Helen Grime – Near Midnight (World Première)

by 5:4

At last year’s Proms, Helen Grime’s focus was on the night; her latest orchestral work—the first in her rôle as Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra—continues that theme, in part taking its inspiration from a poem by D. H. Lawrence, title ‘Week-night service’, which begins thus:

The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
Imploring, protesting
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping.

It is to Lawrence’s striking bell-imagery that Grime is most drawn in her work Near Midnight, although less in the guise of obvious peals than in insistent material and a decidedly restless mood. Where both are concerned, i suppose one should dispatch an obvious bugbear at the outset. Writing about Night Songs last August, i described the obvious similarity of some of Grime’s music to that of her teacher, Oliver Knussen, and if anything that comes across even more forcefully in Near Midnight. Various choices of orchestration, the way certain sections of the orchestra interact as well as the treatment of the work’s principal motif all smack so heavily of Knussen that it actually becomes something of a distraction. This doesn’t cause the work to founder, as such, but the episodes where traces of influence are less obvious are so engaging that one only wishes there were more of them. These are to be found in the work’s softer, less focused passages, where the orchestra’s seemingly inescapable urge for chatter—this is a very noisy midnight—is abated. Here, Grime makes things magical by polarising her forces into very high and low registers, such as the section a couple of minutes in, where high flutes sing out over deep rumbling punctuations, as well as the work’s third section, in which slow, meandering violins emerge from an entirely dissipated texture to deliver what Grime calls the work’s “melodic core”.

But most engaging of all is a passage that entirely passed me by on the first couple of listens, precisely because of its lack of insistence. Seven minutes in, the orchestra almost seems to tread water for a while, practically interacting with itself without seeking to externalise its music. i’ve come to regard this as the most telling episode of the entire piece, capturing best D. H. Lawrence’s lines describing how “The patient Night / Sits indifferent”. It’s here, through the breaks in the momentum and the clamour, when the work seeks less to evoke than just passively allude, that Near Midnight most potently lives up to its title and its inspiration, plunging the listener into something gloomy, heavy and full of uncertainty, which is surely the very essence of the night.

The world première of Near Midnight took place on 23 May in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

Programme Note

Near Midnight is the first piece that I have written for the Hallé as Associate Composer. I wanted to write a piece that played to the many strengths of the orchestra. There are moments of great virtuosity for individual orchestral sections, as well as music designed to exploit the very special, lyrical quality, which is so characteristic of this orchestra.
It is the second piece I have written recently that has a nocturnal quality; however, in the case of Near Midnight these night-time references are less overt and more personal. The solitary, sometimes melancholy, hours as one day moves into the next can be a time of reflection and unrest. When first sketching ideas for the piece, I came across a poem by D.H Lawrence called Week-night Service. Its melancholic undertones, images of tolling bells, high-spun moon and the indifference of night, immediately struck a chord with me. Throughout the piece fanfare-like brass passages act almost like the tolling of bells, sometimes distant but often insistent and clangourous, these episodes act as important markers in the structure of the piece.
Although continuous, the piece falls into four main sections. Beginning in the orchestra’s deepest register, with double basses and low brass, the music abruptly erupts into horn-lead fanfares. The first section is full of surging rising scales throughout the whole orchestra.
The second section is heralded by a fast, rhythmic duet for two trumpets punctuated by stabbing chords in the orchestra. Here the brass-led fanfares of the opening become more rapid outbursts in tuned percussion, upper woodwind and celesta.
Extended melody in the violins predominates in the third section forming the essentially melodic core of the work. Bright flourishes in woodwind, celesta and harp gradually take on a more significant role before becoming the central focus. The bell-like fanfares of the earlier sections begin to assert themselves once again before fragments of the restless, surging scales of the opening lead to the work’s main climax.
The final section is much quieter and reflective in nature, including solos for oboe, muted trumpet, clarinet and bassoon.

D. H. Lawrence – Week-night Service

The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
Imploring, protesting
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping.

The silver moon
That somebody has spun so high
To settle the question, yes or no, has caught
In the net of the night’s balloon,
And sits with a smooth bland smile up there in the sky
Smiling at naught,
Unless the winking star that keeps her company
Makes little jests at the bells’ insanity,
As if he knew aught!

The patient Night
Sits indifferent, hugged in her rags,
She neither knows nor cares
Why the old church sobs and brags;
The light distresses her eyes, and tears
Her old blue cloak, as she crouches and covers her face,
Smiling, perhaps, if we knew it, at the bells’ loud clattering disgrace.

The wise old trees
Drop their leaves with a faint, sharp hiss of contempt,
While a car at the end of the street goes by with a laugh;
As by degrees
The poor bells cease, and the Night is exempt,
And the stars can chaff
The ironic moon at their ease, while the dim old church
Is peopled with shadows and sounds and ghosts that lurch
In its cenotaph.

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