Choir and Orchestra
Duration: 45 minutes
For alto (or mezzo) soloist, children’s chorus, mixed chorus and orchestra *2*22*2 4331 T+3 Org Hp Strings (Optional: 4 additional trumpets)
Commissioned by Commissioned for Lloyd's Choir by friends of Christine Didelot to honour her last wish
First performance: 23 March 2023, St Giles Cripplegate, London. Mae Heydorn, alto, Cohen Ensemble, Lloyd's Choir, Finchley Children's Music Group, conducted by Jacques Cohen
Duration: 30 minutes
Text: adapted by Jacques Cohen from Exodus 9 & 14, Numbers 6 and Psalm 3
For SATB soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra: *20*20 4*2(+Ram's Horns)00 T+P Org Hp Strings
Commissioned by Lloyd's Choir and premièred with Isis Ensemble and soloists Marie Vassiliou, Mae Heydorn, Mark Wilde and Robert Rice conducted by Jacques Cohen
(The Parting of the Waves)
I believe it is fair to say that for both Lloyd’s Choir and myself, the last two decades have turned out to be a far more unusual and interesting musical journey than either of us could have foreseen. Among the most exciting adventures in this partnership, for me at least, have been the three large-scale pieces for chorus, soloists and orchestra that the choir has commissioned me to write for them, namely Songs of Innocence and Experience, Passion Fragment (The Denial of St Peter) and this latest effort, Exodus Fragment (The Parting of the Waves).
Immediately after the première of Passion Fragment in 2009, one of the performers asked me when I was going to set the rest of the passion story. It had always been my intention that this piece (about Peter’s three denials before the cock crow) should remain a complete work in its own right. However, it later occurred to me that it could be complimented with a contrasting companion piece, again on a biblical theme and again appropriate for this time of year. Since Passion Fragment is a dark, tragic piece, my original aim for Exodus Fragment was to write something more uplifting but still convey a dramatic story with powerful music.
So for this new subject I turned to the Old Testament, the book of Exodus and the Passover story which climaxes with one with one of the most dramatic events in the Bible – the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea. Like The Denial of St Peter, the story of The Parting of the Waves has a clear, beautifully simple, quasi-symmetrical structure which therefore lends itself naturally to musical setting, the two major events, the opening and closing of the sea, interspersed with the repeated complaints of the Israelites, the chiding of Moses, the reassurances of God (here represented by an angel) and the indignant outbursts of Pharaoh. It also presents very exciting opportunities for any composer who relishes the challenge of writing descriptive music.
In essence, the story is about the Israelites’ escape from the tyranny of slavery to freedom. But the more you look into it, the more ambiguous its message becomes: The Israelites do not come across as terribly sympathetic, especially to the modern reader; as we all know their escape from slavery is far from the end of their troubles; and the story does not turn out well for the Egyptians. Moreover, freedom is far from being an unproblematic concept; not only does it raise questions of choice and responsibility but, most relevantly in this instance, whilst some of us are fortunate enough to celebrate our liberty, there are always others who cannot. Even today, it is estimated that there are several thousand slaves in the UK alone. To me, at least, this is the most important and powerful aspect of the story. I therefore came to realise that, just as Passion Fragment had worked on two levels – the story of Peter’s denial in Latin integrated with choruses commentating on the action in modern English – Exodus Fragment too required another element: it needed a sub-plot.
It was while pondering this that I chanced to read Solomon Northup’s account Twelve Years a Slave and decided to underpin the Israelites’ Exodus with the story of Akachi, a young African woman from the 18th century, one of millions who was transported from Africa to the Americas in the most unimaginably appalling conditions.
Although depicting these two journeys in opposing directions (and separated by several millennia) simultaneously could be quite a challenge for a director of a stage or screen work, it is by no means insurmountable for a composer who thankfully can rely on the greatest realiser of them all, the listener’s imagination. It is here that a piece of music as a storytelling medium can come into its own.
