Killing My Darlings: Extra Abbatia (2009)

by 5:4

Extra Abbatia for piano quartet was completed on 26 January 2009. It was composed during my doctoral studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire, following a request from the Schubert Ensemble (during a residency) for works lasting around one minute.

The piece began life as an academic exercise. My composition tutor had been challenging me to explore the harmonic practices of Elliott Carter (pitch-class sets), and i composed a short 90-second response for piano. The exercise stipulated i should use plainsong, and i opted for two, the second and fourth antiphons sung at Lauds on Good Friday, though i was admittedly drawn to them more for the words than the music: Anxiatus est in me spiritus meus: in me turbatum est cor meum (“My spirit is anxious within me, and my heart is troubled”) and Dum conturbata fuerit anima mea, Domine, misericordiae memor eris (“When my soul is troubled, Lord, you will remember your mercy”).

The music oscillated between short phrases from each antiphon, the second rendered as loud, angry, hammered-out statements in the bass (marked “with barely-suppressed anger”) while the fourth answered with soft, high phrases that were, emotionally-speaking, much harder to read (“gentle but strange”). In the piano quartet arrangement, this oscillation was split between the piano and the strings, with the fourth antiphon chant given to cello harmonics.

Extra Abbatia, bars 1-2

The texts of the two antiphons balance each other out – one distressed, the other hopeful – and this was reflected in the work’s very short narrative, with the piano’s rage becoming reduced, in the process rising out of the depths (all within a single bar! there was simply no possibility in such a short piece for anything to happen gradually).

Extra Abbatia, bar 6

The (in hindsight, rather predictable) conclusion united the piano and strings, playing together the final phrase of the fourth antiphon – gently surging and then dying away – with the plainsong heard in both the cello and piano parts.

The reason i was set this exercise is because, at the time, i was struggling to make sense of my harmonic language, and my tutor therefore wanted me to explore various existing approaches. Perhaps it was inevitable, but i found working with pitch-class sets to be laborious, clunky and uninspiring, though the exercise was beneficial inasmuch as it convinced me that the only way forward was not to borrow from anyone else’s method but to figure out my own (which, in due course, i did).

Extra Abbatia was performed just once, by the Schubert Ensemble, at a workshop on 26 February 2009, and i most definitely never wanted to hear it again. This is the first work in this occasional series for which documents still existed: the original hand-written score – in both its piano and piano quartet versions – together with some pages of sketches (which bear witness to me practically pulling my hair out while working with pitch-class sets) and photocopied pages from the Liber Usualis. These have now been shredded, and the usual related digital files – a Sibelius score, PDF score and parts, and an audio file of the Schubert Ensemble performance – have now all been deleted.

Extra Abbatia, bar 8

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