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Two major new additions to the recorded catalogue from one of Britain's most respected composers, and in performances of the utmost integrity.
So looking for connections between Leonardo’s philosophical writings and the Missa pro Defunctis (Mass for the Dead) became a curiously enriching line of enquiry. Leonardo’s position on religion and faith has always been ambiguous. Many have tried to impose their views on his personal beliefs but who can say what currency these have? Ultimately, it’s the essence of what Leonardo says, how his ideas on life and death marry so well with the Requiem Mass, which intrigues.
Da Vinci Requiem brings together my chosen Latin texts from the Missa pro Defunctis with extracts from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and is structured in seven movements in the shape of an arch. The Introit and Kyrie for chorus open the work, and this movement is scored for the darker-hued instruments of the orchestra; it is at times dissonant, unsettled, always searching. The soprano and baritone soloists overlay the chorus’s restless motion with a question and answer dialogue, words of Leonardo. There is linguistic contrast, in this movement and later in the Requiem, bringing the Latin and English together.
The second movement for soprano soloist introduces a sharper edge to the work and is more lightly scored with its downward sliding strings. I found an unusual but apt text by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for this entitled For 'Our Lady of the Rocks', by Leonardo da Vinci. Rossetti wrote the poem seated in front of the painting in the National Gallery and focused on the darker implications in Leonardo’s painting: 'Mother, is this the darkness of the end, the Shadow of Death? And is that outer sea Infinite, imminent Eternity?' Rossetti wrote the poem in 1848, a year of revolutions and turbulence in Europe.
Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks, which so inspired Rossetti, in 1485 by a church in Milan. Milan, at that time, was in the grip of the bubonic plague. (On 16 March, in the same year, there was a total eclipse of the sun which was ominously interpreted from pulpits everywhere in Milan.) The painting may have been an invocation against the ravages of the plague at that time. The texture of this movement, I hope, gives an acerbic darkness to the drama of the poem.
The third movement for chorus alone, the Lacrimosa, I obey thee, O Lord (Lacrimosa) is less dark and unashamedly melodic giving prominence to the oboe. Reflective in nature, it is another bringing together of the Leonardo text with the Latin mass.
The central part of the Da Vinci Requiem is held by the Sanctus and Benedictus which conveys a sense of joy in amongst the more contemplative passages of the work. Trumpets and drums bring an energy and rhythmic vigour here and are set in contrast with descending choral lines accompanied by the bell-like glockenspiel.
The Agnus Dei for chorus and soprano solo is based on the Ordinary of the mass plainchant supported by sombre lower wind, brass and strings. In the sixth movement, for baritone solo, the text is entirely Leonardo’s in which he draws parallels between sleep and death.
The chorus and soloists all come together in the final movement of the work, the Lux Aeterna. Light, bright, luminous, the Leonardo text focuses on flight: ‘Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward …’. In the closing bars all voices drift upwards in glissandi, folding into silence, an allusion to Leonardo’s concept of 'The Perspective of Disappearance' ('La Prospettiva de’ perdimenti'). It has been a fascinating exploration, aligning Leonardo’s extraordinary insights, both artistic and philosophical, with such a profound and ancient text.
Seventy degrees below zero
In 2009 Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of the Scott Polar Research Institute, invited me to the Institute and Museum while it was undergoing an extensive renovation programme; an interesting and atmospheric time to visit SPRI. It was possible to see, in the dark recesses of the basement, artefacts safely stored during the renovation process and examples of the Institute’s enormous polar collection; there were cabinets, drawers and shelves full of fascinating scientific instruments, bulky warm clothing, all manner of camping equipment and sledges—all of which looked dauntingly heavy for dragging across the icy plains of the Antarctic. Later that same day Heather introduced me to the diaries and letters found in Scott’s tent and, most poignantly of all, Scott’s tender letter addressed ‘To my widow’ written in pencil, made faint by time and ice. I took a phrase for the title from Scott’s Letter to his wife: ‘Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold—70 degrees below zero’. The scientific exploration and data collected by Captain Scott’s team at the beginning of the 20th century still powerfully underlies the research which continues to this day. It was with a desire to join the past with the present that I asked the poet, Seán Street, to write two poems to accompany Scott’s words: words from ‘then’ and words from ‘now’.
Seventy degrees below zero is a three-movement work for chamber orchestra and tenor soloist. In the first movement, We measure, Seán Street takes extracts from Scott’s Journals to outline the journey to the Pole and binds them into his own poem. The tenor begins by reading one of the entries from the Journals: ‘This, the third stage of our journey, is opening with good promise’. Horns and trumpets exchange calls, both near and far, which unfold into a pulsating string accompaniment, driving purposefully towards ‘the Pole’. Scientific instruments measure and document the data of exploration. After the bleak arrival at the Pole on 17 January, the second half of the movement (the return journey) uses similar material to the opening section but this time measurement is of a different kind: ‘Nothing to measure now but Time’. The movement closes with the brass calling out across the vast icy plains.
In the second movement the delicate imagery of Seán’s poem, 'The ice tree', casts a glacial light over the passage of time, as if looking backwards through the telescopic lens of the ice core. Slow and intense, with the bowed vibraphone bringing a chill to the orchestral texture, the wide intervallic opening of tenor line stretches out. Before writing this movement, I watched some silent footage of Scott and his team hauling the sledge together across snow and ice. The bent figures, hunched against the polar air, suggested a falling, dragging motif which is first heard in 'We measure'. This motif underlies all three movements, but is most pronounced in 'The ice tree'; a symbolic struggle against the elements. The brass, in muted dialogue, take the opening tenor phrase to close the first section. In the central section Seán Street gives a subtle intimation of today’s fragile ecological balance with the lines ‘And Earth dissolves, the wilderness shrinks, breaks in acid seas, leaves fall’, a falling, fractured line, sung by the tenor soloist.
The final movement, 'To my widow', opens with a gentle, folksy melody as Scott writes tenderly to his wife. The fluid, almost conversational, tenor line gives way to something more urgent as the orchestra becomes the writer of the letter. The outburst ‘You must not imagine a great tragedy’ is followed by a full orchestral falling down with the dragging motif stretching and dovetailing into a return of the lighter opening material. The following section brings a renewed poignancy and urgency with the words, ‘oh dear me, you must know that quite the worst aspect of this is the thought that I shall not see you again.’ The work closes with the return of 'The ice tree' tenor phrase (God bless you my own darling) taken up again by the brass, calling in increasingly muted tones over the ‘falling’ motif in the strings which is pared away to reveal high solo pianissimo violins.
Cecilia McDowall © 2023