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Continuing Signum’s new partnership with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort following the triumphant success of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (SIGCD280), their latest release is a recording of the groups renowned a cappella programme of music for mourning and consolation. This is a beautifully poignant programme of British choral music, including works by composers as diverse as Morley and Dove, Sheppard and Walton and featuring Howells’ sublime Requiem.
Paul McCreesh: Well I hope I am not especially morose, but it’s quite amazing just how much wonderful sacred music there is on the subject of death. There’s an old saying that ‘the devil has the best tunes’—in fact, I think it’s the grim reaper that has them! I was interested in creating a reflective programme, drawing on music from many periods, uniting certain common themes and concepts. Death is a central and inescapable truth, for every generation. Medical advances may yet cause us to redefine longevity, but, thankfully, immortality is beyond our grasp.
Greg Skidmore: What was your starting point in compiling this programme?
Paul McCreesh: The work that stood out from an early stage was Howells’ sublime and powerful Requiem. This is the major work on this disc and its central point of focus. I also wanted to include a setting of the old Funeral Sentences because of the wonderful text. There are so many beautiful phrases (…he cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower…man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…)—somehow, the central truths of human existence have never been more eloquently expressed. The elegant simplicity of the Morley setting, sung at royal funerals for many years, allows true reflection on these exquisite words.
Greg Skidmore: You have subtitled this disc Music of Mourning & Consolation. What, for you, is the relationship between mourning and consolation and how is this represented in the music?
Paul McCreesh: One might argue that most funeral music has an intrinsic sense of consolation—this is especially so in the English tradition. The music is not primarily concerned with the day of judgement; rather, it’s about the passing of time, the transience of our lives, the sense of moving on and the pain of loss; all contrasted with the desire of a visionary afterlife. These are all concepts that have given rise to profoundly expressive words and music.
Greg Skidmore: Some of the texts also dwell on real sorrow—for instance the Phineas Fletcher text used by Dearmer and Walton. Is there a tension between this and the elements of mourning and consolation?
Paul McCreesh: In the Christian tradition, there is seemingly constant conflict between the unworthiness of the sinner and the need to attain purification for the afterlife, so these tensions are a central part of belief.
Greg Skidmore: Why did you include Robert White’s Christe, qui lux es et dies and James MacMillan’s A Child’s prayer, two pieces that seem less directly concerned with death?
Paul McCreesh: In a programme such as this there is always a temptation to include music that is not strictly speaking funereal, because the metaphysical connection between evening (or compline) and the end of life is so strong. This beautiful evening hymn was set by many English composers often, as here, in a note for note setting of the chant. Again, the conceit of seeking God’s protection from the perils of life’s journey, especially at the moment of death, is elegantly expressed. Almost all of James MacMillan’s music, including his symphonic repertoire, is deeply influenced by his Catholicism. A Child’s prayer was written in response to the Dunblane massacre which took place on 13th March 1996, when a gunman shot 16 children at a primary school. Whilst the text is suitable for general use, MacMillan writes two separate lines for high voices, an especially poignant representation of children’s voices.
Greg Skidmore: Within the programme, you have clearly paired together some of the works. What is the rationale behind these pairings?
Paul McCreesh: Some of these pairings were relatively obvious. Percy Dearmer’s hymn setting of Drop, drop, slow tears—a 17th century poem and 17th century hymn tune cunningly married off in the 20th century—presumably provided the source of inspiration for Walton’s expressive setting. Other connections had to be sought out and some emerged by accident! I looked at the beautiful Sheppard settings of In manus tuas and realised that they share the title of Jonathan Dove’s setting of a reflective medieval prayer. For me, it is interesting to explore the connections that link human beings of all generations: the world can change beyond recognition and yet we can still respond to words written in the 12th century or music written in the 16th century.
Greg Skidmore: When performing or listening to a sacred programme such as this what, if anything, is incumbent on the performer or the listener in terms of their relationship with Christianity?
Paul McCreesh: I can only answer this in terms of how I personally relate to this music, in the context of my own beliefs. I was baptised into the Catholic tradition but would struggle to profess any particular religious conviction. However, I do think that there is something at the heart of religion—perhaps more than anything the quest for the ultimately unknowable—which I find deeply attractive. This is possibly why so many people are still drawn to religion, in spite of so much scientific evidence questioning the validity of theism. It is almost as if the desire for an afterlife is enough to persuade us to set aside the more rational scientific arguments.
Greg Skidmore: How does this inform your approach to performing these works?
Paul McCreesh: I am constantly imploring singers not to be frightened of expressing the emotions of the text: to sing not just with an understanding of the literal meaning of the words, but also with an appreciation of their sense within a religious or spiritual context. Of course there is also a danger, when working with professional singers, that they fail to relate to some of these texts through over-familiarity. I want to challenge people to think differently about music.
Greg Skidmore: Do you find that the 20th century music here is more personal or intimate than the earlier repertoire? Or would you reject that claim?
