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On the Sheer Threshold of the Night

author of text
translator of text

When Birtwistle came to choose a text for a major choral work commissioned by German radio and premiered by the John Alldis Choir in 1980, he turned to Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics. In the 1970s he had begun work on his opera The Mask of Orpheus (finally completed in 1984), the apex of his interest in different, sometimes simultaneous, tellings of the same story. The choral work, On the Sheer Threshold of the Night, represents a further version again, setting Boethius’s poem on the subject—and thus in fact an early Christian era retelling. Birtwistle uses a complexly divided choir with just one singer on each part (four sopranos, four altos, four tenors and four basses), but to very different effect from in ‘O bone Jesu’, assigning to one singer in each vocal range a dramatic role. The first soprano is Eurydice, the fourth bass is Hades, and the fourth alto and first tenor sing together as a double-voiced Orpheus.

The work opens with Orpheus gently calling Eurydice by name, while the twelve ensemble voices start to sing Boethius’s poem, in Latin. Eurydice calls back to Orpheus in elaborate high melismas, but Hades calls him at the same time: the high soprano and the low bass simultaneously suggesting the two different directions in which Orpheus will be pulled. For a while Hades falls silent, and Orpheus and Eurydice call to each other across the choral textures of the poem; presently Hades re-joins them, and utters his warning to Orpheus to lead Eurydice out of Hell but not to look back at her until they have passed the gates. Not only is this the crux of all versions of the Orpheus myth, but the turning point—or peripeteia—is a key formal principle in Birtwistle’s works, even those not dealing directly with the myth. The work has a turning point of its own, with the four soloists absorbed into the choir for the central cry of ‘Quis legem …’ (‘Who makes the law for lovers? Love is his own greater law’). After this the discourse is split again, in texture but now in language too: the four soloists begin to narrate Orpheus’s awful mistake in Waddell’s English (‘On the sheer threshold of the night Orpheus saw Eurydice, looked, and destroyed her’) while the basses stammer out the same lines in Latin. Eurydice again sings out to Orpheus, but now desperate, beyond help, finally inaudible. Orpheus continues to repeat her name too, but in a separate space, unanswered, perhaps just as a memory rather than an address, while the choir voice the poem’s Latin moral, which then at the close is taken up by Hades in Waddell’s English paraphrase.

from notes by John Fallas © 2014


Birtwistle: The Moth Requiem
SIGCD368Download only


Track 7 on SIGCD368 [13'17] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD368 track 7

Recording date
22 September 2012
Recording venue
BBC Broadcasting House, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Michael Emery
Recording engineer
Marvin Ware
Hyperion usage
  1. Birtwistle: The Moth Requiem (SIGCD368)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: February 2014
    Download only
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