Unlike Passion Fragment, Exodus Fragment dispenses with any musical narration from a chorus or evangelist. The five protagonists (Israelites, Akachi, Pharaoh, Moses and Angel) interact directly with each other and the audience. This gives their characters a somewhat more dramatic and even alternative perspective. For example, in this version it is Pharaoh who recites the plagues, so that he more closely resembles the many other tyrants who take no responsibility for causing or solving their country’s problems but instead blame them entirely on a minority.
Like its predecessor, Exodus Fragment lasts a little over half an hour and is scored for a small orchestra so that it can be easily programmed alongside a more established work from the repertoire. With the earlier piece it shares trumpets, percussion, organ and strings, but the double reed instruments of the former are here replaced by flutes (doubling piccolos) and clarinets (doubling bass clarinets), trombones by horns, and harpsichord by harp. Where the earlier piece is sparse in its scoring, Exodus Fragment is fuller and more elaborate, the aim being that both pieces should have distinctive, contrasting and complimentary sound worlds to convey their very different atmospheres.
As in Passion Fragment, each soloist in Exodus Fragment is characterised and accompanied by a different harmonies and instrumental colours (although less rigidly than in the earlier piece): Angel by soprano with high strings and harp; Akachi by alto with low strings and harp; Pharaoh by tenor with high trumpets; and Moses by baritone with low horns. But it is Akachi’s music that is naturally the most distinctly different and she remains musically and dramatically separated from the other protagonists almost throughout.
Whilst the term “oratorio” seems to have become unfashionable, this piece could be defined as one, perhaps even a modest tribute to the oratorios by such great composers as Handel, Haydn, Elgar and Walton. But I have also attempted to integrate music of other traditions. This is especially apparent in the final chorus, the Alleluia, based on a similar Anglican plainchant to the one Holst used in his setting of Psalm 148 Lord who has made us for Thine own, accompanied by a variant of the spiritual Go down Moses in the low violins, whilst the clarinets and flutes play an ancient, Hebrew plainchant in canon above it. The chorus process off stage accompanied by the two trumpeters who now play ancient Ram’s Horns, leaving Akachi to her fate.
Duration: 5 minutes
For choir and organ or orchestra: 3332 4221 T+2 Hp Strings
Commissioned by Commissioned and performed by Berkhamsted Choral Society
Passion Fragment - The Denial of St Peter
Duration: 30 minutes
For choir and orchestra. For SATB solists, mixed chorus and orchestra: 0*202 0*230 T+P Org H'chord Strings
Commissioned by Lloyds Choir
First performance: with Isis Ensemble / Jacques Cohen
Published by: Norsk Musikforlag
Until a few years ago, a passion was the last thing I expected to write. Whilst I greatly admired the music of passions by other composers, particularly Bach of course, the story of the crucifixion – and the villainous role played by the Jews according to St Matthew and particularly St John – unsurprisingly did little for me.
The idea for this piece came to me when I attended a magnificent exhibition of just sixteen paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610) in 2005. Because Caravaggio used ordinary people as models for his characters the viewer relates more easily to them whether they are saints or soldiers. The three Roman soldiers tormenting Jesus in The Flagellation, for example, are not all portrayed as monsters; the one on Jesus’ left is just an ordinary man calmly carrying out his orders. The implication of this for a 21st century composer does not need spelling out. It seems to me that Caravaggio is warning us against complacency: the people who do these terrible things are not very different from you and me.
Then I saw The Denial of St Peter (which is reproduced on the front cover of this score). A sharp-faced woman points at Peter accusingly whilst he points at his heart with a guilty look on his face as he denies Christ. He is portrayed as an ordinary man, a good man apparently, who through fear, social discomfort, laziness, lack of vigilance, or a combination of all these things has failed to stand up for his most treasured belief. At the same time the horror of what he has done and its implications appear to register on his face. This resonates with the words of English philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1997), poet Francis Featherstone (1860-1896) and American civil rights activist Martin Luther King (1929-1968): evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Not only does History teach us that this is so but, on an infinitely smaller scale, most of us probably know it from personal experience.
