About this Recording
8.572595 - SWAYNE, G.: Stabat mater / The silent land / Magnificat I / Ave verum corpus (Wallfisch, Dmitri Ensemble, G. Ross)

Giles Swayne (b. 1946)
O Lulum • Magnificat I • The silent land • Ave verum corpus • Stabat mater


The four pieces on this recording represent three decades in my choral music. Magnificat I (Op. 33) was written in May 1982—a few months after I had returned from Senegal, where I heard and recorded the Jola song O Lulum which opens the disc; The silent land (Op. 70) was written in 1996–97, just after I had returned to Britain from Ghana, where I had lived for six years; Ave verum corpus (Op. 94) and Stabat mater (Op. 95) were written in 2003 and 2004 respectively, shortly after I began teaching composition at Cambridge—an association which led to my becoming composer-in-residence at Clare College in 2008.

These Cambridge associations are underlined by the performing and production team for this recording. Producer John Rutter—himself a composer of world acclaim—was Director of Music at Clare before Tim Brown, who is one of my closest friends, and who was responsible for luring me to back Cambridge in 2003. It was Tim Brown who conducted the première of The silent land at the Spitalfields Festival in 1998, and for whom I wrote the Ave verum corpus. Conductor (and composer) Graham Ross, whose talent and energy brought this recording into being, was my student at Clare, and succeeded Tim Brown as Clare’s Director of Music in September 2010. His performances of my Stabat mater with The Dmitri Ensemble in March 2008 were so powerful and so faithful to the score that he was the obvious person to conduct this first recording.

Despite these Cambridge connections, the music on this disc is by an outsider to the English choral tradition. I was brought up a Catholic, and escaped religion as soon as I could. Nevertheless, it delights me that my choral music is sung by church choirs, for while religion has no monopoly on the spiritual, it still has a big role to play. The three strands of influence on my choral writing have been the Latin plainchant which I absorbed (willy-nilly) as a boy, the genetic imprint of Tudor polyphony, and the primal force of traditional African music. Echoes of all three can be heard in the music on this disc.

In December 1981 I went on a field-trip to Senegal to record the music of the Jola people who inhabit the southern region of the country—named Casamance after the river which runs through it to the Atlantic. I recorded the song O Lulum one night in January 1982 in the village of Badem Karantabà, about thirty miles south-east of the regional capital, Ziguinchor. The archive of recordings from which it is taken is stored in the British Library, and may be heard online. A short excerpt of O Lulum has been included as an introduction to this disc, since its opening refrain was used in Magnificat I, written a few months later. It is a robust farming song; the words consist of affectionate insults of a village character called Lulum. The refrain means: “Lulum talks, but he never listens”.

Magnificat I was commissioned by the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, which gave the first performance in July 1982 under Francis Grier. It is scored for a cappella voices in eight parts, and uses the Latin version of the text. At that time I was reeling from the impact of my encounter with African music, and the composition (four years earlier) of my creation-song CRY. The opening call of O Lulum opens Magnificat I and returns as a refrain towards the end. This apart, the music is built up in polyrhythmic layers which owe much to the choral songs of the Ba-Benzele pygmies of the Congo region.

The silent land was first performed at the 1998 Spitalfields Festival by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and English Voices under Tim Brown, with solo cellist Raphael Wallfisch. It was commissioned by Phyllis Lee, whom I first met in 1964 as a first-year Cambridge undergraduate. An ex-pupil of Cortot, she taught me piano for several years, and played viola in a student orchestra which I conducted. We lost touch for many years, but met again in Cambridge in 1994. Phyllis had just lost her husband, Hardy, and asked me to write a piece in his memory. Phyllis and Hardy Lee were devout atheists, and I had already been thinking of writing a Requiem which omitted God, punishment and reward, and concentrated on the acceptance of human loss. The words are taken from the Latin Requiem Mass and from two poems by Christina Rossetti. I have also set the start of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Requiem, and two lines from Dylan Thomas’s poem on the death of his father.

The piece is scored for solo cello and choir in 40 voices. I have followed Tallis’s example in Spem in alium by dividing the voices into eight five-part choirs. Unlike Tallis, who uses an extra bass in all eight choirs, I have varied the choirs as follows:

Choirs 1 & 2 : SATB + solo soprano
Choirs 3 & 4 : SATB + solo alto
Choirs 5 & 6 : SATB + solo tenor
Choirs 7 & 8 : SATB + solo bass

This creates a semichorus of two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses. I had long wanted to write for 40-part choir; for me, as for most English composers, Tallis’s Spem in alium is the ultimate challenge. The solo cello represents the individual soul (as only a cello can), the 8-part semichorus the grieving family, and the 32-part choir the wider community. The piece could be represented visually by a point (the cello) at the centre of two concentric semicircles—which is how it should be presented in performance. In this recording, the spatial layout of the voices has been recreated in a meticulously clear stereo image.

Ave verum corpus was written in 2003 for Tim Brown and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge. The opening phrase for soprano and alto slides smoothly down from an upward leap of a fifth, the lines closely intertwined. It is answered by two jerky phrases from tenor and bass. The smooth material reappears in four parts, with the voice-entries moving downwards from soprano to bass. Next, the jerky music is heard in soprano and alto, followed by a reprise of the four-part smooth counterpoint—this time inverted, with the voices entering from the bass upwards. The jerky music reappears in four-part form (S/A in canon with T/B), which brings the piece to a short climax at the words mortis examine. After a silence, the smooth contrapuntal music returns, and a modified version of the opening brings this simple piece to an end.

Stabat mater was written in 2004, and is scored for a cappella voices—soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists with mixed choir, mostly in four parts and occasionally divided into eight. It was commissioned for the 2004 Bath Festival by Gerry Mattock and Beryl Calver-Jones, and was first performed in Prior Park Chapel, Bath in June 2004 by Bath Camerata under Nigel Perrin.

The Latin poem Stabat mater dolorosa is a meditation on the death of Jesus and the grief of his mother, and has been in liturgical use since mediæval times. It was well-known to me as a boy; rereading it in 2003 with a view to making a setting, I was struck by the fact that the events it relates are being repeated today, a stone’s throw from the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified. Men, women and children still suffer violent deaths for their convictions in Palestine and Israel, and their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters still mourn and bury them—it is always the women who are left behind. That is the burden of this piece. It is not sacred music: it celebrates our common humanity, which should be sacred and unfortunately is not. It seemed right to me that a piece about such crucial issues should use simple musical language. The poem is cast in eight-syllable lines; my setting uses a series of eight-note modes. Each eight-syllable line of the poem has its own mode; this creates an audible melodic and harmonic field, and a sense of harmonic change as the music moves from one mode to another.

My setting incorporates the Aramaic and Hebrew text of Kaddìsh and the blessing Barukh uvarukh from the Talmud Babli (Babylonian Talmud), and the Arabic of the Salaat al-Jinaaza (the Muslim burial service) inserted between the stanzas of the Latin poem to create a shared ritual of grief.

The Jewish prayers, with one exception, are taken from the Kaddìsh, which is mostly in Aramaic (the language spoken by Christ). Kaddìsh was not recited at burials until mediæval times; but there is a Hebrew blessing of the dead in the Talmud Babli which dates from the second century after Christ, and is probably similar to the prayers which were recited over Christ’s body. I have used these words for the Jewish blessing of the dead. The final motet, which incorporates words from the Agnus Dei of the Mass, unites all three religious cultures in a prayer for peace in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic.

My Stabat mater is dedicated to the grieving mothers of Israel and Palestine.

© 2010 Giles Swayne

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