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Described by The Times as 'thrilling, contemporary, and original … impressive and profoundly affecting', Francis Pott's writing provides a treasure-trove of astonishingly beautiful composition. Meditations & Remembrances is a new collection of choral and organ pieces of extraordinary tenderness and masterly technique.
Francis Pott began his musical life as a chorister at New College Oxford. He held open music scholarships at Winchester College and Magdalene College, Cambridge. Francis was appointed Administrative Head of Music at London College of Music and Media in 2001, subsequently becoming its Head of Composition and Research Development on Music, Media and Creative Technologies. He was also a member of Winchester Cathedral Choir under David Hill from 1991 until 2001. Francis remains an active pianist and accompanist, uniting both compositon and academic research.
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Dublin, enjoys an enviable reputation as one of Ireland's most outstanding choirs. Under the direction of Judy Martin, Director of Music at the cathedral, the present choir is a mixed ensemble of 20 adult singers. In addition to the full part it plays in the worship in the cathedral, the Cathedral Choir is active with concerts, tours and regular broadcasts.
Playing by ear and memory became a matter of peer prestige, exhibited for better or worse on a clapped-out upright in the boarder choristers’ ‘day room’ and usually subjected at once to a cheerfully brutal critical response. At the same time the blithe stylistic innocence of extreme youth blinded us to what separated more conservative parts of the twentieth century from the radical tendency of the sixteenth. I remember ending some infantile choral setting with a late-Tudor ‘English cadence’ disfigured by a final chord where Leightonesque major second supplanted conventional major third.
Leighton was ‘cool’ (the term has undergone a recent recycling): he had come to a recording, smoked a pipe between sessions and brought a taboo pint of beer into the vestry from the College bar, to the delicious consternation of the Chaplain (Stravinsky’s description of Diaghilev post-Pulcinella as embodying ‘the offended eighteenth century’ springs to mind). Leighton was also charmingly approachable, self-deprecatingly signing autographs for his star-struck exponents. I think I already sensed that his sound—translated into parallel terms—was like some strange meeting of the works of El Greco and Jacob Epstein, both of whom graced New College chapel or antechapel: angularly and astringently of its time, yet embodying the ageless virtues of contrapuntal, polyrhythmic mastery and much else drawn from a centuries-older, more mellifluous sensibility. (As I think Bacon wrote, ‘there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion’.) Here was the bedrock of a dawning critical objectivity upon which I draw with gratitude to this day.
Homesickness was seldom far from those chorister years. Sunday evensong concluded with the sublime Amen from Byrd’s O God, whom our offences have justly displeased. For God I substituted the equally terse nickname of our formidable headmaster (loved and feared like any deity), and still trembled suitably in my weekend shoes. More poignantly, as it now seems, I thought of my parents. With the later passing of both and of a childhood’s home, the thread of a ‘homesickness’ of the spirit takes on the metaphorical resonance of some inarticulate apprehension of faith—of actual ‘homing’ like some migratory bird (or Byrd?), as rites of passage carry one further into—and, one day, beyond—life. Both verbally and musically Campion conveys this as succinctly as anyone in his Never weather-beaten sail… But it is to Byrd, that venerable, artistically transcendent and yet vulnerably human face of enduring Englishness, that I return; never more so than since the death of my mother in 1995 preceded the birth of my first child by five months. In her awareness of another grandchild forever unseen, I like to fancy that some momentary clasp of fingers took place before me; that we shall go whence we came and, ultimately, that the newborn will prove to have been our clearest messengers of grace in what Yeats dubbed the uncontrollable mystery. It is for reasons such as these that the sensibility of Byrd has remained a guiding kindly light, however far short may fall the compositional ‘hints and guesses’ on this disc of igniting even the dimmest candle beside him.
On a more dispassionate level, the separation of sensibility from technique would be idle, and doomed. Therefore I have found myself testing the limits of that balance which must exist in all music between the melodically linear and the harmonically vertical: no easy task, given that these work generally in mutually inverse proportion and the richest miracles of Tudor polyphony flower from the ostensibly sterile soil of the humble, static triad. This requires a rethinking of what can be accepted as ‘incidental’ dissonance or as a kind of de facto ‘new consonance’, and also a fresh approach to the harmonic ‘suspension’ technique which is the sine qua non of Byrd et al. Moreover, the relatively questing harmonic language of my instrumental and orchestral music has here required toning down in the interests of feasible pitch orientation for singers, even though many of these pieces were commissioned by choirs among this country’s finest.
