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The Latvian choral tradition is admired worldwide, and the nation’s composers for these forces are writing overwhelmingly spiritual music—perhaps a reaction to the suppression of that material by the Soviets. But here the Latvian State Choir do the honour of turning to a British composer—albeit one who has immersed himself in the contemporary Baltic sound-world. Gabriel Jackson’s sumptuous choral textures and beautiful, yet individual, harmonic language respond thrillingly to the Latvian treatment.
‘Art has many functions and I would not decry anyone who makes confrontational work’, he observes. ‘But one of art’s values is its ability to demonstrate the idea that there is a better world. That is not to imply that other values or purposes of art are wrong; rather, I believe there is an important place for optimism in art and that developing that place is a genuinely good thing to do.’ Jackson adds that his sacred works are not intended as personal confessions of faith, although others may detect recurring tropes—ecstatic melodies, gleaming gymels for high voices and chordal reiterations for full choir—that present traces of his immanent relationship to God. What counts above all, though, is the explicit promise of Jackson’s music, through its rootedness in ritual and sheer objective strength, to lead others to contemplate the divine, to think deeply about the creator spirit.
Jackson’s diversity of invention, for all its arresting material interest and tonal beauty, would count for less without the carefully crafted foundations of his compositions. This correspondence between surface and structure, complexity and simplicity, the ecstatic and the numinous belongs to a register of aesthetic priorities shared with the Stravinsky of The Symphony of Psalms and the Requiem Canticles and strongly pre-echoed by composers of early Tudor times, notably those of the Eton Choirbook generation. Bold textural contrasts and clear juxtapositions of musical ideas stand as hallmarks of a compositional style ready to vault freely from one affect to another, replacing elaborately ornamented unison chants here with gently flowing chordal meditations there, while developing an overarching sense of unity and order.
The Voice of the Bard, written in October 2007, demonstrates the power of what Jackson calls ‘abrupt editing’. The imperative command of William Blake’s text is announced initially by sopranos, altos and tenors in unison octaves, giving voice to an opening section that evokes the rhythmic exuberance of fourteenth-century Ars Nova polyphony and setting out motivic material that recurs in modified form throughout the piece. Blake’s poetic imagery is shot through with allusions to the ‘two contrary states of the human soul’, named in his 1794 anthology of Songs as Innocence and Experience, the playful freedom of the former suppressed by the latter’s rules of conformity, emotional reserve and corruption. The Bard, whether Blake himself or his fictional alter ego, calls on the ‘lapsed soul’, the man or woman of experience, to reject the ‘Holy Word’ heard since the time of the Garden of Eden and take full command of a benighted world. Jackson’s setting articulates the contrasts and revels in the ambiguities of Blake’s symbolism: he leaves his audience to decide whether the Bard is a true visionary, the herald of transformational change, or the latest to join the snaking line of false prophets.
To mark the silver jubilee of his Vasari Singers in 2004, Jeremy Backhouse commissioned ten composers each, as he put it, ‘to write an anthem that might reflect the state of our world at the start of the new millennium’. Backhouse invited Gabriel Jackson to set a sacred but non-liturgical text. The composer chose Arthur John Arberry’s translation of verse by the tenth-century Sufi mystic Al-Junaid of Baghdad, searing in its blend of sensual and spiritual imagery. Now I have known, O Lord arises from the composer’s knowledge of the textural transparency, timbral refinement and expressive fervour of the Vasari Singers. The anthem makes a cardinal virtue of stillness, at first unfolding the essence of a ravishing melody for divided sopranos above slow-moving, almost static harmonies. Gentle choral murmurings, formed from multiple repetitions of melodic cells, underpin the erotic intimacy of paired soprano and tenor solos, to the words ‘My tongue hath talked with my Adored’; the effect is recalled, albeit with choral parts transposed and the solos assigned to alto and bass, to express ‘Yet otherwise disunion is our estate eternally’. Jackson frames the work’s florid climax with a chorale for double choir and a sublime chordal postlude.
