Steph Power reviews a BBC National Chorus of Wales concert of Patagonian and Welsh composers, discussing the link between music and war, featuring works from Mark Bowden and Alun Hoddinott.
Since Remembrance Sunday on November 8th, the people of Beirut and Paris have once again been forced in appalling fashion to join the myriads around the world who are mourning their dead and injured at the hands of madmen in thrall to a death-cult. At a time when millions are fleeing atrocities and the ravaging of their ancient civilisations, questions about the preservation, celebration and sharing of culture inevitably take on a more urgent significance – not least in the light of attacks deliberately aimed at artists, writers and now concert-goers.*
It is not so easy to separate music from world events or politics as some would prefer. Of the eight pieces featured in this impressively performed BBC National Chorus of Wales concert of Patagonian and Welsh composers, three had a timely, outright connection with war. A fourth – We Have Found a Better Land by Mark Bowden, here receiving its world premiere – marked a contemporary response to the stories of those who left Wales 150 years ago on board the tea-clipper Mimosa in an ironic, but ultimately successful, attempt to preserve their cultural heritage and identity. Crucially, following a research visit to Patagonia, Bowden interwove these stories with tales of the indigenous Tehuelche people who helped to ensure the survival of what, to them, would have been strange, alien incomers from some unimaginable, distant land – before themselves being subject to genocide by marauding Argentinian military during the 1870s ‘Conquest of the Desert’.
Bowden’s a cappella, sixteen-minute piece, performed in the second half, contains strong resonances of the folk-creation themes featured in A Violence of Gifts, and showed the further evolution of this thoughtful vocal composer in its six sections, balancing narrative and description through an imaginative use of solos, semi-chorus and divisi SATB. Bowden compiled the text from various diaries, letters, stories and poems which together paint a vivid picture of hope, disappointment and change against a suitably ambivalent geopolitical backdrop. Most affecting were his quietly unsettling dissonance – with the singers doing well to negotiate unfamiliar chords – and the quasi-antiphonal passages which detailed the uncertain progress of the voyage itself (Section 2), followed by the discovery that ‘The region is nothing like we read or heard. We have been told tremendous lies’ (Section 4).
As Bowden captures very well, one of the most deeply embedded human instincts at times of shared disaster, joy or fear is to join together in song, and Wales is justly famous for the robust choral tradition which has sustained its industrial and rural communities for generations. However, notwithstanding a frustrating general tendency to ghettoise performances of ‘Welsh composers’ rather than simply integrate them in everyday programming, none of those featured this evening were or are nationalist in any narrow sense, nor restricted to clichéd ideas of tradition; indeed, in various ways, each reflects an international as well as more domestic outlook.
The work that proved most directly poignant post-Beirut and Paris was Geraint Lewis’s The Souls of the Righteous, which was originally composed for the memorial service of William Mathias at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1992. Here – so soon after July this year, when the piece was performed at St Paul’s to mark the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings – it transcended any religious context to convey a universal dignity in sorrow courtesy of some fine, heartfelt singing from the assembled Chorus; and this despite the odd, too-brisk tempo adopted by conductor and NCW artistic director, Adrian Partington.
Lewis’s piece came at the close of the first half, following a pair of equally brief, but more celebratory 1980s psalm-settings by late friends and colleagues, Alun Hoddinott and Mervyn Burtch, which framed the most substantial work of the evening, Grace Williams’s 1973 Ave maris stella. Burtch’s Psalm 150 (1989) was the more extrovert in both character and performance; its bouncing, quirkily rhythmic piano part contrasting with the organ’s underlying portentousness in Hoddinott’s Sing a New Song (1985), which opened the concert. Between the pieces a semi-chorus stepped forward to perform the challenging Ave maris with such confidence as to make it easy to forget that the BBC National Chorus of Wales remains an amateur choir.
In a sense, Williams – like many Welsh composers who have struggled to find a foothold in a London-based establishment – found herself dealing with politics of a kind by default. As a woman in a male-dominated world, though uncomplaining, she found it harder still to be taken seriously and, whilst highly respected by her colleagues and by musicians today, she remains relatively unknown and vastly underrated. Though she eschewed the radicalism of serial composers, which she found ‘incredibly strange’ and counter to her essentially melodic impulses, she heard other music whilst studying with Wellesz in 1930s Vienna which undoubtedly left its mark. Like many of her works, the Ave maris belies the apparent accessibility of its romantic surface, with intense, sustained harmonic processes that need coaxing, as it were, from the inner voices outwards. Here, the semi-chorus proved highly capable despite Partington’s reluctance to allow Williams’s seascape to roil and surge as passionately as it might have, given greater room to breathe.
Of further works this evening, Héctor MacDonald’s Clyw ein Lief, O lôr (‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’: choir joined by organ and trumpet) was a further chance for audiences to hear this fourth-generation Welsh composer from the Patagonian province of Chubut, whilst Paul Mealor’s In Flanders Fields extended the remembrance theme to that earlier site of atrocities in World War I, a centenary ago. War – and the hideous slaughter of children and innocents that it always entails – also formed the subject of the final work of the programme; at twenty minutes the longest, and the toughest in musical idiom, charting a journey from anguish to renewal.
This was William Mathias’s Ceremony After a Fire Raid, a setting of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem from the London Blitz, written in response to seeing a charred baby lying dead on a bombed-out street. Of his setting, Mathias wrote, ‘Although inspired by the Second World War, the poem’s meaning (for me) is reflected in events closer to our time.’ What these were he did not specify, but renewed bombing from the IRA following Bloody Sunday (1972) can hardly have been far from his thoughts – nor indeed the Vietnam War, with Nixon finally calling ceasefire on that tragedy in 1973, the year he composed the piece. Cast in three, continuous sections, it carries traces of the Stravinsky of Les Noces in its spiky vocal lines and bold, additional parts for percussion and piano – as well as (albeit mildly) reflecting the decade’s music-theatrical experimentalism, encapsulated by Peter Maxwell Davies and others.
It was in this work that Partington felt most at ease, leading the choir in vigorous rendition of Mathias’s whispers, chants and full-voiced quasi-expressionism. Some of the work’s gestures sound dated today – the circling glock and xylophone motifs, for instance, and the extended ‘drum solo’. But the integrity of the piece is undoubted in response to the kind of entirely self-made horror which humanity even now seems unable to avoid repeating.
* not to mention less well-publicised western acts of barbarism and hypocrisy such as the American hospital bombing in Kunduz, and the ignoring of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied territories.
The concert was recorded for a forthcoming Tŷ Cerdd CD, as well as future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
Header photo: Betina Skovbro
Patagonian and Welsh Composers
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 15 November, 2015
Works by Alun Hoddinott / Grace Williams / Mervyn Burtch / Geraint Lewis / Héctor MacDonald / Mark Bowden / Paul Mealor / William Mathias
BBC National Chorus of Wales
Conductor: Adrian Partington
Piano: Christopher William / Organ: Jonathan Hope / Percussion: Andrea Porter & Matt Hardy / Trumpet: Martin Rogers
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.