Lent Series

Julieta Szewach – Dikyrion

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The next piece in my ongoing Lent series is an unusual setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the Argentine composer Julieta Szewach, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2008. Dikyrion uses the Aramaic version of the text, in a setting for mezzo-soprano and tape. The work was one of two selected as “outstanding” in the 11th International Rostrum of Electroacoustic Music, which took place in 2007 in Portugal (more info here). It’s easy to see why they came to that conclusion; Szewach’s piece is not only markedly different in tenor and temperament from the majority of electroacoustic music one tends to hear these days, but the soundworld she creates is both deeply immersive and very beautiful indeed. The word ‘dikyrion’ refers to a 2-branched candlestick used in Orthodox Christianity, that represents the dual nature of Jesus, both divine and mortal.

The atmosphere Szewach creates is a profound one, ethereal and mysterious. She abstracts the text, stretching and aerating it, turning it into mere shadows of words at the start, mere whispers of them towards the end; enclosing them at both points are low, solemn notes that toll out like deep gongs. Read more

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James MacMillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première)

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i’ll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season. To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan‘s anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, and also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless. The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain – heard three times – focuses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:

Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
(“Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.”)

MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple). The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right. There are two episodes, and both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force. Read more

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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

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If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and—more importantly—the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

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Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more

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Eye-watering, but not tears: Fernand Laloux – O salutaris hostia, Tantum ergo

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i’m an occasional listener to BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Only occasional, because Evensong, it seems, has got itself stuck—or is deliberately kept—in a rut, where it has languished for at least 50 years (this suspicion was proved some time ago, when a 50-year old recording of Choral Evensong was broadcast, the music being identical to that typical of today’s broadcasts). It’s not just that the choices of music are predictably dull, the music itself is often so weak, that i tend only to tune in when a more discerning taste is being demonstrated. Or—despite my reservations—when the broadcast comes from a Catholic cathedral, when the standard and selection of music is usually exceptional. As it was in September 1999, when the broadcast came from the Brompton Oratory in London, celebrating Second Vespers for the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service was extraordinary, including music by Dupré, Poulenc, Pärt and Tournemire, with the Benediction hymns, O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo, by a composer named Laloux. These settings were remarkably beautiful, but the name was new to me, and a quick search through various musical dictionaries proved fruitless. Keen to explore the pieces with a church choir i was directing at the time, i telephoned the Oratory’s director of music, Patrick Russill, to find out more about this mysterious composer. i forget exactly what he told me, but the essence of it was that this music had only recently come to light, and hadn’t even been properly published yet, hence the lack of information. Russill claimed that, at that time, only the Oratory had permission to perform the music, so i was unable to get hold of any scores. Fortunately, however, i had recorded the broadcast and so, inspired by Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere in similar circumstances, i was able to transcribe the Tantum ergo completely (not, sadly, enough of the O salutaris hostia, due to insufficient clarity of the inner voices), which we performed on a number of occasions. In the intervening years, Belgian composer Fernand Laloux has begun to become more widely known, his scores are now more generally available, and Patrick Russill has recorded the pieces with the Oratory choir. Read more

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Dolour and death; the Way of the Cross, unadorned: Liszt – Via Crucis

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As i’ve said before, my love of the chorale began in my teenage years with Bach. This love grew after hearing Franz Liszt’s Holy Week cycle, Via Crucis, some years later. Not that chorales are a principal feature of the work; on the contrary, Liszt’s exploration of the Stations of the Cross is primarily a series of organ meditations, occasionally elaborated upon by choir and soloists. To that end, the work is very simple, austere and restrained, almost to the point of seeming—paradoxically—eccentric. Favouring a contemplative approach over a dramatic one, Liszt’s material is at times so bare, so rudely unadorned, that it can seem strange and disorienting, in the same way that churches and cathedrals up and down the land become shocking when, as now, their decorations and ornaments are shrouded in purple cloth. In fact, Liszt takes to the extreme the division of which i spoke yesterday, of emotional detachment, aloof and austere, and emotional engagement, involved and moved. With so much of the music being of the former kind, the appearance of the chorales is all the more striking, seeming to blaze in technicolor against pervading shades of grey. Liszt uses just two chorales, “O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden” and “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid”, both of which (the latter especially) he treats to gorgeous harmonisations. But much of the music follows, literally, the difficult, faltering steps of Christ’s journey; the organ plods, staggers, collapses, laborious and wearied. On a few exquisite occasions, serenity briefly transcends the gloom, like shafts of sunlight puncturing black cloud: as Jesus meets his mother, as Simon of Cyrene assists carrying the cross, as Jesus dies upon it, and as He is taken down from it and buried. While unashamedly ascetic, this is nonetheless a profoundly moving examination of the dolour and death to which the Via Crucis leads. Read more

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The balance of austerity and grief: Victoria – O vos omnes

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One of the greatest difficulties, i feel, with writing music for Holy Week, is the need to be objectively austere, while also expressing some sense of the highly-wrought feelings that pervade the week. i don’t mean in some ghastly “stiff upper lip” way; that would be dishonest and repressed. One must engage with the events recounted in the texts in an intellectual way, grappling with their meaning (the theology if you like), while never forgetting that they are an expression of utter tragedy, a tragedy in which we have all played our part, and so emotions must be given absolutely free reign too. To compose music that sits within, and seeks to interact with, such a darkly complex space, is a challenge indeed. A challenge, it seems, too many composers have attempted—and failed. We were subjected to just such a failure last Sunday at the Abbey: a performance of Arthur Somervell’s The Passion of Christ. It’s not a piece worth speaking of for long, except to say that it was typically Victorian, all wallpaper and soft edges. i don’t take sugar with my Passion, thank you, and Somervell’s was laced with saccharine at every opportunity; Jesus, from the cross, didn’t so much sing as croon. It was revolting, and one can only hope the Abbey makes better quality choices in future.

No such problems with the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Victoria has an uncanny gift for producing compositions that strike a perfect, delicate balance, teeming with complexity, abundant in life and interest, while ever keeping the emotions near to the surface. A sumptuous example of that is his setting of the Holy Week text O vos omnes:

O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam, attendite, et videte: Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus. Attendite, universi populi, et videte dolorem meum.
(“O you that pass by, behold, and see: can there be any sorrow like my sorrow? Behold, everyone, and see my sorrow.”) Read more

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