Paul McCreesh: That’s a very interesting idea. Firstly, one must bear in mind that we perform the earlier repertoire as concert music, whereas in fact it is all music written for the ritual of worship, so we are listening to it entirely out of context. Secondly, of course we know so much more about the more recent composers and their lives, so the personal resonances are that much more apparent. The 20th century works here are often quite personal to the composers—Parry wrote the Songs of Farewell towards the end of his life, for example, presumably in response to his advancing years; Howells’ Requiem, though written three years before his son died, was withheld from publication until long after Michael’s death and was clearly a deeply personal work which became inextricably linked with his terrible loss.
Greg Skidmore: Do you think we feel a greater sense of connection to the more recent composers because we know so much more about them, whereas we know so little about someone like Robert White? Does this affect our relationship with the music?
Paul McCreesh: It has to really, doesn’t it? The tragedy of Michael’s death was the barometer by which all Howells’ emotional experiences were measured, as I’m sure they would be for any human being in such circumstances. Knowing background like this can surely only serve to heighten our experience of the music. At the other end of the spectrum, it amazes me that (to my knowledge) we don’t know the name of a single architect of a Gothic cathedral. That sense of anonymity in the creation of art (if it was even regarded as art) is intriguing. The culture of attaching a sense of personal fulfilment to the creation of art only surfaces properly in the Baroque period, and reaches its zenith in the 19th century. In earlier times artists were craftsmen: an exquisite medieval chalice doesn’t have an artist’s initials on the bottom. A composer of sacred music might have had an emotional connection with the idea of death or religious fervour, but it is more than likely that composing was just something he did, much as the cobbler made shoes. Essentially, this is functional music that we nostalgically imbue with an emotional content.
Greg Skidmore: As someone who grew up drawn to early music I have a little trouble with the idea—much though we know it to be historically verifiable—that early musicians were more craftsmen than artists. If this is indeed the case, how then do we find a legitimacy to the emotional connection that we have with that music? Do you have to manufacture it?
Paul McCreesh: Sometimes, yes. I believe that our perception of the best renaissance repertoire would differ wildly from that of John Sheppard or William Byrd. I think we are drawn to particular types of renaissance music—melodic polyphony, dense counterpoint and ethereal beauty. I am not convinced that this is the aesthetic by which contemporaries judged this music. Monteverdi, for instance, claimed that Willaert was one of his most illustrious predecessors. I have tried to make Willaert’s music work for me—really, I have—but it just doesn’t. It makes me think that there must be something in that music that was important then but which doesn’t transfer to most of us today. One thing that I fight against in my performances of early music is the idea that it must always sound ethereal and pretty; all the evidence suggests that the world then was very coloured and very visceral—indeed it was often also very violent. One thing it wasn’t was exquisitely pure and beautiful. We look at all old music through the prism of history, with a certain romance for a bygone age. Whilst of course this is doubtless part of the attraction, for me the beauty of so much early music lies in its relative objectivity. It is exactly for this reason that I have always eschewed many over-employed ‘modern’ tricks, such as changing tempo, pitch, exaggerating dynamics and ironing out angularities to create that purity so beloved of the English choral tradition. Having said all that, the ‘early’ pieces in this particular programme do seem to express a delicate and restrained beauty.
Greg Skidmore: As attitudes to composition and appreciation of music have developed over the centuries, do you think that people’s thinking about death has also changed?
Paul McCreesh: I think people in earlier periods were much more pragmatic about death as they would regularly have seen parents, siblings or neighbours die. That is not to say that a grieving mother felt less pain on the death of her child, but that life was accepted as being inherently fragile. As death was always imminent—media vita in morte sumus—there was an acceptance of the transience of life and a more passionately held belief in the afterlife. I think perhaps we have lost something of that medieval visceral experience, except for the few people for whom faith is an absolute in their lives.
Greg Skidmore: Despite this change in attitudes, death remains inescapable. Do you feel as though modern, scientifically-minded man has a better way of approaching death through art and music?
Paul McCreesh: It occurs to me (in middle age) that the very noise of the world in which we live can dull our senses to such an extent that we can become blind to the realities of emotion. We can live in a fool’s paradise in which we avoid thinking about death until the last possible moment. If I have something of the preacher in me, I would say that maybe we need to be more aware of the passing of time, of the natural world and our fleeting time on earth. If we fail to devote time to enjoying relationships and nurturing friendships, to having conversations about life and love and to enjoying the beauty of a full moon or the sunrise, then maybe our experience of life is fundamentally lacking. Part of my vision as an artist is to try to live life with a greater connection to the emotional world. Music is a large part of my passion for life, but it’s absolutely about life first and foremost. If I am not now falling into the trap of romanticising the past, I wonder if our renaissance and medieval forebears experienced life with much greater intensity, for all the apparent harshness of their existence. I envy that—maybe I was just born in the wrong century!
Greg Skidmore: Much of the music on this disc was written within the last 100 years or so. How does that music fit into the picture that you are painting?
Paul McCreesh: The music may be relatively recent, but very few of the texts are contemporary. I think the very nature of writing music in the 21st century on a medieval text must connect us to that past. That’s what I love about music, and about sacred music in particular. There is something in this music that is both of its time and timeless – a central truth for all time. I’m not sure whether the absolutes of belief are essential: I think that there are truths here that are as relevant to a profound theist as to a deeply cynical agnostic. At the very least there is emotional and spiritual content here which demands discussion, reflection and, I hope, a response within our souls.
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