I said I would return to ‘the chorister experience’: amongst my slightly older contemporaries, a boy named Dickon Peschek one day got up with his fiddle in a school concert and performed something he had written, accompanied by the Director of Music. It was unashamedly a palm court waltz—and a good one: Fawlty Towers before its time. Its tune lives with me still and I recall the thunderous applause, but think I forgot to join in; for the bolt from the blue had arrived: great composers (pace Honegger’s remark) did not have to be dead. They might be not only alive, but nine or ten years old, with one sock at half mast and standing in our midst with a smile of owlishly shy delight upon their face. My path was set, and for ever Dickon stands there in mind’s and memory’s eye, bow in hand and something in heart which he had just unwittingly passed to me to share. Later, he left composition behind and prospered in television. I continued to meet him at occasional reunions, a huge and amiably self-deprecating presence still, to whom, alas, I never declared my debt. His premature and tragic death during 2005 closes another door behind me. To his happy and kindly memory this recording—with the blessing of its participants—stands dedicated. Fortuitously or not, the lineaments of some kind of life’s narrative emerge here from the placing of texts in a particular order, starting with Traherne’s words for baptism and ending with Newman’s for leave-taking, remembrance and peace at the last. Certain musical corners (particularly conclusions) are recognisably revisited in the course of the music heard here, perhaps mirroring the perennial acceptance implicit in a verbal ‘Amen’ or the interaction of prayer with memory.
Below appear some brief details of each work, several of these having some other memorial purpose of their own.
I gladly add my tribute and my gratitude to a choir, a director of music and an organist to rival the most illustrious boasted by the United Kingdom. Their quality enjoys a certain splendid isolation in a nation lacking the ancient choral tradition of this island; may it come as the happiest of revelations far and wide.
I chose this text and composed this work at the invitation of Peter and Sarah Butterfield, the former a fellow member of the Choir of Winchester Cathedral, 1991-2001. It was first performed at the baptism of their son, Felix, on a date which also marked both their wedding anniversary and my own. The music seeks to respond to the touching felicities of Traherne’s prose (from his Centuries of Meditations) with a simple candour of its own, and needs no further introduction.
Turn our captivity
This setting was commissioned for the 1993 Southern Cathedrals Festival. Accordingly it was both conceived for and sung then by the united Cathedral Choirs of Winchester, Salisbury and Chichester under the direction of David Hill. Making intensive and dramatic use of SSAATTBB forces and deploying a virtuoso organ part, the piece contrasts mystical retrospection in the first section with first the malevolent envy of ‘the heathen’ and then devout celebration of God’s mercies in the agitated central passage. An immense climax (featuring the return of the opening verbal invocation) heralds a lengthy ‘epilogue’ (They that sow in tears shall reap in joy). This ends in with a spacious polyphonic Amen, returning to the opening tonality of E minor only very shortly before the conclusion.
Mass in five parts
This work was commissioned by Christopher Batchelor for the 2004 London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. It strives less than 16th century antecedents to unify its separate movements through overarching tonality and thematic content (though the Osanna concluding the Benedictus movement serves as a weightless echo of that in the preceding Sanctus: for some reason the image of flying snowflakes had come to me and is duly reflected); but perhaps it goes further than most modern settings in espousing intensive, sometimes rigorous motivic counterpoint. Its dispersal to various points in the present programme alludes loosely to one’s experience of the Mass in a liturgical context while serving a plausible purpose regarding tonal continuity between successive ‘tracks’.
The Mass is dedicated ‘to the happy memory of Peter McCrystal and his conducting within the Edington Festival of Church Music and the Liturgy’. His premature death a few years ago shocked and saddened his many friends. An inveterately gleeful leg-puller, he had never allowed me to forget one occasion in Edington [Wiltshire] when a friend of his failed to identify me as perpetrator of a piece to which she had taken exception during a concert. She denounced the culprit at length to us both before fatal eye contact occurred and all composure was loudly lost in the same instant. A Dublin resident, he sang at St Patrick’s Cathedral, and it was a poignant experience to hear this tribute brought to life a mere stone’s throw from where he had been best known and loved. Ave atque vale.
