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The first recording of Owain Park's Footsteps is presented by way of a welcome bonus to a re-issue of Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles as Tenebrae and Nigel Short celebrate fifteen years of exemplary performances.
A note concerning the studio master of this recording: the 2005 recording of Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles is at 44.1 kHz; Owain Park's Footsteps was recorded at 96 kHz and is supplied as such.
The narrative for Footsteps is a fusion of texts by eight different authors, five of whom contribute to the introduction of the work. On Leaving by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda is a sonnet reflecting on the author’s moving from Cuba to Spain; 'Sea Pearl' could be describing the author’s homeland, but here, when fused with 'the wanderer’s guiding star' (E Brontë) alludes to the moon. Longer phrases which rise and fall in the upper parts of the semi-chorus are imitated more quickly in the main choir.
After the introduction, the narrative changes to the first person. The Sun originates from Sanskrit Poetry, compiled around 1100 by a Buddhist scholar, Vidyakara, and was written up to 400 years earlier. After an energetic first set of statements from the main choir, the first line, 'I praise the disk of the rising sun' is passed around the upper voices in quick motion as 'Where every bird is bold to go' (E Dickinson) is sung to slower rhythms in the lower voices. There is a sudden change in texture for 'The foreigner before he knocks', as the movement stops and two parts are left hovering above, highlighting the last line of the stanza, 'Must thrust the tears away' in the lower voices. An alto soloist introduces the 'Time to leave' section, accompanied by a drone in the lower voices. The simple, direct melody is imitated by the semi-chorus, joined by high sopranos sirening above the tune.
The semi-chorus now take over and lead us into Autumn. The traveller is slightly disturbed by the wind (reflected later in the piece by the fallen cherry blossoms), being alone and exposed to the elements. After this gentle lull, a mini-fugue inspired by Walton opens the first verse of Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Year’s Awakening. References to the 'pilgrim track' and 'belting zodiac' give this forward momentum, which only later becomes questioning. Repeating rhythms on a single pitch return, around which three-part harmonies weave.
Then, sudden outbursts represent rays of sunshine bursting through clouds. The repeating rhythms come to rest by heading downwards to reside on a mixed major-minor chord. As Gabriel Crouch notes about Path of Miracles, 'The insistent discords of the second movement reflect … the hardships of the road'. These chords are briefly used in a short quotation before reverting back on 'tinct of spring'. The questioning lone countertenor concludes this section, with an unresolved melody that contains the opening of the main fugue theme. The semi-chorus bid 'Farewell' to Autumn with an interjection comprising sad, romantic harmonies.
The devil’s interval of a tritone outlines the melody for the next section, as the wind returns. Counterpoint builds up from the low basses, capturing the weather in flowing compound time quavers. A more gentle section ensues, with lilting leaves gently falling, as the tritone transforms from a pivot point to the raised fourth in a major scale. The chords are not grounded as root positions, and so the harmony is not allowed to completely settle until the open fifth on 'midnight'. As the moonlight shines on St Paul’s, the melody reflects the earlier part of the work, with the interval of a seventh prominent alongside distant non-harmony notes.
The second 'Time to leave' section is in a lower key than the first, and is initially sung by a bass soloist over a low bass drone. The semi-chorus repeat the material, with the sopranos extending upwards before retreating to a new harmony for 'The cherry blossoms', a particularly evocative and beautiful text, tinged with sadness. Four-part chords with a descending contour in the main choir are refuted by an upward-moving soprano soloist, who concludes with her own rendition of the main theme.
As the work begins to come to a close, the music for the 'Holy paths' pays homage to John Tavener and his work The Veil of the Temple—its scale and scope with unrelenting praise for the divine. A little of his language features in the climax of this section, as parallel chords with consonant scalic melodies form the bedrock around which flow quavers in contrary motion. Unworldly harmonies for 'ceilings of diamonds' lead into the recapitulation, as the 'pearl bowers' transform to the 'sea pearl'. As the opening ideas return, the sonorities are slightly different with the use of D major in addition to the white notes of C major. A lyrical soprano melody over the top of the previous texture leads into the final few phrases, with the harmony evoking the unfinished dominant seventh as the footsteps are left continuing.
A note from Joby Talbot
It’s been twelve years since Tenebrae brought Path of Miracles to life for the first time and, though I’ve had many wonderful and exciting compositional adventures since then, I can honestly say that nothing has come close to the experience of hearing this extraordinary choir perform my music. I say ‘my music’ but really it’s their music now—and the music of all the other choirs and audiences around the world who have performed and listened to the piece. Its continuing success is in no small part thanks to the commitment of Signum Records who captured this unique recording just days after the original premiere had been postponed as a result of the terrible London bombings of 7 July 2005.
