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Following its successful premiere performance earlier this year, Francis Pott’s highly anticipated recording of The Cloud of Unknowing is likely to be musical milestone and a choral great.
Drawing together a variety of texts and musical influences, Pott weaves together a deep and emotional work with an ethos reminiscent of Michael Tippett’s ‘War Oratorio’.
In practical terms this piece too arose from a commission, funded by the Performing Right Society, for one of ten new works marking the 25th year of the Vasari Singers’ illustrious career under the baton of their founder, Jeremy Backhouse. On a personal level, the music confronts a mid-life ebbing of faith. Scientific rationalism divests the universe of its mystery and shrinks our human place in the scheme of things (if scheme it is); while the state of the world suggests either a suffering God, powerless to intervene in human misery, or a malignly indifferent one—if any.
In response, some have sought a kind of sense in ‘the suffering God’ within his own creation, and in a Crucifixion perpetually re-enacted within the atrocities of successive ages. If such thinking has made a difference to me personally, this is thanks less to any certainty in the resurrection than to a more humanistic perception of Christ on the Cross as that mysterious figure, Everyman. The media bombard us with images of suffering too large to absorb, and in a sense it is easier to be moved to tears by the plight of a single child in the Third World or Bosnia than to be touched in the same painful way by the plight of a nation or, as it sometimes seems, an entire continent. That may be why some have railed against any artistic ‘response’ to the Holocaust, since the assumption that one can encapsulate something beyond true understanding arguably carries its own moral irresponsibility and hurt. Yet, others insist that the world remember atrocities and bear witness. I can say only that what has nurtured me on a broadly Christian path is more the blessing of a close and happy family than any tradition itself; therefore a related respect for the individual sanctity of life in others and a worldly-wise humanitarian conscience seem to offer the first and second steps towards any faith, however tentative.
If a commission lent this sharper focus, so did world events. What became The Cloud started in the middle, with Psalm 23. This was a response to the tragedy of Beslan, Northern Ossetia, in September 2004, when Chechen separatists barricaded themselves and more than 1,200 hostages into a school. Of the 344 eventual dead, 186 were children. While a compositional response can fairly be derided as futile, sometimes those of a creative bent may feel the need to bail out the sinking ship of common humanity with whatever tiny, unavailing bucket they have been given, if only because not to do so seems rather worse.
After harrowing images of maternal distress seen at the time, it was natural to set the Psalm for women’s voices only. Soon I realised that I wanted this to follow the central climax of a much larger work and offer sanctuary from it. Accordingly the setting here emerged in fairly anodyne harmonic terms, since much of its eventual effect would rely upon juxtaposition and contrast.
The Cloud of Unknowing opens with a sombre organ introduction. The first choral entry  evokes a kind of Eden. Lines from Psalm 90  interact with passages from Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, 1945. This poem by the late Cretan poet Odysseus Elytis is an almost tribal eulogy, its pathos derived from contrast between the happy intimacy of a soldier’s village origins and the futility of random extinction on a battlefield. A tenor solo is introduced , leading to the premonition ‘something evil will strike’.
The soloist typifies a deliberate tendency for identities to blur at particular moments throughout the work. At various points he will assume the guise of prophet, reluctant soldier, Christ figure or worldly Everyman. In essence his is the voice of human conscience, frequently drowned but still insistent amid the sound and fury of war. At  his vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse launches an immense process leading right to the central climax of the work. After the onset of an agitated Allegro this text alternates with words by William Blake which uncomfortably locate the roots of evil in every human heart. The vision of Death, the last Horseman, is an enervated whisper. A rhythmic tramping arises from the depths, evoking the mobilisation of an implacably hostile force. The music  suggests an inexorable army on the march by allowing syllabic stresses to ride roughshod over conventional expectation. A free approach to text highlights ‘shall’ [march every one on his ways] and ‘shall not’ [break their ranks]. Eventually, like some culinary reduction, this ‘boils down’ to the single word break, inhumanly repeated over organ trills.
In a quieter section , laments of the oppressed give ground to a single voice from within the chorus, tremulously questioning ‘who will rise up with me against the wicked?’. This elicits a casually indifferent statement of murderous intent: ‘yea, our God shall destroy them’.
At  the soloist—increasingly an impotent intercedent for peace—admonishes warring humanity with words from a French poet, René Arcos, who survived the Great War: ‘the dead are all on the same side’. In response the hostile marching returns. Two sides are now in direct conflict, one inexorable, the other bent upon its annihilation. One faction (by now clearly representing the contemporary West) utters self-righteous pronouncements suggestive that any atrocity is sanctioned by certainty of God on its side: an entirely deliberate indictment of two modern governments for a grievously misguided conflict. Implacable mutual opposition is again embodied by antiphonal use of ‘shall break’ [my arms shall break even a bow of steel] and ‘shall not break’ […their ranks]. Both sides ignore the despairing soloist. As before, the process attenuates to the monosyllable ‘break’. The spectre of the prophetically envisaged final Horseman returns. His name this time precipitates uproar.
