Friday, 3 April 2015

Spring 2015: 4 & 5 April

CB Spring/Easter 2015

(Some passages may not be heard on the programme, owing to lack of time).

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I'm Rupert Kirkham. Today's programme, written and researched by Mike Burrows, is devoted to Spring and Easter. We begin with Spring Song, the tone-poem by Jean Sibelius, a piece dating from early on in its composer's career – 1895 - that was later much-altered and simplified before publication in 1903. It is not lightly named. It is a Song, an orchestral “song without words”. The revision derives great strength from a long-breathed melody whose developing fervour and amplitude express perfectly the hopes attendant on the end of Winter and the replenishment – the increase in life - brought about by the return of the sun's warmth to the fertility of earth.

The trajectory of the piece, as revized, is an emotive leap of directness, faith and seeming inevitability, the climax well-timed and -judged. The full-throated orchestration, in which the lower strings take their share in the singing, has much to do with this. The pealing of bells and brass at the close has little to do with Christianity. The hyperaesthetic Sibelius was not a Christian in any narrowly conventional sense, but a believer in Christian ethics, and pantheist or animist - lifelong a believer in the God of Creation, or the divine spark or spirit, in all living things. He felt the upswing in mood that Spring represents to dwellers in a cold climate. He praised that upswing's origin.

Fascinatingly, the effect of the single, opening, drum-accentuated chord of the piece is repeated at the opening of his last symphonic works, the 7th Symphony and Tapiola – commanding attention – and attendance in the world of his imagination - by the simplest of means.

Track 1: Spring Song, Sibelius

Schumann's Six Songs for Choir, Opus 33, date from his Year of Song, during which he wrote at least 140 lieder, and sang out his heart in the long months before his fiancee of some years, Clara Wieck, and he escaped from her father's legal and not-so-legal efforts to separate them, and were married, the day before Clara reached her majority.

Schumann's head must have rung with the synaesthetic seasonal symbolism of German poetry during that time, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – and especially Spring! Thaw, changeable weather, raindrops, sunbeams, birdsong – particularly the nightingale – recovering gardens and bowers, linden-blossoms, early flowers, trees coming into leaf, fresh brooks, butterflies, frolicking lambs, the growth of love in all that was young.

Spring Bells, a poem by Robert Reinick – takes us from the snowdrop through the rose and lily, to the bluebell. It is a wistful appreciation of Spring, the only sadness being that with the bluebell, one has the last of Spring, and the consolation being that Spring has brought one so much. Birdsong culminates in the nightingale, of course - with the ghostly light of glow-worms, a mainstay of the mild nights of the Romantic late Spring and early Summer.

A strophic song of simplicity, characteristically German in its formulae of melody and harmonies is briefly – and exquisitely shadowed near the close, but ends as winningly as it has begun.

Track 2: Fruhlingsglocken, Schumann

Here is a lively instrumental version of a Lauda – a 13th Century demotic hymn, in this case from Cortona in Italy - De la Crudel Morte de Cristo, Of The Cruel Death of Christ. This dates from a time when hymns were often fitted to adaptations of popular tunes. The words, not sung here, tell the story of Christ's examination, condemnation, torture and death.

Track 3: De la Crudel Morte de Cristo, Cortona Manuscript

Our view of Easter has changed mightily, if in cycles, over the
years as expression of Christian faith has developed ever more in the way of schisms – often miscalled heresies – in the face of the material, purely political corruption of established religious institutions. Bishop Jeremy Taylor's 17th Century Jeremiad, Lord Come Away, calls on Christ to return, ride on triumphantly on the long-prepared way, rescue His Temple – “as full and dear/As that of Sion, and as full of sin:/Nothing but thieves and robbers dwell therein;/Enter, and chase them forth, and cleanse the floor!” - and crucify His enemies!

These sobering words were set to the full measure of their sternness by Vaughan Williams as the first of his Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Piano, later arranged for accompaniment by solo viola and string orchestra, commissioned from him for the Three Choirs Festival of 1914.

Vaughan Williams was one of the few composers of his day capable of entering into the minds of 16th and 17th Century poets and composers and suiting his modes of expression to theirs, yet creating something inspirationally new and unencumbered in the
process. Unegotistical by nature, he was, one may feel, something of a time-traveller.

Track 4: Lord, Come Away, from Four Hymns, Vaughan Williams

Now, an anthem, The Risen Lord, by the Michigan Handel, Leo Sowerby. For decades a church organist and choirmaster as well as composer, Sowerby wrote this in 1919; it was first performed in arrangement for Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass voices and four soloists at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago at Eastertide of that year. In this recording it is performed by two antiphonal groups. The text is drawn from a Hymn To The Trinity by Charles Wesley and a Lutheran text, Christ Ist Verstanden.

Its tune and treatment are both straightforward; Sowerby was, first and foremost, a great practical musician of faith, but this should not blind one to his profound gift, which found expression in almost all Art-music's genres, including Symphony.

