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Polyphony’s recordings of contemporary choral music are among Hyperion’s perennial best-sellers and have introduced thousands of listeners to magical new worlds of sound. On this new disc for Hyperion, under their inspirational director, Stephen Layton, the composer Gabriel Jackson gets the Polyphony treatment. The result is a dazzling collection which will inspire and enchant the listener.
Gabriel Jackson’s uniquely appealing choral works have made him one of the most familiar names in the repertoire today. His liturgical pieces are in the repertoires of many of Britain’s leading cathedral and collegiate choirs and in 2003 he won the liturgical category at the inaugural British Composer Awards. His music is deeply attractive: meditative, contemplative, and unashamedly spiritual.
‘I try to write music that is clean and clear in line, texture and structure; my pieces are made of simple melodies, chords, drones and ostinatos. They are not about conflict and resolution; even when animated, they are essentially contemplative. I like repetition and ‘ritualized’ structures. Much of my work reflects an interest in Medieval techniques and ideas—I am particularly drawn to the ecstatic, panconsonant music of the early Tudor period. For me, music is the most powerful medium for transcendence, and in several pieces I have attempted a spiritual response to the great technological miracle of our time—powered flight.’
Gabriel Jackson was born in Bermuda in 1962. After three years as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral he studied composition at the Royal College of Music, first in the Junior Department with Richard Blackford and later with John Lambert, gaining his BMus in 1983. While at the College he was awarded the R O Morris Prize for Composition in 1981 and 1983 and in 1981 he also won the Theodore Holland Award. In 1992 he was awarded an Arts Council Bursary. Particularly acclaimed for his choral works, his liturgical pieces are in the repertoires of many of Britain’s leading cathedral and collegiate choirs and in 2003 he won the liturgical category at the inaugural British Composer Awards. Recent premieres include a forty-part motet Sanctum est verum lumen (2005) for the Lichfield Festival, a Piano Sonata (2007) for David Wilde, Aeterna caeli gloria (2007) for the Festival of St Cecilia at Westminster Abbey, Ave, regina caelorum (2008) for choir and electric guitar, commissioned by Tom Kerstens and The Sixteen for the opening of Kings Place in London, The Spacious Firmament for choir, brass and organ, and The Spacious Firmament 2: Yet we who neither burn nor shine for choir and trumpet (both commissioned by the John Armitage Memorial in 2008) and an extended a cappella Requiem (2008) for the Vasari Singers, which combines settings of the Latin Ordinary with funereal texts from other cultures and spiritual traditions.
The most immediately striking thing about the list of works on this disc is that it is dominated by religious themes. So is Gabriel Jackson a ‘religious’ composer? In these days, when debate about religion often seems stridently polarized, many would expect a simple yes or no answer. But there are surely just as many for whom the answer lies neither in dogmatic belief nor in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. In an age apparently dominated by secular materialism, novelists, poets, artists and composers still return to what Jackson calls ‘a feeling for the numinous’—that sense, often fleeting, of a possible transcendent meaning, beyond human comprehension. It may be nothing more than a moment of stillness in an English cathedral at dusk, as the choir begins a Tudor motet, or the priest intones ancient phrases whose essence defies the passing of time. Such moments—‘private epiphanies’ Jackson calls them—can often catch us off guard; we may dismiss them, but for a moment perhaps they hint at something beyond our everyday values and priorities. And often it is music that seems to capture this essence most faithfully and allow us to ponder it most deeply.
As the son of a clergyman and a former chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, Gabriel Jackson has been steeped in Anglican belief and practice for as long as he can remember. While he does not consider himself in any way a conventional believer, he likes the description of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams—made by fellow-composer Rutland Boughton—as ‘the Christian agnostic’. Vaughan Williams loved religious texts, and sensed something of enduring significance in them, though he could make no sense of any anthropomorphic notions of ‘God’. It is a similar quality that attracts Jackson to the music of Herbert Howells, who for Jackson stands out from the mass of twentieth-century English church composers—not least for his almost uncanny feeling for how voices sound and blend in a spacious cathedral acoustic.
It is important to stress that there is much more to Jackson’s attitude than mere nostalgia. Certain features of his style may be rooted in specific traditions, but the range of reference—from Josquin and even earlier to late Stravinsky and a hint of John Tavener—makes it distinctly modern. Jackson likes the Stravinskian idea that all music is about other music. How can it be otherwise in an age when the music of a millennium is available at the push of a button? Stravinsky was also fond of saying that ‘a good composer doesn’t imitate—he steals’. Such an attitude would probably have been dismissed as unpardonably eclectic in the 1960s and 70s, when old-fashioned doctrinaire modernism held sway in new music circles; but in these postmodern times the ability to see what is of value in a wide range of styles is a mark of distinction. In Gabriel Jackson’s case, all musical influences have been thoroughly digested—there isn’t the slightest hint here of ‘cultural snacking’—but his inclusiveness, combined with his ability to see the value in tradition without blindly and uncritically reinforcing it, makes him very much a voice for today.
