Lent 2012

John Tavener – Towards Silence (European Première)

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It was hard thinking of a work to feature today; in the wider scope of Lent and Holy Week, Holy Saturday is a strange day, and in some ways listening to John Cage’s 4’33” on repeat would seem to be the most appropriate thing to do. However, i’ve opted instead for a work from a composer whose music usually leaves me spluttering and fending off expletives. John Tavener‘s Towards Silence was composed in 2007, and is probably the only piece ever written for four string quartets and a large Tibetan singing bowl. To an extent, the title says it all, and put simply, the piece is (in Tavener’s words) “a meditation on the different states of dying”, but Tavener’s deeper inspiration comes from the four states of the self as conceived by a particular school of Hinduism: a waking state, a dream state, a condition of deep sleep, and “that which is beyond”.

Tavener structures the work in four seamless movements of increasing length. The first three display considerable activity and counterpoint, although—bearing the title in mind again—the overall direction is one of decline. The work uses five basic ideas that shift between the quartets: rapid semiquaver tremolos, accented quintuplets, undulating quaver trills, heavy but quick repeated note passages and slow, drawn-out melodies that employ various ragas (but which for the most part sound like conventional modes). From the second movement on, Tavener progressively thins out the texture as well as introducing a sixth idea, a melody with mobile pitch order and unspecified rhythms. The conclusion of each of the first three movements is marked with a short episode that requires the players also to chant as they play; the word ‘soham’ is used twice, while the third movement closes to ‘om’. Read more

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Bernat Vivancos – El davallament de la creu (World Première)

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Having spent two days with Italian music, to mark Good Friday i’m turning to Spain, and the music of Bernat Vivancos. Vivancos was born in Barcelona in 1973 and studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire and in Oslo; having returned to Spain, for the last five years he has been musical director of the Montserrat Boys Choir. In Holy Week last year, at a live concert broadcast from the Montserrat Basilica, Vivancos’ new work El davallament de la creu (The Descent from the Cross) was premièred, and it’s not only an interesting addition to the vast repertoire of Good Friday music, but one of the most visceral examples that i know of.

Vivancos creates the work from two kinds of material, utterly different. One of the organs (two are used) is like a force of nature, solely occupied with vast, violent fortissimo plunges from extremely high to deep rumbling clusters; these deep clusters are frequently repeated, like immense blows to the chest. Not so much against this but alongside it, the choir, mysteriously unaffected, move in the opposite direction, making a gradual ascent from an initial low register. Read more

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Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

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i noted yesterday Sciarrino’s interest in Carlo Gesualdo, and so today, as Holy Week moves into the Triduum, here is a complete recording of Gesualdo’s setting of the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Tenebrae is a remarkable service that’s rarely used today; it was created by combining the morning offices of Matins and Lauds, and then celebrating them in the late evening of the day before, so Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday would conventionally have taken place on Wednesday evening. It was a service with considerable ceremonial drama, with an elaborate candlestick—known as a ‘tenebrae hearse’—at its epicentre; throughout the service these candles would be gradually extinguished until only one remained (back in 2009 i posted a complete service of Tenebrae from Westminster Cathedral, which you can find here). Gesualdo’s music sets the nine responsories from the Matins part of Tenebrae (Lauds is primarily made up of psalms and antiphons). They fall into three ‘nocturns’, each containing three responsories; the first nocturn focuses on Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, the second switches attention to Judas, and the third widens the scope to show how pretty much everyone played their part in Jesus’ betrayal. Read more

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Salvatore Sciarrino – Responsorio delle Tenebre

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In recent times, one of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino‘s significant interests has been the life and music of his compatriot Carlo Gesualdo. Sciarrino’s opera Luci mie traditrici, composed in 2003, explored the events surrounding Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover, and two years earlier he wrote a small choral work in response to the composer’s much-lauded setting of the Tenebrae services.

