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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

The Elysian Singers, Passion Plays and a world première by Gavin Bryars

In his programme note for this stand-out concert, conductor Sam Lawton outlines the interconnecting themes linking these diverse choral works:

‘The idea is to play on the different meanings of the word ‘Passion’: i.e. suffering and/or love. The texts of the Coventry Carol and David Lancaster’s piece are both taken from Medieval Mystery Plays. And the de Wert & Bryars pieces are all based on sonnets by Petrarch. David Lang’s work is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, but its structure is influenced by the Bach Passions.’

The concert programme is:

Anon arr. Richard Allain: Coventry Carol  David Lancaster: Crucifixion (world première – York Late Music commission)  Giaches de Wert: (1) Grazie ch’a pochi il ciel largo destina                                  (2) Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi  Gavin Bryars: Là ver l’aurora (world première – York Late Music commission) 

David Lang: The Little Match Girl 

It is interesting that in discussing the interconnecting theme of the programme, Gavin Bryars noticed that he had ‘an oblique connection to’  David Lang’s The Little Match Girl:

‘I wrote a piece for unaccompanied bass voice almost ten years ago for a member of the Australian group The Song Company, who was retiring after this concert.’

Here is the programme note:

‘The piece was written for Clive Birch, bass in the Australian vocal ensemble The Song Company. It was initially written to be placed in the short break between Demantius’ St John Passion and David Lang’s The Little Match Girl, during which the group had three minutes to get into costume. As there is no part for bass voice in the second work, this short piece formed a kind of bridge. The first text (Gallus) takes the passage of Peter’s three denials of Christ linked to the cock crowing, which is abbreviated in the Demantius setting, while the second (Agnus) sets Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after the Resurrection through his three-fold injunction to “feed my lambs”’

*The YouTube recording is a performance by Peter Bannister (bass)

Though Gavin Bryars’ music is usually associated with his two contemporary masterpieces, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic, his first love is writing vocal music, and the setting of Petrach in particular. As he says in his illuminating programme note for La ver l’aurora (Fourth Book of Madrigals no. 4):

‘I have said on a number of occasions that, as a composer, I live from commissions, and these can take me in many different directions. But in an ideal world, when I would be free to write whatever I want, I would choose to write vocal music. Moreover, in a really ideal world, this would involve setting Petrarch. So far, I have completed six books of madrigals, which include 49 texts by Petrarch, of which 45 are 14-line sonnets and 4 are 39-line sestine. The seventh and eighth are in different states of completion…

Petrarch’s sonnets attracted me for many reasons. Initially it was because they have such prominence in Italian madrigal music, but there was also the heart-rending beauty of the poetry and their sheer technical brilliance.

His rhyme schemes can be virtuosic beyond belief. The longer sestina form, which I set here,breaks down into six 6–line verses with a final 3-line verse. Each verse has the same six words at the ends of lines, often with different meanings, but in each succeeding verse on a different line. Then in the final three lines all six rhyming words are brought back, three of them as half rhymes. In one of my sestina settings I emphasised this by keeping the same cadence for each line-ending word. Here, I use a small group within the ensemble to make a transition to the next verse by extending and echoing the cadence by (wordless) humming. For the final chord however, the humming removes the tonality-defining third to leave just the more ambiguous perfect fifth…

After more than a year writing instrumental music (harpsichord concerto, string sextet, harpsichord quintet, art installations) it’s a pleasure to return to vocal music.’

Gavin Bryars’ new work will be performed by the Elysian Singers on Saturday 2 March 

as part of York Late Music’s concert series. Visit here for tickets and concert details. 

There will be a preconcert talk at 6.45pm with Gavin in conversation with David Lancaster, whose  Crucifixion  will also be receiving a first performance, with a complimentary glass of wine or juice.

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