Jesu dulcis memoria
This short piece was composed at the request of Oxford University Press for inclusion in Cantica Nova, an anthology of contemporary Latin motets. It bears also a dedication to the memory of Anne Coggan, daughter of the late Archbishop, a much loved member of the Cathedral community at Winchester and also family friend. The strophic arrangement of the text is mirrored by a loosely variation-based form, beginning with monody, passing through more exultant moments and eventually placing a solo soprano voice in front of a hushed chorus.
Introduction, Toccata & Fugue
This is a general homage to two major figures in 20th century French organ music, Jehan Alain (1911-1940) and Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Alain may perhaps be detected through the melodic shape forming a secondary episode in the Toccata. This bears passing resemblance to the germinal motif in Alain’s celebrated Litanies, to which overt reference occurs here in the Fugue’s final chord. Duruflé is evoked more extensively in the contours of the Fugue, which embodies a kind of approximate echo of his own Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain. The Toccata’s secondary episode carries a faint suggestion also of the In paradisum plainchant, and hence of the conclusion to Duruflé’s Requiem. However, the present work’s more general character has roots in several places, some of them centuries older. Structurally it is relatively simple. The Introduction presents material which recurs at later stages, most notably between the Toccata and the Fugue and at the very end. The Toccata is based upon free use of irregular rhythms, but adheres ostensibly to sonata principle in presenting a melodic secondary paragraph and then a development. After the climax of this, however, the recapitulation is attenuated and inconclusive, leading to a reflective passage before the Fugue. The Fugue deliberately hints at the sectional design of Duruflé’s (in turn borrowed from Bach, BWV552, ‘St Anne’). Its subject is an inversion of the Toccata’s secondary theme, but is not restored to that form until a new section of the Fugue begins with running semiquavers. This serves as a recapitulation denied in the Toccata. It leads to a recurrence of the Toccata’s rhythms and chordal figurations before the Introduction reasserts itself in the closing stages. Toccata and Fugue are thus indivisible and could not be played separately even were they not linked by continuous music.
The Fugue features free use of stretto (overlapping of the subject with itself) both with and without augmentation, including a final canonic statement of the subject simultaneously in its original form and in inversion. The work was privately commissioned for James Sherlock, to whom it is dedicated.
This anthem was commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the Foundation of Guildford Cathedral in 2000. No Christian writer articulates as poignantly as Traherne that sense of Christian faith’s journey from cradle to grave and of a spiritual innocence kept pristine by mystical, grateful and often retrospective intimations of a kindly shaping providence. Following Finzi’s wise example, therefore, I returned to Centuries of Meditations in order to find something expressive of a particular place dedicated to and beloved of God, such as Eliot evokes [Four Quartets] in the much-quoted phrase ‘You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid’. Traherne did not disappoint, though the text here is collated from a number of disparate points in Centuries. The music seeks to preserve the sense of a quiet meditative centre despite a few expansive moments, and to maintain some consistency in its deployment of polyphonic vocal freedom against an organ part which remains both discreet and discrete.
O Lord, support us all the day long
Like other works on this disc, this setting is a specific commemoration. It is dedicated to the memory of Alan Gravill (1955-1991), one of this country’s most gifted pianists and a prize winner in the Carnegie Hall Competition of 1985. A close neighbour in London during the couple of years leading up to his death, he had been preparing some of my piano works for performance when tragically he was involved in a road accident which claimed his life a month later. Quiet, studious, kindly and hospitable, he was a grievous loss both to his profession and to those who loved him. While a piano work might (and may yet) be a more fitting tribute, the present piece embodied a spontaneous reaction and a moment when a longstanding fondness for a particular text suddenly found its purpose. The music is simple in essence (though more so to listen to than to sing) and takes a natural place at the end of this disc thanks to its twilight leave-taking of all we hold most dear. Both here and in other memorial works I have found myself reminded of Matthew Arnold’s
‘…friends to whom we had no natural right,
The homes that were not destined to be ours’.
It is to these, as much as to things known and loved, that I think the homesick choirboy (father to the man) first wanted to speak. For that, Byrd, Leighton and a diminutive violinist with wayward socks bear more or less equal responsibility.
Francis Pott © 2005