However, Sciarrino’s Responsorio delle Tenebre does not, in fact, draw on the texts used in Tenebrae (or indeed Gesualdo’s music), but is a setting of Psalm 54. The text, uttered in the midst of “strangers” and “enemies”, is a rather desperate plea for vindication and rescue, and Sciarrino’s approach is simultaneously robust and vulnerable. Each of the seven verses is sung twice (in the order 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5-6-4-5-6-7-7), oscillating between a stark, bold delivery using plainchant and a quavering collection of overlapping wails and sobs, focused on and around a single note. Read more

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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, focused (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:

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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György Kurtág – Scenes from a Novel

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A profound sense of melancholic introspection pervades the next piece in my Lent series, György Kurtág‘s song cycle Scenes From a Novel. Kurtág composed the work in 1982, setting 14 texts by the Russian writer Rimma Dalos, texts that are in perfect sympathy with the composer’s penchant for exceptionally short but highly expressive music. The 15 songs (one of the texts is used twice) project loneliness above all else, but not resulting from unrequited affection or imagined reciprocity; on the contrary, this is a loneliness born out of experience, the product of a love both lived and celebrated, but that has ultimately been blanched, torn and downright thwarted. Yet the texts betray a deeper complexity, and as the songs progress their message becomes increasingly conflicted; desire is undermined by disappointment, temptation yields to regret. Contrast the texts of the 11th and 12th songs (titled Again and Sundays Without End respectively), where impatient expectations dissolve into blank, monotonous boredom:

I’m waiting for you again.
How slowly comes
the day after tomorrow.

That’s another
Sunday over.
That means the next will come.

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Giacinto Scelsi – Tre Canti Sacri

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Composed in 1958, Giacinto Scelsi‘s Tre Canti Sacri (Three Sacred Songs) is one of his most well-known and frequently performed vocal works. The three songs—’Angelus’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Gloria’—draw on texts associated with the Annunciation, the Mass for the dead, and the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Thematically, these texts are somewhat disparate, but the specific choices could be said to be arbitrary, as in each case Scelsi explodes the texts, often focusing on fragments and individual words rather than immediately comprehensible phrases. Furthermore, despite drawing on Christian texts, Scelsi again distances himself from their specific nature, diffusing the religious content. It’s an approach that i think sits well within the present season, seeking as it does something undeniably spiritual (these are, after all, sacred songs), yet casting off the trappings of familiarity and comfort.

‘Angelus’ is the most overtly melodic of the the three, and the most textually and stylistically clear, alluding to conventions of choral counterpoint. However, Scelsi matches this with abrupt dynamic shifts and microtonal inflections, sometimes combined violently and protruding outwards as harsh, beating dissonances. Read more

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Robert Mackay – Augustine’s Message

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The next work in my Lent series is one of my absolute favourite electronic compositions. The composer Robert Mackay, based in Scarborough, composed Augustine’s Message while studying in Bangor, in 2001. It was performed at the Bangor New Music Festival that year, and was included in an edition of Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ devoted to the festival. Back then, Mackay was planning a multimedia work based on the writings of Peter Abelard and his beloved Héloïse, originally intended as an opera (provisionally titled The Breath of Dionysius), but ultimately becoming a three-part cycle simply called Heloise, of which Augustine’s Message is the final part. Abelard’s relationship with Héloïse, conducted almost entirely in secret, ended in disaster, with Abelard being viciously castrated by Héloïse’s uncle Fulbert. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the beginning of the end for the lovers, both of whom ended up in monastic communities. In Augustine’s Message, Mackay delves into both the psyche and the soul of Abelard at this tragic point, as he explains in the programme note:

In this section of the story, Saint Augustine visits Abelard in a dream, in which he is battling to come to terms with his recent castration. This reflects a passage from Abelard’s autobiography where he describes a thousand thoughts coming into his head soon after the brutal attack, yet him eventually finding solace in his belief that in some way this act of retribution has been a gift from God enabling him to be free from worldly, carnal lusts and focus the rest of his life on the spiritual and philosophical.

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Richard Baker – To Keep a True Lent

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My Lent series continues with a very short choral piece by Richard Baker, setting Robert Herrick’s well-known poem To Keep a True Lent. Herrick’s text draws heavily on the sentiments of Isaiah chapter 58 (words traditionally read at the start of Lent), drawing stark contrasts between superficial and genuine acts of humility and fasting.

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; ’tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

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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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