16 November 2008

Five "Light"-Years

The choir of the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, then under the direction of Mark Engelhardt, sang a Festive Choral Evensong of my music five years ago tonight. And this post will commemorate what I think was the greatest musical liberty I took for that event.

On a number of occasions already, Mark had had the choir sing a folksong-like setting I had written of the Song of Mary (in English); and so when he approached me with a proposal for a full service of just my own music, use of this Canticle was a natural starting-point. From there it was natural to plot a Song of Simeon to match . . . and so on.

Traditional to the Anglican Evensong is a translation of Phos hilaron, "O Gracious Light"; a lovely hymn, but I proposed doing something else instead. It involved a slight Liturgical liberty.

One of the beautiful chants in the Morning Prayer service of the Maronites (Lebanese Christians) is a Hymn of Light, Nuhro a stunningly wondrous text for which I was keen to 'discover' an original setting. I suggested to Mark that I do so, strategically neglecting to add the detail that the Maronites sing this hymn in the morning.

As I set to work, neither did I give Mark the text (whose length exceeds the Phos hilaron a great deal) nor any indication of how long-breathed a choral setting I was envisioning for it. The anthem runs a good twelve minutes, which (depending on one's angle) is a huge piece of music which perforce will dominate an Evensong, or, pulls the listener (and the Service) into a different state of awareness, so that the running clock is not the master of Time.

I wrote the piece as I felt I ought, all the while half-expecting that (at the last) Mark might say, "Nice, but far too long."

When I finished composition, it was still summer, and my family and I went to the beach. As is generally the case when I have been long at work on a piece, and have reached the final double-bar, I spend a few days where my inner ear keeps 'playing' the piece through, to 'stress-test' it to make certain that I really do 'own' it compositionally, entirely; to assure myself that there are no parts that, in fact, demand to be changed. So here I was, wading in the gentle surf beating against Cape Ann, and Nuhro was 'playing' in my head, serene and unhurried. And I felt that it was the best thing I had written to date; the very knowledge of having written it, was a species of elation. It didn't matter whether Mark liked the piece or not (though I still hoped he might), in the sense that regardless of how anyone reacted to the score, I felt I knew its worth.

I still hid something of the truth from Mark, in a way: Normally when I finish a score, I put an estimated total duration on the first page. I didn't do that with the final draught of Nuhro as I handed it in to Mark. Again, I thought, Let's see if the piece draws Mark in to itself, so that he is not mindful of the time as overspent. And (what cannot be any surprise after the opening paragraph of this post) in fact, Mark took a great liking to the piece; and I felt that this performance was something of a watershed for me compositionally. [ recording ]

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