It’s Ash Wednesday, the traditional first day of Lent, so it’s time for my annual 5:4 Lent Series. Last year, i took nature as my theme as something of an antidote to the fact that, at the time, being able to travel and explore the natural world was difficult if not impossible. This year, in what may or may not turn out to be the wake of the pandemic, and also may or may not turn out to be the start of a major international conflict, the idea of an antidote seems irrelevant, even irresponsible. So this year’s theme is perhaps as dark as it gets: i’ll be exploring music confronting the horrors of loss, grief and death.
To begin, a short choral work by Iranian composer Aftab Darvishi. And the world stopped, lacking you… was composed in 2016 and sets a powerful text by Vera Brittain, whose experiences as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during World War I led to her becoming an outspoken pacifist, expressed in her prose and poetry. Her poem ‘Perhaps’, composed in 1916, reflects on a possible future in the face of agonising loss. It is an epitome of blanched optimism, not so much hope against hope as an internal wrangling with whether or not hope is desirable in the circumstances, let alone possible. The final lines speak of her heart being broken, and that brokenness extends throughout the entire poem, rendering it inert and desolate. Each “perhaps” is weak and half-hearted, not remotely aspirational but simply vague and numb.
Darvishi’s response to the words is to render them a mixture of chanting and keening. The first lines from each stanza are freely moved between, expressed in a dry monotone, surrounded by rising and falling whistles like a sharp, chill wind. A soprano solo rises out from this, half singing, half crying, over the rest of the choir; the lower voices appear to offer warmth, but their notes are hollow and strange. As it continues, there’s a sense of the music not really progressing anywhere but, in a similar way to Brittain’s text, going round and round in circles in a kind of dazed anguish.
It’s not until around the midpoint of the piece that the music briefly moves beyond this, the soprano projecting her final note with real strength. It triggers a period of more emotionally-lucid internal reflection, first reduced to whispered references to the lost love surrounded by floating whistles, followed by two short, painful phrases confessing her broken heart. Whereupon the chanting restarts and the music is broken and numb once again, closed up in a sonic defence mechanism against the raw pain of loss. It ends as it began: sparse, blank and devastated.
This performance of And the world stopped, lacking you… was given by the BBC Singers conducted by James Morgan at a concert in September 2018.
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue.
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of Spring seem gay.
And I shall find the white May blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.
But, though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.