Two of the most substantial compositions recorded here—the eight-part Salve regina 2 (2004) and the twelve-part Cecilia Virgo (2000)—show a particular alignment with the music of the remote past. In both there is a strong reflection of Jackson’s love for the multi-voice antiphons of the Tudor church repertory: Thomas Tallis’s magnificent forty-part Spem in alium is the most famous example, but Jackson also singles out John Browne’s O Maria salvatoris mater and Robert Wilkinson’s nine-part Salve regina, along with the Scottish Robert Carver’s ten-part Mass. Something of these composers’ love of rich sonorities and elaborate filigree textures can be heard in the overlapping, downward cascading scales that open Cecilia Virgo or the sumptuous chordal writing at ‘Eia ergo’ in Salve regina 2. Cecilia Virgo, first performed by the BBC Singers on 26 October 2000 in Canterbury Cathedral, was first heard in a programme that included several of these Tudor masterpieces, while Salve regina 2 was composed for a concert celebrating the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Beaulieu Abbey—in both cases, creative response to age-old musical inheritance was virtually demanded by the nature of the commission.
Also in both Cecilia Virgo and Salve regina 2 Jackson reinvents a device used frequently in sixteenth-century English church music, named after the sign ‘Gimel’ that usually heralds it. A gimel is an indication that a single part divides, often resulting in particularly exquisite, complex part-writing. In the words of The Tallis Scholars’ director Peter Phillips, to those in the know a gimel means ‘good bit coming up’. In Cecilia Virgo the gimel involves six solo sopranos (at the words ‘tuosque pupillos’), while in Salve regina 2 two solo sopranos and two altos step forward at the words ‘Lady! thy goodness’. In both passages a change of mode adds piquancy to the effect; in Salve regina 2 the effect is heightened still further by a change of metre and language: the ‘troped’ English sections in the text (another reinvented ancient device) are set respectively in 3/8, 5/8 and 7/8, in contrast to the regular 4/4 of the Latin passages. Again like Stravinsky, Jackson finds that predetermined devices like these, effectively closing down the options for a composer, can stimulate rather than inhibit the creative imagination.
Like Salve regina 2, Hymn to the Trinity (Honor, virtus et potestas) (2000) was written for the choral ensemble Chapelle du Roi, champions of Thomas Tallis, which encouraged Jackson to try his hand at a text Tallis himself had set. But this time Tallis is not invoked musically. The rhythmically simple, harmonically resonant chords at the beginning recall the music of the Russian Orthodox Church, while the supple polyphonic writing that follows (at the word ‘virtus’) is an imaginative recreation of the contrapuntal style of the early medieval motet, enriched with delicious expanded tonal harmonies. The contrast between all the above works and Jackson’s first Salve regina setting (2000, a seventieth birthday present for Jackson’s mother)—simple chordal textures and chant-like lines throughout—could hardly be more pronounced: apart from the superbly placed tonal harmonies. Jackson makes no secret of his admiration for Stravinsky’s and Howells’s chord voicing—especially how in the former case ‘one tiny gesture can give a little thrill of delight’. Jackson’s harmonic writing can do exactly the same, without sounding in the least like Stravinsky, as this apparently modest setting demonstrates—as also in the earlier O sacrum convivium (1990), composed for the Guildford and Portsmouth Cathedrals Festival, and dedicated this time to Jackson’s father on his sixtieth birthday. A similar lucid simplicity permeates the Ave Maria, premiered by the Exon Singers in Buckfast Abbey in 2004, only here simple homophonic textures soon give way to a more free-floating rhythmic polyphony, finally flowering in the last sentence of the prayer as the two soprano soloists soar, as though improvising, above the chordal chanting of the main choir.
Rhythmic complexity reaches its peak in Orbis patrator optime (2006), composed for the Feast of the Guardian Angels and to celebrate Edward Higginbottom’s thirtieth year as Director of the Choir of New College, Oxford. The opening homophonic textures soon break up into an extraordinary free massed melisma on the syllable ‘o’ in ‘optime’—again a medieval device lies at the back of this, yet the effect sounds disconcertingly modern. Then much freer divided soprano and alto lines glance towards the Sanctus of Stravinsky’s Mass; and then near-total rhythmic freedom is reached as the various sections of the choir repeat their phrases to the word ‘minore’ at their own speeds (Jackson now proclaims himself a child of the sixties!), as the sopranos rise and fall melodically above. As so often in Jackson however, the sections emerge in blocks rather than as part of developing or evolving ‘process’.
While most of the settings on this disc show Jackson’s sensitivity to Latin texts, he is just as responsive to his native language. The short five-part Blake setting To Morning (2007) demonstrates beautifully how much music can be made by responding to the rhythms and melodic contours of English poetry recitation. And like To Morning, Song (I gaze upon you)—a wedding gift for the composer’s friends Mark Wilde and Imogen Wright (1996)—is a welcome reminder that Jackson isn’t only at his best writing for expert choirs: both of these two settings could be performed by any good amateur group. Song (I gaze upon you) is another example of how aptly Jackson can respond to a very specific kind of commission: the result is an exquisite choral miniature that would grace any modern wedding.
Despite its title, Lux mortuorum—composed for the Ionian Singers in 1995—is based on an English text by Richard George Elliott, which meditates on the still strangely touching medieval notion of the Milky Way as the path of ‘luminous souls’ to Heaven. This finds a poignant reflection at one point in Not no faceless Angel (2005), a setting of a poem by Tanya Lake, one of the young singers in the Royal College of Music Junior Department chamber choir (plus two instrumental soloists) for whom the piece was written. Like Lux mortuorum, Lake’s poem is a meditation on bereavement, and on how we make sense of it: ‘And if I took the stars that shine in your eyes / And threw them to the skies / Then we’d all fall in love with night’. In such moments Jackson reminds us of one of the crucial functions of music and words when they work as one: helping us to find meaning in those big life events that leave our emotions stunned and our rational understanding baffled.
Stephen Johnson © 2009