Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more
The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focussed on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.
Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. Read more
On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things & people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression. Read more
Last night the 2013 Proms season began, as it now always does, with a world première from a mainstream composer. At the outset, i have to admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for the occasion, due both to the recent track record of the opening night (Turnage & Weir in the last two years, both submitting relatively drab, safe pieces) as well as this year’s choice, Julian Anderson, a composer hardly renowned for much beyond accessible, occasionally quirky humdrummery. Anticipation was hardly heightened by Anderson’s pre-concert remark that there were only two options when writing a concert opener: “one is to write a piece that’s very loud and rather like a fanfare, and the other is to write a quiet and more meditative piece”. Seriously? Read more
Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests & skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.
Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, & there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings & meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, & the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity & arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced & boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control & consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings.
From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form & text so embedded in the development & consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, & the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations & legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:
[…] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions & liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, & still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…
This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian & the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.
Vine chose Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy & loss, & confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” & “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh & agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. But Tennyson’s is a positive text, & Vine’s music too seeks ultimately to strike a resounding cry of hope. Having worked fairly perfunctorily through the verses (& that’s no criticism), Vine repeats the final verse in conjunction with a reprise of the opening words, now rendered as an abstract peal of bells. It’s very effective, emboldening the music through its closing moments, leaving a pronounced sense of optimism hanging in the air. Ring in 2013.
Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)