On 6 July we were rehearsing at St Bartholomew-the-Great church in central London. At lunchtime the news came through that London had won the right to host the 2012 Olympics. There was a palpable sense of positivity and joy in the room and, at the end of the rehearsal, I asked if I could say a few words to the choir. I said that I had never experienced anything like the dedication, attention to detail, and sheer unalloyed musicality I’d heard that day, and that never had I been so confident and excited before the premiere of a big new piece. The next day, however, London ground to a halt. Ambulance sirens wailed and police helicopters whirred overhead before an unreal, numbing silence descended. With the entire centre of town cordoned off, public transport suspended, and all flights diverted away from the city, the only sound I could hear from my publishers’ office in Soho where I waited to hear whether the premiere would go ahead, was the distant tolling of Big Ben, normally inaudible under the roar of the busy metropolis.
The recording sessions had been scheduled for the following weekend, however, and now the atmosphere in the room was more complicated. Excitement at the opportunity to capture what we knew was going to be an extraordinary performance was tempered by feelings of confusion, anger, fear, compassion and deep, deep sadness. I think you can hear all of that in this recording, and maybe it serves to point up what for me is the ultimate message of this music and music generally: hope for humanity and love for this beautiful world in which we live.
The world’s most enduring route of Catholic pilgrimage was first formally acknowledged as such by Bishop Diego Gelmirez in the early 12th century, but it has always belonged to a wider fellowship even than the Catholic church. Long before the body of St James was discovered in Iria Flavia in the early 9th century, and brought to its final resting place in Santiago; before the Saint even began his life of service, first as an apostle, and later as a preacher in Spain, the ‘Camino Frances’ was under construction. Part of the route still runs along the sturdy Roman roads which were used to subdue and colonise northern Iberia. To the pre-Christians, this road followed the path of the Milky Way, and took its travellers to the end of the earth. Centuries later, it was used by the Moors to reach Spain’s northern outposts, only to be pushed back along it by Charlemagne, and served as an arterial route for the establishment of the Roman Rite and the purging of its Hispanic predecessor. Today it is used by tourists, travellers and explorers, as well as by confirmed Catholics and the spiritually curious.
The musical traditions of the Pilgrimage can be traced to the mid-12th century, when a compilation of texts attributed to Pope Calixtus II was created, all devoted to the cult of St James. This so-called ‘Codex Calixtinus’ was specifically designed to serve the needs of worshippers and pilgrims in Santiago, and consisted of five books. The first volume contains liturgical settings, including those for the two feast days devoted to St James: the Feast of the Passion of St James on 25 July, and the Feast of Translation of the Apostles remains on 30 December. The second and third volumes describe the 22 miracles of St James and the journey of the Saint’s body to Santiago. Book Four recounts Charlemagne’s defeat of the Moors in Spain, and the final volume leads the would-be pilgrim through the routes, dangers and customs of the pilgrimage. Of comparable importance to all this is an appendix which contains music composed using a technique which was just beginning to gain a foothold in certain parts of Europe at this time. Notwithstanding the fact that it rarely uses more than two voices, this is a highly significant collection of polyphony. And here, within this final section of the Codex, can be found the most famous of Jacobean chants—the Dum Pater Familias. It is this hymn which establishes the universality of the cult of St James, interspersing latin verses in praise of the Saint with a multilingual refrain representing the many languages heard on the road to his shrine:
Herr Santiagu, Grot Santiagu,
Eultreya esuseya, Deius aia nos.
The ‘Camino Frances’ is the central axis of a network of pilgrimage routes to Santiago. Its travellers gather in Roncesvalles, a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees which in the spring becomes a veritable Babel as pilgrims from across the world assemble, before setting off in a southwesterly direction. The pilgrims carry a special passport—often this is one of the only possessions not discarded on the journey—and engage in the 850-year-old tradition of following the yellow arrows and seeking out the images of shells placed over pilgrim-friendly boarding houses. On the way, they stop off at any of a large number of shrines, most important among which are the cathedrals of Burgos and Leon, and at the foot of an iron cross near Astorga they may cast a stone from their homeland. The road takes them across the desert lands between Burgos and Leon and the rainy, hilly terrain of Galicia: and as the landscape transforms, so does the pilgrim. A pilgrim writes:
You have left behind the life you lived before … Dates become meaningless; a day is merely the passing of the sun from one hand to the other, from behind you to in front … Then you slough off your worries. There is only one thing to worry about now and that is whether you and your feet will last the day. (© Andrea Kirby, 1996)
Somewhere between 50 and 200 thousand people arrive at the gates of Santiago’s Cathedral each year, at least eighty percent of them on foot. A good number of these continue on to Capo di Finisterre, a further 85 kilometres to the west, to reach what Europeans pre-Columbus considered to be the end of all westward journeys. An item of clothing is placed on a beach-fire to symbolize the old life left behind.
