Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe.
Frances-Hoad’s approach is to plunge the choir into a place of considerable unrest, at time almost borderline hysteria, which sits especially well in the first of the work’s three sections, describing and marvelling to behold the new “miracle of the heavens”. To this end, the voices sound as though their ‘cantabile’ setting has been turned up to 11, twisting harmonies through complex contortions, rendering the singers’ melodic lines by sudden turns angular and emollient. It’s disconcerting but highly effective, concluding in a beautiful Gloria that brings things into a calmer kind of focus. But this also functions to tilt both text and music in a new and more soul-searching direction. Following a pause, the piece progresses through a lengthy bit of doom-and-gloom-mongering tinged with elements of self-flagellating piety. The comet is now cast in the role of portent, promising destruction and pestilence as a comeuppance for humanity’s transgressions. Frances-Hoad now escorts the choir through descending layers of fraught counterpoint, the singers practically tripping over each other. A sense of woe and dread is palpable, all the more so due to the length of this second section, dominating the piece as a whole, but equally striking is the stern tone adopted in reference to “political regimes” and they “who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets”. A desperate lone soprano makes a final cry for clemency, only for the piece to tilt on its axis once again, almost laughably so: “However, there are actually no reliable grounds / For predicting the end of the world from this comet”. The voice of reason maybe, yet while this final section appears to pooh-pooh the preceding wails and lamentations, the choir’s calmer, more united attitude is riddled with harmonic uncertainty, unexpectedly rupturing at the end in a crazed closing ‘amen’.
Strange words and conflicted sentiments to be sure, but Frances-Hoad’s setting conveys them admirably, putting the text’s inherent drama emphatically in the foreground. Whether it works as a homage to Tallis is another matter, but that seems a bit beside the point; in any case, her language weaves in and around choral conventions, never truly alien yet at the same time often sounding unsettlingly odd. A fascinating piece, one that preys on the mind long after the echoes of its demented final shriek have died away.
From the Beginning of the World was commissioned and given its world première by The Cardinall’s Musick, conducted by Andrew Carwood.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World (World Première)
I spent several weeks in libraries attempting to find a suitable text, eventually settling on excerpts from Tycho Brahe’s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577. Whether Tallis knew about the comet is unknown of course, but this seismic event, to me, seemed emblematic of all the great changes that occurred during his lifetime, in areas such as religion, the calendar, and time-keeping (finding out that Tallis lived out his last days in Greenwich was an extra bonus). The text also seems to speak to contemporary times: whilst Brahe may have thought the comet’s birth would cause the sun to ‘bring unnatural heat’, nowadays we know that its ‘venom [will be] spewed over the lands’ due to mankind’s continued pillaging of the earth’s natural resources, a fact which our political ‘pseudo-prophets’ seem to deem less important than saving us from a false austerity.
The music itself is very influenced by Tallis, and canons and imitation abound. During my time as a ‘cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, I performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis many times, and so From the beginning of the world, which also uses Tallis’s Third Mode Melody from the English Hymnal, is really a homage to both composers.
Contrary to the custom of nature
And all mankind holds it to be a great wonder.
(Behold the miracle)
A miracle of the heavens.
From the beginning of the world
From the uppermost sphere of the fixed stars
This new birth reveals itself
A comet with a very long tail.
Something new can be generated in the heavens.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
(Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost)
But what do such unnatural births mean?
Creator caeli et terrae
Respice humilitatem nostram
(Creator of Heaven and Earth, Be mindful of our lowliness, Have mercy)
Great mortality among mankind.
Mighty and destructive wind storms
Poisonings of the air
Great harm by fire.
Great mortality among mankind.
The sun will bring unnatural heat
The sun will bring harmful, unnatural heat
It will spew its venom over the lands
Great mortality among mankind
Gruesome pestilenceIncurable pains
Those who deal with political regimes
Will be much stifled
(Creator caeli et terrae)
Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets
(Respice humilitatem nostram)
Will be punished, punished.
Great wars and bloodsheddings.
Miserere Nostri (Have mercy on us)
However, there are actually no reliable grounds
For predicting the end of the world from this comet.
It thus behooves us to use well our short life here on earth,
So that we may praise him for all eternity.
Our short life here on earth…
Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Homage to Tallis
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