The Accents of National Music

As we listen to music, even if we don’t know the piece or composer, we can sometimes identify the national origin of a work.  ‘That’s French!’, we might declare, or Russian, or English, Nordic, Bohemian, Eastern European, American, or whatever else.  As a scholar, a musicologist, a recurring theme that is of interest to some, in talks or notes, is how that sense of nationalism is created.  What is it that allows us to identify that national origin?  What is it that defines a national voice?  How can we identify what it is that make those nationalist differences in music, and what they are?  More fundamentally, do these boundaries truly exist?

After the question of national identity in music arose in a discussion panel at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song in 2017, composer Martin Bussey remarked that he doesn’t set out to write ‘English music’.  Nor do I.  It is the last thing on our minds.  I don’t believe any composer sets out upon their career, or indeed a work, thinking, ‘I must write music as befits my nationality!’  In writing an idea, we don’t think, ‘I can’t write that: it just isn’t representative of the national voice and music to which I am contributing and belong!’  In the case of several composers I have spoken to, we write the music that we want to hear.  Even when a composer is part of a movement that consciously seeks to create, or rationalise, a national cultural voice, they cannot ‘create’ that identity.  Such movements (think Finland, and their 19th century movement towards independence) draw upon traditional cultures: folklore, folk-songs, the reclamation of native language where it has been suppressed — elements of their national, non-occupationist, culture that have survived on the fringes.  Beyond that, a composer or writer cannot truly create a national voice.  It comes from somewhere deeper.

While personal musical style can be a conscious, or half-conscious thing that a composer refines and hones with practice and writing, any sense of a national cultural identity that might be perceived in that music is a subconscious, if not indeed wholly unconscious, act.  So what is it that underpins that unconscious, or half-subconscious, yet tangible sense of ‘national music’?

Much has been written of landscape and music, particularly in Britain with the perceived pastoralism of composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and the late-19th–early-20th century school.  Is it the landscape that shapes it?  Is there something of the elemental rock of Iceland, unsoftened by green, in Jon Liefs, as one might say of the green pastures of England’s pastoralism?  Can we differentiate between the urban and rural?  Perhaps we can, but Vaughan Williams, as an adoptive Londoner, wrote many of his apparently pastoral works in that metropole (although I think landscapes reside within us more than without — but that is an essay for another day).  A more fundamental and constant part of our environment I think does have some bearing on national style: the climate; the heat of Spain, the more temperate variance of Britain, and the cool Nordic climes, such as the quality of light in those places is evident in visual art.  Also of bearing, is our national cultural distinction, the nature of our characters.  Of this, I believe one aspect is crucial and fundamental: our language; our voices.  Language is, I believe, the true key to that sense of national identity in music; something ingrained in us from even before we leave our mother’s body, hearing the shape and sound of that which is spoken around us.  In Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ (the Gaelic question is a subject for yet another essay, perhaps), a line stands out in this respect: ‘It wasn’t a factory that made your language — it made you.’  It is likely a factory of men of which he writes (‘Keep / out of the factory, O man, you are not a robot.’), but it is true also of the language: it, the language, made you.

Our language is at the root of our cultural identity and of our music making.  The most basic and innate instrument we have is our voice.  Composing is a singing (a truth I have only discovered this last few years, as the balance between my singing and composing has shifted), and the origin of the sounds that we sing come from the well practised art of speech: from the shape and sound of the vowels in our language and accent, the lie of the consonants and their placing and prominence, the construction of the language, the character of the line, the cadences, and the wider tonal level, range and natural lyrical shape of that speech.  All of this impacts upon how we shape sound in music as we compose.  While it would likely benefit from some scientific surety — a deeper, metalinguistic study, for which I am not qualified — from my standpoint as a writer, a composer, a singer, and a musicologist, there seem to be some extraordinarily strong links between language, accent, and national musics.

At a very crude level, think of Mussorgsky’s extraordinary Boris Godunov.  The Russian language, from my experience of attempting to sing the language, with its verbal placing of sounds towards the rear of the tongue rather than at its tip.  This deep production, and unique sound, seems to resound in the aural quality of Boris (think of the motto theme of that work).  The impressionistic qualities of French music seem to me to echo something of spoken French; the openness of American speech gives something of that quality to their music.  Linguistically, do the formal aspects  of Teutonic music that have came to dominate Western Music for so long have their foundation in the formal, compound-construction of the German language?  Perhaps I imposing these ideas on these national musics, seeing something that isn’t really there; but I don’t think I am. It requires, however, a linguistic analysis — however that might work — with defined parameters that don’t risk resortion to, or definition by, malperceived stereotypes.

But these are hugely cosmopolitan times.  With the ease of international travel (for better or for worse), and the cross-fertilisation and enriching of cultures that arises with the movement of peoples and forming of immigrant communities, with the changes and collaborations that might be possible in that movement (something which has been present in our various nations’ societies and cultures for thousands of years); and with the dilution of parochialism in the centralisation of businesses and services in international centres, are we at risk of losing our national identities?  Are we losing that aural sense of origin, of place, morphing into a homogenous individualism (if that isn’t a too great an apparently-irreconcilable contradiction) devoid of national locus?  No, I don’t think we are, nor will we ever do so.  We will always be true to that native language of our upbringing, be it bilingual or otherwise, in whatever place that upbringing takes place.  It is part of our uniqueness in belonging to a nation (or more than one), and our individual voices.

Thinking further on the national identity of music makes me wonder further whether there is any way of identifying ultra-localism in the music, from the dialects and accents within a nation.  Even though the language is the same, can we identify something of the midland drawl, the harsher tones of English-speaking Glaswegians, or the more song-like tone of the English-speaking Welsh, in music written by composers of these places?  I should love to know.

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A Lament for Æthelflæd

I am just completing a new work that is, for the present, a rarity for me: a commission.  It is a small piece I was invited to write for Gloucester’s commemorations of the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great; an extraordinary woman, warrior and queen, who was laid to rest in Gloucester, where she had established the priory of St. Oswald, bringing that saint’s relics to the city.

It was a tricky brief to fulfil, and indeed much of the time I have spent on the project has been devoted to reading Anglo-Saxon poetry and texts, endeavouring to find something that might suitably commemorate this great queen of the kingdom of Mercia — the Myrcna hlaedige; Lady of Mercia.  I sought references to Æthelflæd in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: the idea of the ancient method of reciting poetry made me wonder about telling her story in a sung narration, to which ends I extracted various passages about Æthelflæd from those Chronicles, but couldn’t quite give the text sufficient body or purpose.  (There is a particularly touching passage that tells of Æthelflæd’s grief at the loss of four of her theigns, killed ‘within the gates’ of Derby during the offensive in which she successfully reclaimed from the invading Danes in 917AD).  I almost set a couple of passages from the poem ‘Elene’, which seem to echo something of Æthelflæd’s founding of St. Oswald’s Priory, the poem telling of the finding of the True Cross and the building of a church to house that relic.  In the end I found something that fitted what had been my initial thought on the project: to find a text suitable to form a Lament for Æthelflæd.

The text I found is from that great 10th century source of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book.  It is the end of the 9th century poem telling of the deeds of the Mercian saint, St. Guthlac of Croyland.  I selected various lines from the end of the second part of that poem, Guthlac B; lines relating the death of St. Guthlac.  I couldn’t find a completely satisfactory translation, and so, with an 1842 translation of Codex Exoniensis by Benjamin Thorpe as my guide (see here, pp.183-4), and with the help of an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I set about creating my own translation.  I substituted references to ‘him’ with ‘her’, and added three words from the poem ‘Elene’ — words used to describe Elene: ‘Leader of Warriors’.  (I have seen it suggested that Elene may have been based upon Æthelflæd, but cannot recall where in my readings this was.)  The text I devised became:

Lament for Æthelflæd

Courage is best for those that oft must endure profound misery. Think deep on their torment. Their Lord’s death when it comes, woven by fate’s decree, they shall grieve with sorrowing soul, knowing their kind treasure giver is hidden in earth.

Our Lady, leader of warriors, the best of those between the seas, to God’s judgement, (staff of the weary), from worldly joy and loving kin, in glory has gone to seek that dwelling-place on high.

Now her portion of earth, a broken bone-house, is a house inhabited with death’s-rest, and that wondrous portion of body has in God’s light sought the glorious reward, to partake with the peaceful host of that well-spring of bliss.

It would have been good to have set the words in Anglo-Saxon Old English — indeed I would have preferred to in some ways, being more authentic in its voice.  Perhaps, if there had been more time I would have done so.  However, the difficulties in doing so in a reasonably short time-frame were several: knowing the pronunciation of the language would have been critical, so that it could be accented and properly nuanced in its setting; being able to relay that pronunciation to performers who, likely as not, would be similarly in the dark as to the verbal forming and aural interpretation of the text; and finally, the adjustments I was making to the text were readily done in modern English, but to make them in the original Anglo-Saxon would require an intimate grasp of the grammatical nuances of the language, adjusting masculine to feminine or neuter as required.  Without my being able to take more time than I had trying to grasp the intimacies of the language, and without a tame but knowledgable scholar of Anglo-Saxon to consult, I would not dare risk setting the original Old English.

Musically, I am using a perhaps slightly unusual ensemble, but one that I thought might be quasi-authentic. To the accompaniment of a solo violin (a quasi-rebec, as would have been used in the 10th century) and tenor drum, three solo voices — soprano, alto and tenor — give their lament. (Thinking on it now, the drum is perhaps a nod to Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, although I didn’t think of this when I conceived the piece.)  My mind’s eye saw a banquet being held in Æthelflæd’s honour, where the honoured bard, keeper of the Kingdom’s tales and lore, singer of poetry, gives voice to the kingdom’s grief. Whilst there are nods to the period, musically, the Lament is (I’m afraid!) very much a contemporary work.  Beyond knowledge of instruments, we don’t really know what their music sounded like anyway, so it would be folly to try to write in pastiche.

The joy of this small commission is that, unlike the pieces I write to fulfil my own ideas, there is a performance of the piece already in place, and possibly even two performances!  My Lament for Æthelflæd will be premiered next month by Vicki & Sebastian Field’s group, ‘Gaudeamus’.  There is a concert performance in the Gloucester Music Festival on 26th June (the day before my lecture–recital on Gurney in that festival), and, depending on how the programme works out, it may be performed before then, on 8th June at St. Oswald’s Priory, in the opening event of Gloucester’s Æthelflæd Festival.  Four other composers were commissioned also, so there is a collection of new works to be given in honour of the Lady of Mercia at these events.  It will be fascinating to hear what those others have done.  All being well, with permission of the performers, I may be able to post a recording of the thing (if I manage it) in due course.

Juggling

Life is a bounteous thing. There are so many paths; so many experiences to have. There are people with whom to share life, be it your family, old friendships and acquaintanceships, or new meetings; places to walk or see; books, music, art &c. to be absorbed; work to be done, be it creative or functional; and ideas and aspirations to be pursued. It can be difficult to know where to turn. Every day there are a multitude of decisions that are made that shape and come to define what and who we are. In my life, with our four young children (ranging from 8 months to 7 years), and multitudinous projects and aspirations on the go, as a composer, academic, writer and singer, it can become seriously overwhelming, trying to decide what to get done. This blog has stagnated, in part because I have not known what to write about from the many things going on, and in part for trying to get on with those things in the first place! This last month or so has seen me singing Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Gurney’s Western Playland for the first time (amongst other singings), lecturing on Gurney and First World War music, writing a CD booklet note for a new disc due out in October, as well as making some substantive progress with my book on Gurney, completing the composition of an extended work for soprano and piano and trying to build momentum on a rare commission, trying to keep on top of the numerous orders for orchestral parts for forthcoming Gurney performances, and edging closer to the submission to the publishers of both the first volume of the big Gurney poetry edition (2 weeks, fingers crossed!) and a volume of his songs.  I’ve also had an article and a poem published.  This is all before we get onto the family and the job searching and applications I am making to try to afford to keep a roof over our heads. I am certain that this is a light load compared to many; but I think it is the juggling that takes its toll, not knowing quite which hat you need to be wearing.

It has been suggested that I ‘give something up’; that I whittle down what I do in order to focus on just one thing or another. The problem is, what? They are all important parts of what I am.  The family, the singing, the telling-the-world about all the things that excite me, and my original work.  I did stop this latter for over a decade, but it has grown increasingly important to me; even necessary.  It was my frustration at not being able to express myself and exorcise ideas from my brain that drove me back to it in 2011; and while I have enjoyed being out of the cathedral system in which I served for two decades, I do greatly miss the regular singing and return to it with renewed joy when the few opportunities arise for me to sing.  If anything I should like to do more singing, but what gives in its stead?  And there is that eternal question which performers ask, and indeed composers of their works: how do I get more performances than I am getting?  The only answer, I think from experience, is to get out there and meet performers and promoters and to arrange your own outlets — all of which is, I think, more difficult when located in rural Devon rather than a bustling metropole, perhaps.  I haven’t yet ‘put myself out there’ in Devon, following our move here a few years ago.  Something on the ‘To-do’ list — although we do not yet know whether we are able to put permanent roots down here, as we crave.

There are things that suffer: I always try to give 100% of myself to whatever task is in hand, and being a perfectionist in my work I do try to work things through meticulously, which takes time.  In crossing between tasks, however, it can take yet more time to eke one’s way back in, to pick up where one left off.  In that crossing between tasks, sometimes, days or weeks later, one finds a small detail niggling at the back of your mind that you might have missed.  Occasionally a ball is dropped, and something that might only take a day to polish off can end up waiting three months before it is ‘got round to’.  Emails — one of the banes of modern life, but a wonderfully useful tool when used in moderation — can very quickly sink below the screen and end up being forgotten.  The deadline of a performance or lecture date focus the mind wonderfully, there being no leaway with such events that require you to stand up and present something at a particular time; but other things can get a little lost in the midst of all.

On a more personal note, I am not in touch with my friends as frequently as I should like, but I am fortunate in being able to see my family far more than many another working father would, which is a great great joy.  (Being here when the children return from school/nursery; and our 8-month-old little boy is just starting to explore speech sounds, although only two words with association have yet been formed: ‘cat’ and, just this lunchtime, that most important of words, ‘Tea’.)  But I still worry about how much time I spend at my desk when they are around, and how I can be a better husband; a better father.  This worry grows as I look to a possible future as a full-time academic — should any of my applications ever bear fruit, wherever in the country such a post might take us.

While it can be difficult to juggle several careers (as such) — aspects of my work which it is easy to pigeonhole and separate out, to undertake alone as a sole pursuit — the exciting thing about them all is how they feed into each other and enrich each single occupation.  My academic work on poetry informs my understanding of the poetry I sing; the performing of that poetry through singing enhances my understanding of it, which feeds into my research and writing about those works (I am fortunate in being asked most frequently to perform the British music I study); that same act of singing, both of music and words, and the wider study of words and music, enhance both my composing and my own poetry.  My family is the bedrock of all; the constant against which all else shifts and grows and renews.

So yes, life is bounteous thing, and while I could, theoretically, give up some aspect of my work, making additional room for the other aspects, it would diminish both myself and those other pursuits to do so.  It would be very difficult for me to give one of them up, and anyway, I am unable to choose which it would be.  The creativity became a physical necessity and so I had to take up that mantle again; the more academic tasks excite me and I feel hugely proud and privileged to have played a part in bringing new works out of the archive to publication and performance, and to be setting the record straight on one certain Mr. Gurney.  As for the family: before I turned 30 I imagined myself to be a bachelor, devoting my life to research.  One chance meeting changed this, and our family has become the greatest thing I have ever done.  So I cannot give up anything.  Nor can I do as I have so often been implored, to keep it all as a hobby and go and get a job in a bank.  If anything I should like to turn my hand to additional things, to letterpress printing; to visual art, in which I dabbled long ago; and to do more walking, gardening and cooking, all of which I love.

So often in life, we have to choose.  We have to set ourselves in one pigeonhole or another.  When dealing with the systems of ‘civilisation’, be it for car insurance, loans or other such a thing, you need to be able to define yourself as one thing or another; you need to be able to give a single label occupation.  Life isn’t like that.  We grow in many directions, and to cut off one of those directions can compromise what we are.  So I shall carry on juggling.  I shall keep on composing, writing, singing, researching, being a husband and father, for all of these are what I am.  I shall keep trying not to let a ball drop, and to keep bringing the various ideas and projects to fruition.  It may take me years, but I get there, and each time something is finally put to bed one of the amassing reservoir of new ideas will take its place.  New works, new research projects, new challenges and adventures for the family.  A juggle, a worry at times, with often not enough of a living to be financially comfortable, but worth every moment.

A Christmas Offering

In recent weeks I have been revising and completing a piece which I first drafted a year ago: an Aubade for Christmas Morning, for 2-part trebles and string quartet. It is a setting of a short poem by the Finnish poet Bo Carpelan (1926-2011), in a translation by David McDuff, ‘The green tree, the blue sea’, from Carpelan’s collection The Cool Day (1961). It is not an openly ‘Christmassy’ poem, if there is such a thing. Indeed it doesn’t even mention that, or any other, season — nor indeed any time of day. It is extraordinarily simple in its means. A tree holds its arms above a child; the sound of the sea mingles with the child’s breath. These interactions with the child happened ‘years ago’, and yet the tree and the sea remain: through them we have a connection with that child. The child might be any child, but the apparent need to hold that connection, to feel that link, made me think of a particular child whose birth we celebrate in late December. My aubade echoes the procession of these ideas: the peace of the child; the passing of time; and the joy at the realisation that the connection with the child remains. Whilst I completed that first draft some while ago, the end has always nagged at me as being unsatisfactory. It was just too unabatedly joyful; its end to too decisively affirmative. Those who know me will testify to my curmudgeonliness. I am what is most properly known as a ‘grumpy bugger’ — but that is not to say that I don’t know joy. I merely express it in more introverted ways. One of those ways is through my music, where one can risk just a little joy, but — as in the case of the Aubade — it can’t be too forthright in its expression. So, I revised the end, the joy easing into a peace imbued with that joy; a peace born of the knowledge that we share those connections of the tree and sea that witnessed the child’s being. The Christmasness (if there is such a word) of the setting is affirmed in small nods to both ‘The Sussex Carol’ and ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ in the acompaniment.

There are, I suppose, two questions that might be asked: why did I turn to a Finnish poet, and why the curious and unusual accompaniment for string quartet? The answer lies in a short piece by the remarkable Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, whose work I admire enormously: Vintern var hård — ‘Winter was hard’ (click here to hear the piece on YouTube). When exploring Sallinen’s works, in the wake of my discovery of his music through the fabulous Barrabas Dialogues, I stumbled upon Vintern var hård. I was struck by its remarkable texture — treble voices and string quartet — and its austere atmosphere. However, I was frustrated, solely from a musical perspective, that the piece didn’t progress or develop significantly. I felt there was so much more scope for the thing. However, Sallinen is in fact absolutely correct in his conception of the piece! He sets a poem from Bo Carpelan’s 1969 poetry collection The Courtyard, which is a series of poems which draws upon Carpelan’s recollection of his 1930s childhood in Helsinfors. The collection is inhabited solely by what he describes as the poor; the beaten; the silenced. Austerity is both the subject and the means of the poetry. In the short poem set by Sallinen, there is insufficient bread for the dissatisfied ducks, never mind the people; the water is freezing and ‘even the money froze inside the bank’. ‘Saturday evening’, he writes, ‘could only be celebrated every second Saturday.’ Winter was hard. Therefore the unyielding austerity of Sallinen’s setting — the purposelessness in its staid demeanour — is wholly in keeping with the poem. He is taking heed of Carpelan, echoing absolutely his image.

To answer my musical thoughts, I thought I would explore a piece of my own for the ensemble; and what better way to pay homage to that work by setting Carpelan, as did Sallinen. I have a ‘thing’ about Finland–Swedish poetry, and indeed Nordic music, so was only too glad to become better acquainted with Carpelan’s work through the means of David McDuff’s invaluable translations. (If you are so inclined, I do urge you to seek out his translations both of Carpelan and, more especially, the contemporary Finland–Swedish poet Tua Forsström, the latter available from Bloodaxe.) And so my Aubade for Christmas Morning was born, set with the kind permission of Carcanet Press, the publisher of McDuff’s translation of a set of three collections by Carpelan, gathered together in a volume from Carcanet titled Homecoming (1993).

With such an esoteric accompaniment, I suppose one might perhaps turn one’s mind to arranging the piece for something more generally useful, like trebles and organ. The problem is that, if I were writing the piece for organ, it would be an entirely different piece: I would not have written it as it is. It has been conceived for the string quartet and I don’t think it would work satisfactorily on the organ. It might perhaps be feasible to arrange the accompaniment for organ with violin obligato, but I’m not wholly sure. For now, however, it will stand as it is, and I shall move on to other works that are craving my immediate attention. In writing the work in the way I did, I had in mind Lichfield Cathedral, where, until December 2014, I was bass Lay Vicar Choral in the cathedral choir. In recent years they had been having a string quartet join the choir to accompany Christmas morning eucharist alongside the organ. Sadly this hasn’t happened since I wrote the piece.

Do you have a quartet at your disposal alongside a girls’ or boys’ choir? Or are you perhaps performing the Sallinen and wondering about a companion piece? Do get in touch if you would like to see the score. I shall be having it printed before long to make it available.

A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator. 

Shifting perspectives: The growth of a work

Since late last year I have, in a few idle moments, been writing a work for unaccompanied SSAATTBB choir that has been in my mind for a few years: a Lenten reflection on mortality, ‘We are but dust’. As always, the process of writing has become a voyage of exploration. The ideas with which the work was conceived have grown and developed, and I am hopeful that this Reflection will come to fruition in the next couple of months (too late for this Lent, alas, but in good time for next). 

One of the passages I have written I like very much, but there is a problem: the music has become too overblown for the context — a passage from a poem by Edward Thomas (set alongside a verse from psalm 103). The Thomas needs something more subtle, so I must scrap the passage which had grown. 

A few weeks ago I was reading William Blake’s Vala or The Four Zoas. It is a remarkable and beautiful weaving of mythology, which I shall be revisiting soon. Whilst reading ‘Night the Second’, two lines stood out at me:

Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain

To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss.

Somehow, part of this suited the music I had had to cut from the Reflection; and these lines could also provide a wonderful counterpoint to the thoughts on mortality in the Reflection. It occurred to me that, with its common theme and shared music, it might form an Epilogue to the piece, or better still an Epilogue to a pair of such Reflections. So I now have a set on my hands, in development; a set in which the two initial Reflections might be performed singly, but the whole might also be done, with a connecting Epilogue. The multiple architectural requirements need some consideration, and will work out in the writing. More fundamentally, a second text needs to be settled upon. I have one option in hand, but it will take a while for me to know if and what will be the right course and text for the piece. In the meantime I shall be able to complete the original, first Reflection, and send that self-contained part out into the world. 

I very often curse my brain for coming up with ideas, so creating work and projects that I often do not have the time for; but I do get excited by the ideas and the process of bringing them to fulfilment. Whether it is of Gurney and my other scholarly pursuits, or my own ideas, I keep striving to clear the decks, bringing projects and ideas to a close and so exorcising them from my brain so that they don’t keep pestering me. The only problem is — at times frustrating, at times thrilling — that completing and bringing these ideas to fruition, exorcising them from the mind, only makes room for yet more ideas that clamour for my attention and time. I can’t suppress a slight frisson of excitement at both the prospect of completing current projects, so sharing them with the world, and at what might fill the relative void when they are done. 