The names of four ‘doctors’ of the Western Church, founding fathers of doctrinal thinking, emerged in the early Middle Ages: St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Gregory the Great and St Jerome. Their company has been enlarged over the centuries by the addition of other ecclesiastical authors and pre-eminent theologians, from St Thomas Aquinas during the time of the Council of Trent to St Thérèse of Lisieux in the late 1990s. The Roman Catholic liturgy includes an Office of Doctors, complete with the antiphon to the Magnificat at Vespers, O Doctor optime. The antiphon’s text can be emended to carry the name of any given Doctor of the Church. Jackson’s O Doctor optime enlists and adapts aspects of medieval practice, a tenor cantus firmus carrying the Gregorian plainsong appropriate to the Office prominent among them. Silence introduces richer, deeper textures, supported by five homophonic voice parts that chart the ebb and flow of a heartfelt plea to God’s son.
Missa Triueriensis was written for Truro Cathedral Choir in 2005. The Kyrie of Jackson’s ‘Truro Mass’ opens with a two-part canon at the fifth for altos and sopranos; imitative counterpoint also shapes the following Christe, scored for alto, tenor and bass, and the second Kyrie statement for full choir. The work may be a Missa brevis, here truncated by omission of the Credo, but its composer, guided by the scale and style of William Byrd’s Mass settings, is alive to the dramatic potential and contrasts of his set Latin text: the Gloria, for example, begins with a mighty heavenward punch before concerning itself with peace on earth and striking appropriate moods for each of the ancient Christian hymn’s expressions of devotion. The timeless idea of multum in parvo, the existence of much in little, finds its musical justification as Jackson reflects on the Gloria’s ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ and announces the Sanctus with three bell-like chords, the latter cast in homage to the Sanctus of Christopher Tye’s Missa Euge bone of the 1550s. Brevity likewise works in favour of ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’, set syllabically for choral sopranos and tenors against impassioned reiterations of ‘Sanctus’ for divided altos and basses. The Agnus Dei recalls the Kyrie canon, modified to avoid a repeat of the first movement’s modulation and supply fecund material for the second Agnus statement and the tender modal lifeblood of the final ‘dona nobis pacem’.
Early Protestant reformers, for all their iconoclasm, stopped short of destroying much of Canterbury Cathedral’s medieval fabric and many of its moveable treasures. They were not so protective of the ancient monastic institution’s library of sacred polyphony, of which little more than a dozen fragments have survived. The imaginary soundworld of pre-Reformation Canterbury remains vivid in Gabriel Jackson’s mind, however, informed by his formative years as a chorister in the cathedral’s choir, an abiding affinity for the ritual delivery of music within a sacred space and close study of medieval musica practica, the craft of composition. Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury, to a text recorded in an early fourteenth-century Cambridge manuscript, deals creatively with the distant musical past and its modern interpretation. The motet presents complex layers of melodic ornamentation above near-static sustained notes. Jackson recalls the florid style of late twelfth-century Parisian organum, especially as reinvented since the early 1980s by Marcel Pérès and his Ensemble Organum, interwoven with traces of plainchant, unmeasured melody and monumental eight-part chords, sounded at the work’s beginning and shortly before its end.
Music as sounding number occupied the minds of medieval music theorists and composers. Cassiodorus, the sixth-century Roman prefect and philosopher, outlined the concept in his influential Institutiones, a seminal text for medieval students of the arts. ‘The science of music’, he wrote, ‘is the discipline that deals with those numeric proportions that are found in sounds.’ The idea was still current a thousand years later, when Thomas Tallis created his setting of Spem in alium for a choir of forty voices. Sanctum est verum lumen is Gabriel Jackson’s ‘conscious homage to Tallis’s masterpiece’, a forty-part motet with numerical correspondences and coincidences that reinforce its links to Spem in alium. Sanctum est verum lumen, for example, occupies the same number of bars as Spem (a compositional coincidence), divides its choral forces into eight five-voice choirs (a deliberate formal strategy), and revisits many of the textural devices used by Tallis, from block chords and miniature chorales to shimmering imitative passages for upper voices and forty-part polyphony. Jackson has noted elsewhere that he wanted ‘to write a piece that was essentially about light; the text, though funereal in origin, is radiantly optimistic and invites a variety of ways of evoking that sense of light in music, from gentle luminosity to fiercely dazzling brightness’. The composer directs his multiplicity of light-seeking voices towards a central section, announced by chordal statements of the word ‘lucem’, in which the sense of regular rhythmic pulse is momentarily dissolved by a spate of overlapping choral fragments.
