryside, accompanied by commentary from McNally and the Unthank sisters. Along the way, radio frequency beacons are hidden to keep the music coming, and visitors are given noise-cancelling headphones to insulate them from the outside world, with only the haunting voices of the Unthanks and Emily’s often dark poetry in their ears. It’s an utterly immersive experience – so much so that, as I head up what’s known locally as the Balcony Path, a Lycra-clad cyclist silently barrelling down towards me startles me so badly that I jump. The effect of the music and landscape together creates an almost separate reality, in which even the most mundane modern intrusion feels like a jarring shock.
The music was recorded at the Parsonage, with McNally composing on Emily Brontë’s own piano, a five-octave cabinet piano from the early 19th century. Kitty Wright, executive director of the Brontë Society, called the process a “pleasure to witness”: “[McNally] brought music back into the rooms where the whole family had enjoyed the same piano so many years ago. The link between Emily’s words and the wild surroundings of the moors has an eternal fascination for visitors and we look forward to how the song cycle and listening experience brings a new interpretation to the well-trodden paths around the area the Brontës knew so well.”
The choice of songs is perfectly pitched for the walk, which at a leisurely pace takes around 40 minutes. The trail runs from 17 December to the end of March; a canny move as the route is quieter than in high summer, and all the more atmospheric for the absence of people, save the occasional dog-walker.
As you pass through the churchyard, the first song is Deep Down in the Silent Grave; at the crest of Penistone Hill walkers are invited to listen to High Waving Heather and cast their gaze to the west, and the hillside site of Top Withins, thought to be Emily’s inspiration for Wuthering Heights. And yes, up on those wiley, windy moors, the ghost of Kate Bush does occasionally tap at the window. Her song Wuthering Heights – 40 years old in this year of Emily’s bicentenary – has no doubt brought many a coach-load of visitors to Haworth. But the Unthanks’ songs could be seen as a companion to Bush; they get under your skin in the same way, with Emily’s poetry feeling, at times, like contemporary lyrics. They are, however, even darker than Wuthering Heights, focused on death and loss in a uncompromising manner. But, as McNally notes in the audio trail, although the poems are entrenched in darkness, they offer “a truth and integrity that will endure”.
• The Emily Bronte Song Cycle is available on CD and digital download. A vinyl version is being sold exclusively by the Unthanks and Brontë Parsonage until it goes on general release in February 2019. The Unthanks will be performing the songs live at Leeds Town Hall on 21 December.
• This article was amended on 18 December 2018, to make it clear that Remembrance was the only poem used in the Emily Bronte Song Cycle published during her lifetime, and not the only poem published during her lifetime.