The four movements of Path of Miracles are titled with the names of the four main staging posts of the Camino Frances, though the textual themes within the movements extend beyond the mere geographical. Throughout the work, quotations from various mediaeval texts (principally the Codex Calixtinus and a 15th-century work in the Galician language, Miragres de Santiago) are woven together with passages from the Roman liturgy, and lines of poetry from Robert Dickinson, the work’s librettist. Talbot introduces his work with a vocal effect based on the Bunun aboriginal ‘Pasiputput’ from Taiwan, in which low voices rise in volume and pitch over an extended period, creating random overtones as the voices move into different pitches at fluctuating rates. After a dramatic exclamation of the pilgrim’s hymn from Dum Pater Familias, the beheading of St James by the sword of King Herod is briefly described in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German, initially sung by a lone countertenor rising above the choir’s sustained chord clusters. An account of the discovery of the Saint’s body in Compostella follows, some eight hundred years after his death in Jerusalem and the subsequent translation of his body on a rudderless boat made of stone.
The insistent discords of the second movement reflect both the hardships of the road, keenly felt by this time after some initial euphoria in Roncesvalles, and the composer’s own sense of discomfort on visiting Burgos.
The music trudges uneasily through this most awkward part of the journey, stopping regularly to recover breath and ease feet. There are stern warnings of human mischief and inhuman devilry, interspersed with musings on the mystical nature of the Saint’s translation. Robbery, lynching and illness are the least of a pilgrim’s problems; for just as the Saint can take the form of a pilgrim, so can the devil himself take the form of a Saint. As the laments and the warnings subside, the movement concludes with a line from Psalm 61, delivered in desolate, motionless tones from the lower voices: ‘A finibus terrae ad te clamavi’ ('From the end of the earth I cry to you').
Joby Talbot describes the third movement as a ‘Lux Aeterna’; and like the interior of the magnificent Cathedral of Leon, it is bathed in light. The journey is more than half complete, the pain barrier has been crossed and the pilgrim’s worries have indeed been sloughed off. A medieval French refrain, an ode to the sun in the key of C minor, punctuates simple observations of land traversed and hardships overcome. As with the previous movement, there is a steady, almost hypnotic walking pulse, but the steps have lost their heaviness. By the end of the movement the verses have arrived in the relative major, fused with the refrain which retains its original key. Mystical events are again spoken of, but this time with no sense of danger. Even the relentless sun, though it may dazzle, does not burn.
Meanwhile in Galicia the temperature cools, the altitude rises and the rain falls. Towns pass by like shadows as the road seems to climb and climb, though Leon’s contented mood lingers. There seems no doubt that the journey will end, and at the first sight of Santiago, miles down from the summit of Monte de Gozo, the music initially draws inward, before bursting out in an explosion of joy. The pilgrim’s hymn is heard again, performed with the reverence and reflection of one who has finished such a long journey, and is quickly transformed into a spring revel from the Carmina Burana.
Path of Miracles, like so many pilgrimages, does not finish in Santiago. The journey to Finisterre, to where the walls of heaven are thin as a curtain, has a reflective, epilogic tone, a benign hangover from the party in Santiago. Here the pilgrim’s hymn is heard for a final time, now in English, endlessly repeating and disappearing over the horizon.
Gabriel Crouch © 2017
Of the younger generation of talented composers in the UK Owain Park has already made a name for himself with some beautiful choral works. In creating Footsteps Owain has achieved our goal of giving choirs of all abilities the opportunity to come and sing with Tenebrae in concert. There are still technical challenges for all of us, but both Tenebrae and its partner choir have moments of great harmonic beauty and stillness contrasting with music that drives relentlessly forward with rhythmic energy and drama that will surely captivate new audiences for many years to come. We had a wonderful time discovering Footsteps, rehearsing and then recording it with the fantastic Fellows of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. I hope you enjoy listening to, and indeed singing, this new significant addition to the ever-growing repertoire of great British choral music.
Nigel Short © 2017