Angeli, archangeli holds the tonal flavour of fifteenth-century English discant in its introductory triadic writing for divided choral sopranos and altos. The motet, written in 2007 for the Feast of St Catharine, binds together a kaleidoscopic array of contrapuntal and monophonic elements within the span of a single coherent structure. Its text combines the Latin antiphon at First Vespers for the Feast of All Saints with Colin Tan’s ‘They have turned the world inside out’, commissioned for the work by St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to honour the institution’s patroness. Tan’s verse reflects on the martyrdom of early fourth-century St Catharine (or Catherine) of Alexandria, a pagan princess and Christian convert, tortured on the so-called breaking wheel before being beheaded. ‘I find the text interesting in its “reversal”’, comments Jackson, ‘the idea that, for the martyr, the desire for death is so great that for him or her—in this case St Catharine—living is in reality a death.’
The native singing cultures and literary traditions of Estonia and Latvia have entered Gabriel Jackson’s sphere of creative influences over the course of regular visits to the Baltic region. A ship with unfurled sails leads the ear directly to the words of Doris Kareva, one of Estonia’s leading poets, conveyed here in the English of Eric Dickens and underpinned for much of the piece by a lilting riff for divided altos. The work was created in the summer of 2009 for Joy Hill’s Vigala Singers, the Royal Junior College of Music alumni chamber choir. Kareva’s imagery elicits yearning melodies from Jackson and, of equal expressive significance, periodic silences timed to fall between the poet’s lines. Her text predates Estonia’s independence from Soviet rule, its long-awaited ship ‘under no flag’ clearly intended as a metaphor for freedom. A hypnotic vocalise of quaver triplets, voiced by divided sopranos and altos, stands halo-like above the composer’s wistful setting of ‘Imperceptibly all is changed’ for unison tenors and basses. The passage’s sense of expectation is resolved with a sublime final modulation from minor to major mode and the consequent reassurance that ‘all arrives so secretly’.
Aeterna caeli gloria could be seen as Jackson’s hymn to St Cecilia. His setting of the fifth-century Ambrosian text was first performed in 2007 on the eve of the feast of music’s patroness, brought to life then by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral. The work launches its ascent of the heaven of invention with a hieratic choral chant, precisely etched in eight real parts, and a corresponding melodic flourish for the word ‘gloria’. The hymn’s initial brilliance, aural and technical, gives way to an extended reflection on the figure of Christ as ‘our only hope’ before Jackson turns up the brightness with a modulation from C major to E major at ‘Ortus refulget’. The two pitch centres peacefully coexist until the final verse of praise, securely rooted in C major and crowned by a return of material familiar from the opening.
A medieval prayer, Christina Rossetti’s verse for the Feast of the Annunciation, the resourceful sounds of electric guitar, and choral polyphony of unbridled virtuosity coalesce with remarkable integrity in Ave regina caelorum. There is no sense here of bright creative ideas being forced to conform to the limits of a narrow Procrustean bed; rather, Jackson’s composition celebrates the distinctive qualities of his chosen solo instrument and develops them in a felicitous partnership with contrasting vocal textures and timbres. Shades of Ernie Isley and Eric Clapton sweep over the guitar’s solo outbreaks, together with the twangy sounds of a ‘chicken scratch’ dance riff (as accompaniment to the choir’s ‘Ave domina angelorum’), erotic note bends and seductive glissandos. As so often in his work, Jackson establishes intimacy through the simplicity of his melodic language while building transcendent grandeur through the ingenuity of his part-writing. Jacksonian jouissance leaps from the page with the arrival of the composition’s central ‘Gaude virgo’, the pleasure of which is ultimately spent in an ecstatic guitar cadenza and set in relief by the unaccompanied choir’s four-part close harmonization of ‘Vale, o valde decora’. Although the piece was first performed at the opening of London’s Kings Place concert hall in 2008, its natural habitat must surely be a Byzantine basilica or the fan-vaulted choir of a great cathedral.
Andrew Stewart © 2013