A headlong climax  enlists that (marginally altered) ‘taboo’ verse from the Psalms which glories in dashing the foe’s children against the stones. An extended organ interlude finally recedes from the noise of battle into remote stillness . The soloist, reluctant participant in all that has gone before, sings words written by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen in a letter home to Osbert Sitwell from the trenches. Owen likens the individual men in his command to the suffering Christ; himself to Judas. This leads into Psalm 23 .
With the second half of the work [disc 2, track 1] battle returns, but the perspective is now that of Elytis, akin more to the telephoto lens of modern journalism in the field than to the ageless hostilities addressed earlier. ‘Something evil will strike’ recurs as a ghostly echo, reaching sudden consummation in a single gunshot. Elytis now strikingly conjures pathos by matching the tragedy of spent life to ostensibly whimsical imagery. When the chorus re-enters , words from Christ’s final moments follow Owen’s cue, subsuming the anonymous, solitary end of the unknown soldier into the archetypally lonely, forsaken death of the Cross. This seems to be the intention of Elytis, too: ‘The love inside him was such, The whole world emptied with that very last cry’. His image of ‘one moment deserting the other’ is met here with a progressively still organ solo, its note values extending as the pitches of melody and harmony gradually part company. Ensuing music  sets lines by the 17th century mystic, Thomas Traherne. ‘Who art Thou?’, addressed to the crucified Lord, is answered instead by the slain soldier (in a line of Owen made musically famous by Britten in his War Requiem, and one from Arcos): ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend. The dead are all on the same side’.
The remaining music  is a kind of moral epilogue. Despite providing the work’s title, the text here was the last thing to fall into place. Conceiving a textual ‘mosaic’ is a matter less of lighting on things and recognising one’s wish to set them, more of knowing what one hopes someone has said and then tirelessly searching. The enigmatic mediaeval tract entitled The Cloud of Unknowing was a late, stray idea which I almost failed to follow up. Written during the last quarter of the fourteenth century in the dialect of the East Midlands, it is believed to be the work of a Carthusian monk who took pains to hide his identity. Although addressing a specific form of religious contemplation (held then to unite the Christian soul with the being of Christ), the author was intent upon linking this with an active charitable compassion for others. Certain passages strike the modern reader through their worldly note of humanitarian engagement. These provided the summing-up which my own (as yet unnamed) Cloud required.
The Epilogue starts much the same as the work’s opening, offering a semblance of symphonic recapitulation. An arioso tenor solo follows, emphasising the poignant brevity of earthly opportunity to be a force for good. Again the chorus returns to Psalm 90. Its earlier music provides a backdrop to the true heart of the soloist’s message for the modern world, leading to the exhortation ‘…lift up thine heart with a blind stirring of love; for if it begin here it shall last without end’. The chorus reiterates this text , inexorably expanding it in imitative polyphonic style. An immense climax is sustained into a prolonged Amen, which subsides until the soloist is heard intoning ‘farewell’, as if emerging against the flow of some great retreating procession. His valedictory blessing  leads back to undespoiled Eden . The chorus returns (Elytis): ‘the whole world emptied with that very last cry’. In response, the soloist’s last utterance is a desolate echo from the Cross at Calvary. A final Amen  fades ever further into the distance before a prolonged and mysterious organ chord enfolds all in its own seemingly eternal cloud of unknowing.
This work stands at some distance from the conventions of Anglican worship, the forbearance for which it calls being humanist in essence before it is specifically Christian or devotional. I had wished to write something of this kind long before the Iraq war and its aftermath lent their particular focus. In the event, the music espouses that same ‘need to bear witness’ articulated by surviving members of the Jewish faith after the Holocaust, but emanating since from innumerable other conflicts. Such witness chooses here to embrace innocent victims from all faiths and ethnic strains, be they of Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other persuasion.
A postscript is in order. During July 2005 Jeremy Backhouse told me that the work’s première would take place in 2006 at St Pancras’ Church, London. Barely twenty-four hours later, a terrorist bomb detonated on a bus brought carnage to the steps of that building, plunging many into unimaginable horrors. The eventual first performance of The Cloud was attended by some who had been caught up in the tragic events of ‘07/07’. While it is mistaken to view the music as a reaction to that event, which its completion predated, such happenings offer melancholy confirmation of an enduring darkness at the heart of man, and of his capacity for acts of atrocity alongside selfless heroism. For as long as mankind continues to crucify its messengers of peace, it will fail to see the means of salvation which may always have lain in its own hands. Notwithstanding those who would decry bailing out humanity’s sinking ship through the exercise of artistic expression, the contemporary individual spared terror and suffering at first hand can neither turn away nor remain immune to words written by a surviving Polish Second War poet, Jerzy Ficowski, which resonate still as our world attempts today and tomorrow to rise above the mortal tide of its own suffering:
I did not manage to save
A single life
I did not know how to stop
A single bullet…
To help where no one called
To rescue after the event
I want to be on time
Even if I am too late…
[Transl. Keith Bosley, Krystyna Wandycz in The Poetry of Survival, ed. Daniel Weissbort; Anvil Press Poetry, 1991]
The Cloud of Unknowing is dedicated to my wife, but also bears the inscription
In memoriam: Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq.
Invocation of one of Iraq’s more grievous individual losses is emblematic, and made without permission; the sentiment behind it one of personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn.
Francis Pott © 2007