A Flock Descends Into The Pentagonal Garden, Brandenburg Concerti, Giuseppe Verdi, I Hear And Am Elated, Jean Langlais, Johann Sebastian Bach, Malcolm Sargent Festival Choir, Rigoletto, Six Nations, The Serried Multitude, Toru Takemitsu, Trevor Pinnock, Witold Lutoslawski
Saturday was a pretty decent morning. I ploughed on with The Serried Multitude, setting most of the first version of a vocal line and coming up with some harmonic ideas. The strange thing is that every time I sit down to tackle a new piece I am not really sure how to start, but it comes down, I think, to a combination of ideas and then analysis of those same ideas, bouncing back and forth between one and the other.
For example, in The Serried Multitude I am following the example of Witold Lutoslawski and creating the soloist’s line out of a restricted set of intervals and their inversions, and then using harmony to reflect those ideas. Seconds and sevenths (their inversions), for example, are dissonant in traditional music, while third and sixths sound more consonant and relaxed, fourths and fifths strong when perfect, unstable when not. Of course, a composer can create what I call a “norm of consonance” which can subvert these concepts, but you get the idea.
For the outer sections of The Serried Multitude, where the text is wistful, I have stuck mainly to thirds and seconds, while the bolder central section is primarily based on more forceful fourths and fifths. For the second step I am developing a harmonic language which complements those ideas and fitting it around the existing melody line accordingly, but, as this a work for several instruments, making sure that I am aware of the possibilities of lines. Craftily, a harmony which complements the melodic units rather than contrasts with them makes it easier to fit in different lines, points of interest. Maybe that is just my past as a teacher of harmony and counterpoint catching up with me, maybe just my love of Bach, but I still think that it makes the piece more interesting and gives it longevity.
Most joyous of all, though, I was tripping along to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti in Trevor Pinnock’s wonderful recording, unbelievably now over thirty years old but still as fresh as a daisy. One of my favourite memories as a performer was taking part in the third concerto (BWV 1048), a performance during which the entire ensemble was at one, and Bach’s vision of the piece became clear to me, that this is a piece which needs to be seen as well as heard, for the thematic ideas pass through the ensemble from side to side, just as, centuries later, the free bowing of the strings in Takemitsu’s A Flock Descends Into The Pentagonal Garden evokes the image of a fluttering of wings. Performance does not exist solely in the ear, but that can be difficult to remember in this age of iPod, CD and download.
I also remember reading a review of that Bach concert in which the reviewer felt our performance lacked verve and vision, and I genuinely believed that they had turned up to a different gig. It was certainly not how I or anybody else I spoke to about the concert felt and what little respect I had left for critics and reviewers evaporated that night.
Yesterday (Sunday) was the usual round of playing and teaching, throwing myself into some Langlais in the morning and a mix of Anglicana and Renaissance polyphony in evening. I was late home, but, as is the way of things, am up very early in order to go out and teach a class about Verdi’s Rigoletto. The way things look for the end of the year I only have a couple of these very early starts left, and it will take the stress out of Monday morning commuting because – joy! – I will no longer have to do it.
The week ahead seems to have plenty of time for writing, and I hope to have the bulk of the work done on The Serried Multitude before the weekend. I enjoyed my stints of work on Friday and Saturday, and am looking forward to getting back to it tomorrow and during the following days…and the Malcolm Sargent Festival Choir begin rehearsing I Hear, And Am Elated on Wednesday for a performance in March, but that is for another entry.
Lastly, a picture to cheer the soul of anybody with Italian blood…