Bendhu is the last house perched on top of a small cliff as you descend down the road to Ballyintoy Harbour. As a child, I was always fascinated by Bendhu and the enigmatic little man often seen working away, making very curious progress with the building. Bendhu's creator, Newton Penprase, although originally from Cornwall, moved to Belfast to take up a position as Assistant Art Master at the Belfast School of Art in 1911, and remained in Northern Ireland for the rest of his life. He was an immensely talented artist. Bendhu was built and crafted entirely by hand, using mostly salvage materials and concrete. Penprase worked on the building, which slowly evolved over 40 years, until an accident prevented him from continuing. Bendhu was left uncompleted at the time of his death.
In 1976 and 1977, I had the great good fortune to be invited to stay in Bendhu, for two short periods during the summer, with a school friend whose sister was married to Newton Penprase’s grandson. I fell immediately under its spell, and will never forget the wonderful privilege of experiencing the delights of, what seemed to me, the quite eccentric design, which was, at the same time, imbued with intense integrity: the wonderful symbolism of the stained glass muses; the allegorical ceiling paintings; the wooden wall panelling salvaged from a ship; the tiny decorative surprises, some sculptural, some functional; and, above all, the Heath Robinson delights of the plumbing and the fireplace design, and the bath which, in order to gain some extra length, extended into a cavity below the bathroom floor. Added to that was the stunning location, the secret sunken garden and the steps hewn out of the cliff to the beach below, the stillness of the early morning in Ballintoy Harbour and Peter the one-legged herring gull perched atop the building vociferously demanding his breakfast.
The music that I have written is as quirky and eccentric as Bendhu itself, and I have chosen harmony which mirrors the aspirations and ideals of the building. But, as with the building itself, I hope that, despite all the various disparate elements, it forms a cohesive whole which works strangely and beautifully to create a fascinating unity. The music is also inspired by the location of Ballintoy Harbour itself and the wild forces of nature combined in the spectacular meeting of the sea with one of the most individual parts of the Irish landscape, and one that is very dear to my heart.
The restless movement of the sea in Night Storm is based entirely on a five note whole tone scale, and the waves of the storm tossed sea are graphically represented by the notes on the musical stave. The screaming of the gulls is represented by a note cluster derived from the scale.
The painting is one which my parents were given by my grandfather, around the time I was born, and has always reminded me of the rock cliffs at the little beach just below Bendhu.
The five note whole tone scale is then used to represent the sun rising over Bendhu. This is graphically represented by rising semibreves, placed (somewhat unusually) on the fourth beat of each bar within the bare chordal structure which represents Bendhu itself.
The two chords which symbolise the building are juxtaposed fifth chords an augmented unison apart. The augmented unison (F and F#) and its counterpart the diminished octave, were, I felt a suitably angular and eccentric intervals to represent Bendhu. As the chords alternate, the top notes form the interval of the tritone, which with its ambiguous and defiant nature had to be the interval to be the perfect embodiment of the architecture.
The central section of the piece is a representation of three pieces of artwork by Newton Penprase. The first is the Zodiac Ceiling which is found in the first bedroom of the house. The music moves, like the twelve signs of the zodiac, in a circle of miniature soundworlds over each of the twelve notes of the octave.
The second is Erebus and Nox giving birth to Love and Light, a portrait of two nude angels, which adorned the ceiling of the oak panelled bedroom, and is an embodiment of Darkness and Night evolving into Light and a chorale-like Hymn to Love. The painting was, unfortunately, destroyed by water damage.
The third painting to be represented is one by Newton Penprase of The Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhauser by Wagner. Penprase's painting reflects the glory of Wagner’s music with modernist shapes and subtle colours. I felt this subject matter was a perfect embodiment of the ideals of the architectural project and the eventual triumph of Bendhu, the building, itself. The painting is signed 'Wagner and Penprase'.
The piece finally ends with the sun setting over Bendhu, and the semibreves of the whole tone scale descending slowly and peacefully through the chordal motif with the return to night.
Sheet music (1st page): Bendhu
If you would like more information about Bendhu and its history, Andrew Cowser's book, 'Bendhu and its Builders' (2009) is available from the Ulster Architectural Society, ISBN 978-0-900457-71-5. See the UAS web site.