Suddenly I realized how Peter’s denial, skirted over somewhat briefly in the passions of Bach and other composers, could itself be the subject of a powerful and dramatic work with a message relevant to people of all faiths. The extent to which anyone believes or disbelieves the factual accuracy of the story is irrelevant: like all well-known Bible stories it is part of our western culture and different retellings of stories like this reveal different truths about humanity. Moreover, the beautifully simple shape of the story with its three denials climaxing with the cock crow seemed to cry out for a musical setting in its own right.
So when in 2008 the opportunity arose to write another big piece for Lloyd’s choir, I decided which texts to use and started writing the music in the summer. Like my earlier Songs of Innocence and Experience, I scored it so that it could be easily programmed alongside an established work, lasting just under half an hour with a small, Mozart Requiem sized orchestra without flutes or horns, but this time replacing the clarinets with oboes and adding harpsichord and a 2nd percussionist. The trumpets double high muted piccolo trumpets which play a crucial role at the story’s climax.
Following the example of Bach I decided to use a quasi symmetrical structure, the three denials in Latin interpolated with four choruses in English. The chorus behaves like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and playing the role of the angry mob accusing Peter for the 3rd denial. Nearly all my vocal music up to this point has set English as for me communication has always been paramount but on this occasion I decided to use the Latin version of St Matthew as it seemed to lend itself much more naturally to singing than the English and its conciseness leaves the composer more freedom to interpret the words. In any case, the story is so simple that it can easily be understood in a foreign language. The original idea was that the music depicting the story in Latin with soloists predominating would be more complex and austere; the English music of the choruses more simple and direct.
The four solo protagonists are each characterized and accompanied by a different combination of instruments: Evangelist represented by tenor with organ, 1st Woman by soprano with harpsichord and oboe, Petrus by Baritone with three trombones, and 2nd Woman by mezzo soprano with harpsichord and cor anglais. The exception occurs when the evangelist quotes the words of Jesus where, again following the example of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, he is instead surrounded by a halo of strings.
The orchestral interlude that follows the words Flevit Amare (He wept bitterly) – a personal meditation on Peter’s tears, his guilt and in general the tragedy that results from inaction – makes use of four extraordinary chords from Bach’s aria Erbarme dich (Have mercy) which appears at the same point in his St Matthew Passion. Following the example of Bach’s Crucifixus from his B Minor Mass, dissonances suggesting the tearing of flesh anticipate the impending crucifixion in a passage that also owes something to Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion which appeared immediately after – and arguably as a response to – World War Two.
But whilst I make no secret of the debt this piece owes to the great Baroque master, I nevertheless hope it is fair to say that none of it – notwithstanding the tiniest hint I allowed myself at the beginning of the 3rd chorus – actually sounds like Bach.
The main title has caused a few people to ask me when I am going to set the rest of the Passion! But this has never been my intention and I have contemplated leaving the subtitle to stand on its own. Nevertheless, I have in the end left it as it is since, when writing and performing it, I have always liked the idea and feeling that it could be part of a bigger story: that of the consequences of people who fail to speak out for their beliefs – or that of the Passion if you prefer!
Songs of Innocence and Experience
Duration: 37 minutes
Text: Setting words by William Blake
For soloists, choir and orchestra. For treble and mezzo soprano soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra: 002*(Eb)2* 0230 T/Perc Org Strings
Commissioned by Lloyd’s Choir.
First performance: Lloyd’s Choir with Isis Ensemble and Jacques Cohen conducting.
Subsequently performed by Reading Festival Chorus. Movements performed by other groups.
Subsequently performed by Reading Festival Chorus. Movements performed by other groups.