Lent Series

Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

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In many of the hymns and carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables and shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary and Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—and she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more

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James MacMillan – St John Passion

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The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 and premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest and trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion and death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches and the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.

Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own and others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (and religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting and striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi and wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating and awkwardly comic. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Royal Banners Forward Go

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As Lent moves into Holy Week, a hymn regularly sung is “The Royal Banners Forward Go”, composed as far back as 569 by the then bishop of Poitiers, Venantius Fortunatus. The text commemorates the crucifixion, opening in strikingly vivid fashion:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

It’s not a text that seems to have appealed to many composers down the ages, a notable exception being Franz Liszt, whose Via Crucis (discussed briefly in 2009) opens with a fortissimo rendition of this hymn. Much more recently, in 2003 Jonathan Harvey composed a new setting using the English translation by J. M. Neale.

Despite lasting barely four minutes, Harvey creates an atmosphere both intense and mysterious, the men and women answering each other in stately rising fifths. Only gradually do they move out of reverential shadow, drawn out by the descriptive references to Christ on the cross; the forced tutti Harvey creates captures well the ambivalence of Holy Week, its ultimate tone of celebration violently militated against by the preceding downward spiral into suffering and death. Read more

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Anton Webern – Five Canons

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Next in my Lent series is an early work from the twentieth century, Anton Webern‘s Five Canons for high soprano, clarinet and bass clarinet. Rather like Mahler, Webern’s busy schedule restricted his compositional activities to the summer holidays; three of the canons were written in the summer of 1923, and the final two the following year. The word ‘canon’ has a double meaning here; as one might expect, the five pieces are composed as strict canons, but in addition the texts are themselves ‘canonical’, taken from the Catholic liturgy. Each of the five pieces lasts between 30 seconds and one minute, so Webern eschews both textual repetition and melismas, arriving at music of a manner not dissimilar to that of Morton Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion, austere and matter-of-fact, not exactly cold but nonetheless rather utilitarian and impersonal. Not just for this reason, they’re especially appropriate during Passiontide as three of the texts—’Christus factus est’, ‘Crux fidelis’ and ‘Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine’—are directly related to Christ’s crucifixion; the remaining two are concerned with Christ’s infancy (‘Dormi Jesu, mater ridet’) and an act of purification (‘Asperges me, Domine’). Read more

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Morton Feldman – Bass Clarinet and Percussion

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As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focussed (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.

Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – The Lord’s Prayer

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Settings of the Lord’s Prayer rarely work; they tend either to play it safe so as to preserve the solemn nature of the text (sung, as it invariably is, as a prayer during the service of Evensong), resulting in rather wan, characterless music, or go all out in an indulgement of vivid word-painting that loses sight of the function of the piece, becoming showy and egotistical. It’s a delicate balance, but the setting by Gabriel Jackson, composed in 2006, gets it just right. The style is simple, built upon a drone, over which melodic lines continually meander away and return to a bare open fifth; they’re characterised by grace notes that repeatedly give the melody a kick (a device also used in choral pieces by James MacMillan), thereby bringing them off the page, making them very much more than just a series of beautiful, mellifluous overlapping lines. The drone ceases when the text passes to the lower voices, although the harmony is sufficiently static that it almost continues by implication. In a rather brave move, Jackson breaks the intense petitionary tone of the music for the doxology; with an abrupt shift to the major key, the full choir joins together in a diatonic but richly-coloured chorale of praise that’s borderline unseemly after such humbly-delivered orisons. But, nonetheless, it does fit, and in any case subsides quickly, the closing “Amen” returning to the simpler manner from before. Read more

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John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

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Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

(click to see text)

night by silentsailing night…
Isobel…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle

Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. Read more

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