Track 5: The Risen Lord, Sowerby

Two short songs by Ernest John Moeran, now. Moeran, of Irish extraction, was a great setter of English verse. Here are his settings of Spring Goeth All in White, by Robert Bridges, and Blue-eyed Spring, by Robert Nichols. These poets of another age were alive at the time of the songs' composition – what a time to be a song-writer that must have been! The songs exemplify many aspects of Moeran's style, his Delius-derived chromatic harmony; his enjoyment of the inflections of both reflective and jolly folksong, a gratefulness in the writing for voice and downright or shyly and wistfully beautiful writing for piano (adapting to the sense of the words). For the rest, just as the Germans have their requisite Spring symbolism, so do we, and he does British Spring-imagery full justice. Whether reflections on a scene, mortality or yeasty youth, these are songs of the open air.

Track 6: Spring Goeth All In White, Moeran

Track 7: Blue-eyed Spring, Moeran

Isn't Easter the time of redemption? Ivor Gurney's unaccompanied Anthem for Double Choir, Since I believe In God The Father Almighty (Johannes Milton Senex), setting verse by the freethinking Robert Bridges, was composed from the depths of The Stone House, Dartford Hospital, Kent, in the Summer of 1925, almost three years after his final breakdown. In it, he sets out his credo of freedom from “studied system”, “argument”, “delusion”, and “foolish invention”; he “will cherish his freedom in loving service,/Greatly adoring for delight beyond asking/Or thinking, and in hours of anguish and darkness /Confiding always on His excellent greatness.” He has not seen God, cannot know him, nor know the “Heav'nly purpose” in this life, but he loves beauty and hates evil as unworthy.

This extraordinary work was written by a man who feared electrical tricks, radio-waves, machines under the floors that tortured him; heard voices; demanded death or regular employment; aggressively defied attendants and shunned the company of fellow-inmates. Its peculiar intensity derives from narrow intervals that widen unexpectedly, and by the interplay of the parts of the two choirs, which spotlight certain high or low notes, frequently dissonant, with weird distinctness, in the midst of expected periods of chant. An ex-chorister himself, Gurney would have known Anglican anthems and liturgical music of the past like the back of his hand, and comprehended their every feature.This is chant with a difference – chant that betrays fitful torment as well as settled faith, and with it, the well-understood melodic and harmonic influence of Sibelius in his strongest late vein. Its spareness, angularities and absence of academic counterpoint are skilful. It was true, though, that, as his friend Marion Scott put it, “Ivor could only ever do things in his own way.” There is aliveness to the moment, to the dark night within, but also outside, the asylum-cell. Gurney had been the Night-walker, tramping in Southern England between London and his home county, Gloucestershire, and become the night-pacer in corridors and his room. This did not prevent him from writing book after book of poetry and both composing and revizing songs – and Since I believed In God, The Father Almighty. Now, Gloucester Cathedral hears (and performs), 90 years too late, the suffering, clear vision of the creative artist, one of its own as a child and youth, who was said to be mad.

Dictates of pitch and of form, including extended canonic texture, do not prevent this Anthem from sounding akin to the music of an aeolian harp.

Track 8: Since I believe In God The Father, Gurney

Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest of the group of five composers, The Mighty Handful, that came to dominate art-music in the capital of the Tsarist Russian Empire in the 1860s.

By the time that he composed the Russian Easter Festival Overture in 1888, He was a mature artist, a long-time professor of composition at the St Petersburg Conservatoire whose learning had been acquired by self-will and diligence, and he had left the
amateurism of the Mighty Handful behind, though not its desire to advance the cause of Russian music. He had made his peace with the Moscow of Tchaikovsky, and become an authority on fugue as well as on peasant themes and musical scales. The influences on him were wide, from Glinka, but also Berlioz, to Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, and he had the singularity, detachment and creative imagination to buy wisely at a market; to unite apt aspects of their styles in himself.

This Overture On Liturgical Themes is based on three specimens of Orthodox Chant, Let God Arise, An Angel Cried, and Christ Is Risen. In spite of the long, solemn introduction that seems at one point to portray in solo trombone a priest intoning and in strings, a congregation's responses, Rimsky's aim was not to write religiose music. His inspiration juxtaposed liturgy with pagan life – with a life older than Christianity that had taken on the trappings of Christianity in their beauty, but that rejoiced in nature and Spring at least as much as in Easter, in merrymaking at least as much as in glorying in the Resurrection of the New Testament.

It is one of his more popular works, thrilling in its power and variety of orchestration, its contrasts in tone and focus, its harmonic resource and play of rhythm. It evokes all that it was intended to do, a masterpiece of hard-won skill, but is also intensely humane and humorous – a kind of measure of the full roundedness of ideal sprituality, earthy and honest in addition to wondering and a little uncanny. Birdsong and the glow of sun on white blossoms and an awakened world may succeed a candlelit, incense-filled atmosphere of solemn chant, with the suddenness of stepping outside the church entrance, and itself be succeeded by the dance. One scarcely notices sonata-form as the work unfolds, but the basic themes are thoroughly developed, contrasted and combined before the massive, gong-and bell-capped Christ Is Risen of the close!

This was Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I'm Rupert Kirkham. We hope you enjoyed our Spring And Easter Programme, and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!

Track 9: Overture, Russian Easter Festival, Rimsky-Korsakov