Proms 2022: Hildur Guðnadóttir – The Fact of the Matter (World Première)

by 5:4

Last night’s Prom concert included the first of this year’s crop of premières. The Fact of the Matter is a 16-minute response to the current state of the world by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. In the pre-concert discussion, she spoke about the divisions between people, and the feeling that “we’re going backwards … instead of coming together and joining forces … we seem to be more concerned about being right with our opinions”, and that everyone has their own “fact of the matter”.

The piece is divided into four short sections: What is the Matter?, Matter of Fact, Matter of Attention and The Fact of the Matter. The distinction between them is minimal, as the piece as a whole is coloured by a consistent tone of dark heaviness, each section of which essentially continues from where the last one left off. The intense melancholy running through the piece manifests primarily in a combination of harmonic stasis and music that cycles round and round, less as something smooth than as a mixture of pulsations and halting phrases. (As such, the different sections could be heard as simply larger-scale halting phrases.) The gentleness of the first section is lightly challenged by the way, later on, strings and vibraphone give the sense of soft but real insistence in their pulsations. In the second section (~7:09) Guðnadóttir pushes the music forward, and though it remains restrained, the pushiness indicates a tension and inner energy. Still the music keeps pausing and restarting, as if unable to maintain composure, cycling round in changing instrumental and timbral forms.

Hildur Guðnadóttir

The third section (~9:38) moves into solemnity, the combination of brass, strings and austere voices projecting a muted but tangible earnestness, the work’s pulsing now becoming more substantial surges. For the final section (~12:20), that solemnity becomes the starting point for a sombre intoning chant. Low, brooding, downcast, occasionally sagging, the chant slowly makes its way upwards, but it’s not a movement towards anything like transcendence. Far from positive or optimistic, Guðnadóttir’s conclusion is one that sounds desperate, a couple of short, sharp accents cutting through the high strings that sustain for rather too long at the end.

The Fact of the Matter made me reflect on the function of requiems, and that, far from making anything better, they simply lament, projecting – and, perhaps, beginning to come to terms with – immense sadness and pain. The stark limitations in Guðnadóttir’s material – which on a first listening can make the piece seem pretty inert – are a necessary part of the despair not just at the work’s core but running through each and every one of its cycling strands and surges. As such, i can’t help hearing its conclusion not as an ascent into the light, but as a memory of light and, at best, the implied hope that, one day, that light might become truly visible again.

The world première of The Fact of the Matter was given by the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska.

As usual on 5:4, you can express your own view about each of this year’s premières using the poll below. Once the season has come to an end, i’ll be crunching the numbers to see how you all voted.


Hildur Guðnadóttir - The Fact of the Matter
  • Loved it! (13%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (40%, 16 Votes)
  • Meh (18%, 7 Votes)
  • Disliked it (18%, 7 Votes)
  • Hated it! (13%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 40

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Chris L

This struck me, particularly near the beginning, as a more demonstrative cousin of Adam Janota Bzowski’s Saint Maud track from the film of the same name; as you put in your review of Bzowski’s soundtrack, “…something akin to a funeral dirge played on a dark day with glimpses of sun piercing through the clouds…it sounds like the music is walking on eggshells…”. Later, there seemed to be something of the impassioned-but-ever-circling search for spiritual direction one encounters in the later Schnittke symphonies. It all added up to a hard act for the later Proms premières to follow…

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