Poulenc’s Revelation: his sacred music after 1936

Francis Poulenc
In 1936, Francis Poulenc had an experience which changed his life. The death of Pierre-Octave Ferroud had shaken Poulenc, prompting him to take a pilgrimage to Rocamadour in south-west France. In the church of Notre Dame he saw the Black Madonna, reputedly carved by Saint Amator. This triggered a religious reawakening of sorts, prompting Poulenc to rediscover his Roman Catholic faith.
The effect of this experience was captured in his Litanies à la vierge noire, composed the same year. Written for SSA and organ, this piece is an introverted contemplation of faith. The diatonic choral writing lends the piece a sense of purity, and the frequency of repetition lends a sense of stasis.
Not all of his religious works were quite so sombre. Despite the subject matter, Poulenc’s 1950 Stabat Mater balances pathos with throw-away settings of the sequence. The approach to religion in this piece appears to be respectful, but curious: the bright harmonic language lends the piece a sense of wondrous exploration. Most of all, Poulenc’s setting is theatrical. ‘Cujus animam gementem’ is a short burst of volatile energy lasting little over a minute, followed by the spaciousness of ‘O quam tristis’. He takes advantage of the declamatory possibilities offered by the Latin text to add propulsion to the setting. Whether the tone is agitated or pensive, the overall impression is an affirmation of faith.
Poulenc’s tendency towards the dramatic can also be seen in his Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra of 1959. From the tongue-in-cheek ‘Laudamus te’ to the glacial cool of the ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’, the mood changes at the drop of a hat and creates a sense of tragicomedy. Allusions to a range of musical antecedents are incorporated into the work, not least to Poulenc’s own works. The work ends with a sustained soprano D, referring to the G major and B minor heard earlier in the movement: resolving everything, and at the same time nothing.
The sacred music produced by Poulenc after 1936 still carries the sense of joie de vivre found in his other works. His religion is clearly informed by his world-view, encompassing a wide range of life experiences. Ultimately, though, Poulenc’s sacred music is an affirmation and a celebration of his faith.

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Perceptions: the Music of Tristan Murail

Tristan Murail
Where do we draw the line between what is music and what is not? How can music alter our sense of time? Where do we see ourselves within a piece of music?
Spectral music raises all of these questions and more. The spectralist movement began in 1970s Paris, when a cluster of composers decided to use the acoustic properties of sound as the basis of their compositions. The term ‘spectralism’ is a reference to the sound spectra upon which their music is based. By reconsidering the basic elements of a piece of music, the spectralists invite us to consider what we perceive as music, and why. The movement has proved influential to a range of twentieth-century composers (including Magnus Lindberg, Jonathan Harvey and Kaija Saariaho).
The techniques used by the spectralists have particularly fascinating implications for the sense of space and time in their works. I have been particularly drawn to the music of Tristan Murail. Murail was a member of the Groupe de l’Itinéraire (alongside friend and fellow spectralist Gérard Grisey). There is a sense of spaciousness to Murail’s music: this is partly due to the focus on timbre (tone colour). The distinction between electronic and acoustic sounds becomes ambiguous, as does the boundary separating white noise and consonances. The sense of time in works such as Murail’s Winter Fragments is more meditative than anything else, allowing a free exploration of the various musical components. These elements are often inseparable: for example, space and time. Murail’s textures are constructed from layers, with each timbre carrying its own registral tessitura and sense of time.
The music of the spectralists prompts us to consider what we consider to be music, and why. Entering into their world reveals surprises in ours.

The Queen of Beauty Crowned: John Eccles’ The Judgment of Paris

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum holds countless treasures, from a Stradivarius violin to ancient Iraqi artefacts and everything in between. The opportunity to perform at such a venue does not appear often, and when I was offered the chance I jumped at it.
John Eccles’ opera The Judgment of Paris was composed for a musical competition in 1701. The contest saw Daniel Purcell, Gottfried Finger and John Weldon set a libretto by William Congreve in an effort to promote all-sung English music. Although touted as favourite, Eccles was pipped to the post by Weldon.
The opera has only been staged once before in Oxford. It reappears as part of the Ashmolean’s Live Friday events series. The story is essentially a Classical version of Blind Date: Mercury gives the shepherd Paris the golden apple of Discord, telling him to award it to which goddess he finds most beautiful. Juno, Pallas and Venus all vie for his attention, but Paris can only choose one.
Today was the first chance the cast have had to rehearse in the Ashmolean’s Mallett Gallery. A grand staircase is the focal element of the staging, from which the goddesses descend and the Chorus offer their commentary. It is from here I will be playing my part, as a contralto of the Chorus. We appear in the second half, adding a commentary to the final words of each goddess. The opulent surroundings of the Mallett Gallery are truly a joy to sing in: the walls of deep red silk are adorned with paintings, and sculptures are scattered around the room. The light-hearted music is conducted by David Todd: after arias of seduction, jealousy and indecision, the opera culminates with a joyous grand chorus celebrating Paris’s choice. Director Isaac Harrison-Louth has emphasised the playful element, with the flirtatious goddesses elbowing their competition out of the way.
The chance to see a rarely-performed opera in such surroundings shouldn’t be missed.
The Judgement of Paris by John Eccles will be performed at 7.30 pm and 9 pm at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum on Friday 25th January 2013. Tickets £5/£3.

The Handmaid’s Tale: an immersive experience

The Handmaid's Tale
A new opera based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale gave its first performance at Oxford’s Jacqueline du Pré Music Building earlier today. An immersive experience which incorporated projection, dance, electronics and extended vocal techniques, there was much to be praised. My main criticism would be the need for more focus and coherence.
The performance started in the foyer, as silent and red-garbed Handmaids gave out red cloaks to the audience and ushered them into the concert hall. The seating had been stripped, and the audience seated themselves around the edge of the floor space or on the stage itself. The performed made use of the entirety of the hall and outside of it.
Composer Chris Garrard’s music constantly surprised, ranging from bursts of records to a bluesy number reminiscent of a jazz club. Garrard’s music called for extended techniques from instrumentalists and vocalists alike, whether percussive pizzicato or stuttered consonants. I particularly liked the use of ambient noise to create the depersonalised dystopian wold of Atwood’s book.
The cast displayed great versatility: singers danced, players switched instruments and sang. Although they appeared slightly tentative, this was to be expected: the performance had been put together in just two weeks under director Lore Lixenberg.
Those who had not read Atwood’s book were at a distinct disadvantage: the opera comprised of a series of short scenes with little sense of continuity between them. The opera certainly managed to capture the bleakness of the world painted by Atwood.
The opera carried some fascinating ideas, but they didn’t quite seem to hang together. The evening was certainly thought-provoking, with the wide scope of Garrard’s score and the creative use of multi-media particular highlights.

Fine cantatas from John Lubbock and the Orchestra of St John’s at the Ashmolean

Wednesday night’s concert was the first in the Orchestra of St John’s Proms at the Ashmolean series of the new year. John Lubbock led the orchestra, the Ashmolean Voices and soloists Johnny Herford and Louise Wayman through lively performances of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne and J.S. Bach’s Liebster Jesu, mein Verlagen. If this concert is anything to go by, 2013 promises to be a fine year for orchestra and singers alike.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

A Day at the Opera: the Live Stream from ROH

The Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden is able to seat 2,256 at full capacity. Today, though, the ROH saw many more take a look behind its doors with its fly-on-the-wall live streaming.
From 10:30 am until 9:30 pm today, viewers were able to glimpse rehearsals for The Minotaur, Nabucco and Eugene Onegin alongside vocal masterclasses and preparations for the production of La bohème. Broadcaster Kirst Wark presented, gleaning insights from directorial team and cast alike. Although the rehearsals for The Minotaur were utterly engrossing, the pinnacle of the broadcast was surely Act III from Wagner’s Die Walküre (pre-recorded earlier in the season). Twenty-one cameras captured the action, showing the action from three perspectives on The Space: backstage, with the stage manager’s calls, lighting cues and all the stage technology in action behind the scenes; the pit with conductor Antonio Pappano; or a wide-angle of the onstage action.
Simon Keenlyside turns up for a rehearsal holding a cup of coffee; Bryn Terfel chats in makeup before Die Walküre; the Youth Opera Company warm up and rehearse. The utter normality of the day-to-day workings of the ROH is almost a surprise: when watching an opera, it is easy to overlook the intensive preparations which must precede a production. This is the day job for all involved: rehearsals for Eugene Onegin run over a tiny fragment of the action numerous times. Although a beaming Robin Ticciati is particularly enthusiastic, it is clear that all involved with the productions are utterly dedicated. The hard graft is worth the reward.
The stream will be available to watch on The Space for three days before the highlights of the broadcast will be uploaded onto YouTube. I am looking forward to catching up on the parts of the day I missed (rather aptly, while revising the inception of opera). The live broadcast was a fascinating look behind the doors of this leading company, and will surely prompt many more to buy their tickets.

1911: a year of Musical Modernism

What do Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle have in common? Besides their status as modernist masterworks, all 3 were completed in 1911. This year saw countless leaps forward in a number of fields, but many composers’ responses were far from optimistic.
The pessimism which underpins Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 can be attributed to the sense of foreboding in the years preceding World War I. It can also be tied to the phenomenon which historians would later refer to as the long nineteenth century. Encompassing the years 1789-1914, this idea placed even more weight upon the idea of progress than usual at the turn of he century. The tritone which underpins the symphony’s tonal structure may be seen as a metaphor for this anxiety. This interval divides the octave exactly into two, preventing any tonal resolution through suspension in a state of stasis.
The overlap between late romanticism and a younger generation of avant-garde composers helps to explain the vastly different responses with regards to musical modernism. Although Ravel’s L’heure espagnole revels in the heady mix of influences found in cosmopolitan Paris, Sibelius’s statement is more introspective and altogether less reassuring. The symphony opens with an elegy and closes in A minor: extroverted and optimistic endings were no longer appropriate in this age.
The younger generation is well represented by Igor Stravinsky. After shooting to fame with The Firebird the year before, Petrushka saw Stravinsky challenge the bounds of harmony. This is evident in the bitonal chord which characterises the title character of this ballet, combining the chords of C and F sharp (another tritonal relationship) to shocking effect.
Perhaps most significant is the alarming development in technology in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1911 alone, Amundsen and his team reached the South Pole, there was a boom in the aviation industry and the first motion picture studio opened in Hollywood. Composers were forced to adapt to this constantly evolving backdrop, but the statement of the 30-year silence at the end of Jean Sibelius’ life speaks volumes.
The mixture of elation and panic at the progress of the early years of the twentieth century explains the variety of responses evident in the works of modernism produced in 1911. One thing which they all have in common is the desire not to be left behind by an ever-changing world.