Today’s Advent Calendar piece is a short orchestral work by Deborah Pritchard that takes its inspiration, and its title, from a painting by J. M. W. Turner. The Angel Standing in the Sun dates from relatively late in Turner’s life, being exhibited in 1846 (he died five years later). It’s a highly dramatic work, depicting Michael the Archangel at the centre of the image, holding a sword aloft; at the bottom of the painting are two violent scenes from the Bible – Adam and Eve lamenting the death of Abel (murdered by Cain) and Judith’s beheading of Holofernes – while black birds (that Turner identified as vultures) ominously circle high above, the only instance of black in the entire painting, which is otherwise suffused with a panoply of resplendent yellows. It’s thus a painting that brings together the most extreme opposites imaginable: divine and mortal, glory and misery, life and death.
It’s those stark oppositions that inform Pritchard’s response to the painting. They manifest in two ways, one of which can be heard in the tussling binary forces at play in the first half of the piece. One force is full of energy, boisterous and muscular (though not exactly athletic), driven by the strings but insistently shot through with imposing surges from the heavy brass. A contrary force, somewhat fragile and internalised, follows, initiated by a solo trombone, conveying a sombre and subdued, even distressed tone. Clear signs of energy are still present all around, though, and it’s these that redirect things into a heraldic trumpet fanfare answered by shivering streams of light from the strings. The music subsequently opens out onto a plateau suggesting peace but which in no time turns out to be an almighty (literally) battlefield, signalling vanquishment through a melody where each and every note isn’t just forcefully delivered but practically hammered into place by unrelenting timpani blows.
The second manifestation of extreme opposites is heard in the work’s binary structure. The second half could hardly be more different, transitioning via a loud cadence that directly signals the change through its harmonic makeup, from an emphasis on fourths to thirds. All solidity and aggression start to evaporate, the music softening into a somewhat John Williams-esque landscape of calm, opalescent beauty. That being said, the nature of this place is conflicted, or at least unsettled, initially polarised between deep strings and a descending glockenspiel, later coloured in by warm but faintly melancholic streaks from the strings, ending polarised again with the final word – held almost uncomfortably long – given to the lower strings.
Despite its 4½-minute brevity, The Angel Standing in the Sun is an impressively powerful and arresting piece that in part works as effectively as it does precisely because of the concise focus of its ambition. The world première took place at the Lichfield Festival in July 2016, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins