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…’