A New Collaboration: The Canticle in Exile

In December I was sent some Christmas texts by the poet and librettist Euan Tait. I had first encountered Euan and his extraordinary facility, craft and vision, in his libretto for a choral symphony by my friend Paul Spicer, Unfinished Remembering. We crossed paths a couple of times thereafter, and began an occasional correspondence; he heard my setting of Gurney’s Bach and the Sentry and attended the premiere of War Passion, and we began to talk about whether we might perhaps collaborate on a work. 

We were hoping to meet and talk in the summer, but life and a house-move intervened. So, in December, Euan sent me some Christmas poems. Euan’s poems were remarkable for the freshness, vitality and reinvigoration of what I have sometimes thought to be hackneyed ways of the well-trodden path of Christmas. But, for personal reasons, I felt ill-suited to them, and that I couldn’t take on their setting with sincerity. In my reply to Euan I mentioned that I had been wondering whether I might find a way to channel my worries for, and about, the current refugee situation into a piece. The Calais camp had not long been cleared; reporting of the battle for Aleppo was at its peak; and I was struck by some lines from an article by Robert Fisk in The Independent, which came to my attention at that time: ‘Barbed wire along the Hungarian border, barbed wire at Calais’. Where is the compassion and humanity in denying temporary refuge to those who are fleeing war and death? I feel voiceless and powerless to change the political juggernaut, but I thought that I should say something in the way I best can. I sent my email to Euan, explaining this, late at night. I was a little worried about his being disappointed in my declining his Christmas poems. When his reply came the following morning, I was staggered to find an extraordinary new poem attached which voiced so powerfully my thoughts about the refugee situation. It immediately sang in me, suggesting its own music. Here was our first collaboration: Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile. In a few snatched moments in the last few weeks, between Gurney and the family, the music has begun to emerge onto the page. 

As you will see in the title, the work is a Canticle. Not a canticle as in the hymns said or intoned/sung at morning or evening prayer, but in the manner of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles. 

It is curious, perhaps, that with the death of Benjamin Britten, his Canticle ‘form’ died. Britten composed five such canticles, for varying chamber combinations.  The one constant is, as one might expect with Britten, is the tenor voice, with the canticles — like so many of Britten’s vocal works — being written for his partner Peter Pears.  The form is slightly difficuly to define, which may be the reason for its not having been taken on as a medium by other composers. For Britten, they grew out of the work of Henry Purcell; his Divine Hymns. They are semi-dramatic works in several sections; miniature cantatas and scena that often address a religious theme, but more often than not using texts of secular origin. 

Euan has long wondered about trying to rescucitate the Canticle, and this new collaboration marks — as the title implies — the first of a few such works that we intend to create together. (He has already sent, or read to me, his proposed texts for two further canticles. The flow, virility and bounty of his gift is miraculous and enviable. My music comes much more slowly.)

The text for this first canticle is a perfect successor to Britten’s canticles, and it is very much in that mode. It is a vehicle for the showing of humanity. It is a narrative of a woman fleeing with her son: Miriam; an Everywoman, who could be Mary fleeing with Christ in the wake of Herod’s diktat of slaughter, or the flight of   too many others from war or persecution. Euan’s poem encompasses the destruction of their lives, the decision to flee, the enmity with which they are viewed by some (‘We are strangers to you, not enemies’), and the great power of the humanity and compassion that might be shown by just one individual. 

I have returned to Purcell in my thinking about the form, and in my setting I have broken free of Britten by scoring it for soprano, with piano accompaniment. My early ideas added a clarinet to the mix, but this fell by the wayside the last time I was able to work on the canticle. I am excited by this new work, at being able to say something about the current (and historically recurrent) situation, and at my collaboration with Euan, which through our correspondence and first proper meeting last week, has become a sharing of friendship as well as of poetry and music. 

Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile will likely take me until the summer to complete, with my needing to focus my energies upon my Gurneian occupations, as well as in my wanting to complete a short choral work in progress. I have sounded out a soprano about perhaps bringing the canticle to performance and will share news of how things develop as and when they do. 

‘The cold was the borders of their mouths…’


To find out more about Euan Tait and his work, please do take a look at his website, euantait.com. Details of Paul Spicer’s Unfinished Remembering can be found Here, and a recording available Here.