Brevity may well be the soul of wit, but the challenges it raises from the perspective of the listener can be considerable. Everything becomes ultra-compact: no sooner has an idea been presented then we’re on to another – or, more usually in this context, a different facet of the existing one – with little or no time to join the dots and reflect. Regardless of the music’s actual momentum, it can sound like a sprint, the work’s double barline already in view as the piece begins, and we can feel forced to race to keep up. That’s particularly true, i think, of the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, Harrison Birtwistle’s Double Hocket for piano trio, composed ten years ago in 2007. One can only imagine that hearing this in a concert – or, more specifically, hearing it just once (not that there’s any excuse for that, considering its length) – might well prove somewhat unrewarding, an aural equivalent of being vigorously prodded with knitting needles for two minutes. However, there’s an interesting little drama taking place within the Double Hocket, though if you’re not careful it might take your eye out. Read more
Back to the Lent Series, and to a completely charming and surprisingly poignant little miniature by Howard Skempton. Here’s the Tender Coming is a Northumbrian folk tune, and Skempton’s arrangement of it dates from 2011, appropriately written for Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell plus the addition of a string quartet. Despite the cheeriness of the tune, the song is distinctly melancholic: the ‘tender’ of the title refers to the approaching ship—to all intents and purposes a prison—that, following the actions of the press gangs, would take away men by force to fight in the war against the French.
Here’s the tender coming, pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s the tender coming, off at Shield’s Bar,
Here’s the tender coming, full of men-o’-war.
The song is especially potent (and, one assumes, quite unusual) as it’s written from a woman’s perspective, capturing her utter desperation at the thought of losing, literally, the bread-winner of the family.
If they take thee, Geordie, who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead.
For the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, i’m turning to Indonesian composer Marisa Hartanto, who studied composition as a postgrad at Royal Holloway. Her short orchestral work Rumble to the Past won the BBC’s Baroque Remixed postgraduate composing competition in 2012. The piece is a response to Purcell’s ‘Rondeau’ from his incidental music for the play Abdelazer (by Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to have a professional career as a playwright), well-known to most people from its central use in Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Read more
For about as long as many people can remember, Hungarian composer György Kurtág has been working on his first opera, based on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. It’s been announced, postponed, re-announced and re-postponed to the point where one begins to wonder if it will ever become a reality, but if all goes well, the opera will finally be unveiled in Salzburg next year.
In the meantime, Kurtág has made available a typically minuscule sliver of music either directly taken or derived from the opera, in the form of a three-minute work for string quartet, titled Clov’s last monologue (a fragment). It’s cast in a simple ternary form structure (A1-B-A2), quickly establishing – after a fortissimo opening blast – an achingly fragile but lyrical primary idea. A wafer-thin melody that falls more than it rises, Kurtág barely nourishes it with bleached harmonies and almost casually disinterested pizzicati, in the process providing just the barest hint of development. Read more
Today marks the start of Lent, and for this year’s Lent Series i’m turning to the world of the small: miniatures. i’ve written in the past with no little enthusiasm about ‘epic’ compositions, but there’s something equally remarkable about a piece of music that’s able to convey something cogent in a seriously limited amount of time. i haven’t set myself a strict time-limit for the pieces featured in the series, though i suspect nothing longer than around three or four minutes. Read more
To conclude my Lent Series celebrating the work of Michael Finnissy, i’m turning to the composer’s first orchestral score, Offshore, written 40 years ago in 1976. It was composed in the aftermath of a traumatic relationship break-up, which no doubt accounts for a lot of things, not least the work’s title and particularly its surprisingly strange general demeanour. Offshore can prove disarmingly difficult to connect with on a first listening (i can recall my own initial attempt, which was an almost complete failure), in no small part due to the way that Finnissy works with the orchestra by fragmenting it into a collection of distinct sonic entities, united by gestural, behavioural, timbral and registral characteristics. Read more
A great deal of Michael Finnissy‘s output is choral, encompassing the same broad range of expression as his instrumental music. John the Baptist, a short work composed in 2014, falls at the simpler, more immediate end of the continuum. Adapting words from the York Mystery Plays, Finnissy creates both a mouthpiece for the titular figure as well as something of a portrait of him. Two portions of the piece are bold and declamatory, full of confidence and heft but articulated in triple metre such that there’s a distinct element of dance. It’s a serious dance, through, the choir united in a punchy statement of both believe and intent, one that points the way to a greater power, “entire in fire”. But this bullish invocation of the trinity is also turned towards the absurdity of the idea of a deity requiring something its creation. It’s a line of uncertainty that emerges first in the other pair of sections, when pulse yields to a slow, soft form of introspection, laden with both awe and wonder as well as doubts, “I thank him ever, but am a-feared / I am not able to fulfil this deed.” Read more