19 August 2017

From the vault


My Muse bids me work up the Passion setting.

I didn’t plan it, but then, you may plan, and your Muse does just as she lists.

Having got the proofing of the Castelo dos Anjos score, and the percussion part, entirely in the can, there is the elation of the Job Done at last.

And the arrival of the Stravinsky box has maddened my ears like wine; these recordings are sounding so good, my enthusiasm for Igor Fyodorovich (which has never been inactive, mind you) has been restored to a pitch I have not experienced since my heady student days when each new Stravinsky score was a delightful discovery.

Of course, my Passion will not be especially Stravinskyan . . . but, howsoever that might be . . . .

As I laid my head on the pillow, musical ideas for the Passion setting came to me. And my sleep last night was unusually restful, so that I was awake at around 4:30, and couldn’t go back to sleep (didn’t feel in great need to, either) for all the musical thoughts of the Passion.

Ed Broms sent a “pre-season” message out to the St Paul’s choir this past weekend, and among the highlights he alerted the choir to, he mentioned my Passion setting (yes, if anyone asks you if it is nice to have a music director who has such respect for your compositional work, you tell him that the adjective “nice” doesn’t begin to cover it). When Ed mentioned that I would be writing this, at one of the last choir rehearsals last season, the choir responded very warmly.

Anyway, this message of Ed’s this past weekend ‘remindered’ me; and, I don’t know, the combination of having wrapped up Castelo, of having my musical mind open to the next fit of inspiration, and not least the earnest welcome from Ed and the choir—I’m just ready to write it.

Since composers such as Arvo Pärt and Ivan Moody have already creatively addressed a “back to the pristine beauty of traditional Orthodox chant” sensibility in their lovely Passion settings, I feel I want to do something a bit otherwise (not otherwise than lovely, I don’t mean). On the opposite end of the spectrum (maybe), the Bach Passions feel from our perspective (perhaps) a bit less like liturgical devotion and a bit more like concert monument (I do not mean by this simplification to cast aspersion on Bach, who was certainly devout, and who wrote the music as devotional). So my feeling is (and I think this is conditioned not only by the need to suit the St Paul’s performing forces, but musically) to use a discreet instrumental accompaniment; this is also probably something of a seed planted by Liszt’s Via Crucis. There will be plenty of unaccompanied singing, and probably the instruments will never all play at the same time, but I am using viola, Baroque cello, organ and drum; possibly also some medieval harp; this will make use of instrumentalists of the choir, and yet will leave a manageable mixed choir to sing.

And so:  10 years ago, not only was my Passion not yet composed—I was still planning on an accompanied setting.

10 years; so much has happened.

Although the first performance at St Paul’s was so well received (that Good Friday of 2008), no repeat performance on Tremont Street was to be.  However, there were the two exquisite performances given my Sine Nomine under the committed direction of Paul Cienniwa.

The Passion was the first large-scale Henningwork (considering the Evening Service in D as a kind of ‘anthology’ of smaller-scale pieces, although all composed together and to the purpose;  and setting aside White Nights which remains incomplete even at presentthough not for long).  And such a success, that from it all my subsequent musical boldness may be said to spring.

Many pieces which I wrote before the Op.92 remain (I believe) as good as I have ever written.  But the Passion is clearly (in the arguably obsolete sense from the old craftsmen, as the work which first demonstrates mastery) the Henning masterpiece.

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