|About this Recording
8.572739 - POTT, F.: Choral Music (In the Heart of Things) (G. Davidson, Commotio, M. Berry)
Francis Pott (b. 1957)
If you had to encapsulate composition in one sentence, you might call it the search for an ideal balance between vertical and horizontal: chords as vertical, static points, melody as a linear navigation through time, often chasing its own tail via imitative counterpoint. The great sixteenth-century masters elevated linear polyphony as far as it could feasibly go; but, to do this, they had to restrict harmonic vocabulary to essentials. Thomas Tallis’s massive forty-part motet Spem in alium sometimes slows harmony to a standstill, where one’s perception of movement is of ebb and flow captured within an enclosed space, rather like watching one’s rotating washing through the round window (if the window itself changed shape, presumably something would have gone horribly wrong). The surface effect unashamedly seeks to capture and bottle eternity, mastering literal time to become spiritually timeless.
Perhaps it is unsurprising if that distant past sits heavily; if, in a postmodern age seemingly now renewing its on/off relationship with common chords, it is counterpoint itself that seems to have gone permanently out of fashion. But that arises as much from the delicacy of the vertical/horizontal balance as from some abstract ‘weight of history’. Leave it as it is, and you will probably sound little different from the sixteenth century, just as composers then sounded generically far more alike than they do now. Interfere, and you may disable the substructure that lets counterpoint make its own sense. Clearly, only somebody very unwise…
I had to try. The ex-chorister in me wanted to attempt something that could stand unabashed beside the touchstones of the sixteenth century, at least in terms of evident technical intention. We live in a crossover, sound bite, ‘www.’ age where styles and cultures are casually, superficially blurred, emasculated and homogenised, in music as in tourism or cuisine. I will go further: with honourable exceptions, much contemporary choral writing perpetuates a grisly musical McDonald-isation: bland, anonymous and so undemanding that you could throw it together in little more time than it takes to sing. While a modern contrapuntal Mass still buys into well-worn basic vocabulary, its means of construction align with the work ethic of a Tallis or a William Byrd. These believed in their bones that it was the patient industry of the musical artisan, the scale of the mountain climbed and (pace Sir Francis Drake) ‘the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished’which yielded the true glory. A compelling notion per se, this has engaged agnostics and humanists as much as believers down the years: one thinks of Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Howells and, in our time, John Rutter, who has spoken eloquently of being inspired less by belief than by the ageless grandeur of ritual and liturgy, and of how an abstract, inarticulate spirituality stays perennially more central to our human experience than religion.
What I expanded from Tallis and Byrd was less the harmonic language (the humble triad remains paramount), more the overall tonal frame of reference: harmonies may pivot on an ‘axis’ note and take new directions without losing their essential antiquity.
I wanted to write something of this kind for years, sketching fragments of an Agnus Dei in Florence during summer, 2006. Having lived there for part of 1976, I was nostalgically revisiting ‘Oltrarno’, the remoter, outlying district beyond the river. I considered naming the work Missa Fiorentina. Then, in 2010, came a commission from Matthew Berry for a work in memory of Dr Anabela Bravo, a member of Commotio and of the Psychology Department at the University of Buckingham. About to take up her position there in 2008, Anabela had received a diagnosis of cancer, but bravely pressed ahead. In December 2009 she was able to present research at a conference in New Zealand. Shortly afterwards, back home in Lisbon for further treatment, she finally lost her courageous battle. She was 47. She had managed to conceal her condition from many of her fellow singers.
It is an oddly poignant task to celebrate the life of a stranger: one thinks of Matthew Arnold’s ‘…friends to whom we had no natural right, / The homes that were not destined to be ours’. Having been specifically asked not to compose a requiem, I found that my Agnus Dei obdurately disobeyed. Cast in the usual three sections, this starts with a slow groundswell from the lowest register and escalates before a central section (reworking a pattern from the middle of the Kyrie) traverses more agitated territory. The apex comes at the onset of the final section, then the music subsides gradually into the depths whence it arose.
Anabela’s nationality sent me back to the elusively elegiac verse of Portugal’s greatest modern poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935). Lines of his, written only months before his death at the same age, appear in their original tongue opposite the final page of music, along with my own free, only semi-competent translation:
‘Ancient Portuguese’ was apt because Anabela had also been a musicologist. This prompted a quotation (in the final section of the Agnus) from the motet Sitivit anima mea by Portugal’s great sacred composer, Manuel Cardoso (1566–1650). In the central part of the Agnus comes one further reference, an imitative pattern derived from the opening of Commotio (1931) for organ, the final work by the Danish symphonist Carl Nielsen (1865–1931). In an essay Nielsen counselled us to ‘reverence and respect the simple intervals; …listen to them, learn from them, love them’. His harmonic excursions around the cycle of fourths and fifths retain their freshness, yet also adhere to the known and the familiar. These find a number of echoes in the Mass, which also deploys recurrent material across its five movements, thus sharing some ground with Nielsen’s symphonic methods.
In Mary’s Carol the verses of Peter Dale’s touching poem are delineated by loose similarities between their musical openings rather than by literal repetition. The music commemorates my much-loved father-in-law, Rear Admiral Bryan Straker, who died on Christmas Day 2007. His final waking hours were spent within earshot of his eight-year-old granddaughter singing for him in the next room. In retrospect I think this prompted the solo in the hushed final verse.
A Hymn to the Virgin (2002) was written simply as an antidote to large-scale commissions. It bears a dedication to my wife. Conceived in awareness of the seventeen-year-old Benjamin Britten’s precocious setting, this one nonetheless pursues its own path, attempting a slightly different response to its text. The first verse presents itself ‘straight’. A second entrusts the melody to the tenors, recessing the other voices (temporarily wordless). The last finds imitative possibilities in its opening and is slightly extended, despite eventually reaching the same conclusion as before.
I Sing of a Maiden (2000) was jointly commissioned by St John’s College, Cambridge, and Winchester Cathedral. It combines flowing lines with rhythmic irregularity, reflecting verse-divisions through varied musical repetition. In a climactic passage parts are extensively divided and the higher notes in the initial melody double their lengths. A hushed ending echoes the vernal flavour of the words with an airy weightlessness. Although—I hope—vocal in style, the setting is rhythmically complex, presenting challenges for both choirs and conductors.
Ubi caritas (2002) was commissioned to mark the wedding anniversary of friends. Innocent of the counterpoint found in many of my choral pieces, it was conceived partly also as a Holy Communion anthem, offering an unobtrusive backdrop to inward contemplation.
Balulalow (2009) was written for Judy Martin and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. After a gentle first verse for chorus, a soprano soloist spins a more passionate line above free variation of what has already been heard. Chorus parts divide for a richer texture, but the music returns ultimately to its initial hushed E flat major. The poem, thought to date from the 1560s, may be familiar through Britten’s setting within his celebrated Ceremony of Carols.
Fragments of Lament lived with me for years before finding focus in the death of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid in Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on 31 October 2009, while attempting to defuse an improvised explosive device. About to return home from a tour of duty, he had spoken to his five-year-old stepson only hours earlier. I never knew Olaf Schmid, but discovered that he had lived moments from my own home near Winchester. For many, his quiet heroism is largely beyond comprehension. My wife and I were moved by the dignity of his family following his death. Later I learned that during childhood he had been Head Chorister at Truro Cathedral.
The elegiac lines by Laurence Binyon heard every Remembrance Day risk washing over us through sheer over-familiarity. Although Binyon was an intriguing liberal thinker, poetic conventions of his time may mislead us into suspecting a blinkered, imperialist romanticism. By comparison, Wilfrid Gibson’s poem is gentle, inward and largely timeless. Gibson knew Binyon, writing to him in later life as the only like-minded friend to whom he could confide his anguish over war’s waste and bloodshed. The simplicity of these lines, sorrowful but also consolatory in their exhortation to keep the departed alive in the hearts and memories of all who love them, makes Lament a fitting commemoration of the fallen in any time or place; accordingly, dedication to Olaf Schmid’s memory is both specific and more widely emblematic. Currently the score is inscribed without permission, though consent is being sought. Any future royalties in respect of this piece will go to the charity Help for Heroes.
© Francis Pott, 2011
Thanks are due to Harriet Sanders of MacMillan for negotiating rights regarding Gibson’s poem, and to his granddaughter Judy Greenway for her kind and supportive response to my initial enquiries.
Mary’s Carol/Why do you give the baby gold? from The Ivy and the Holly, words by Peter Dale © Peter Dale 2006. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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