A Song on the End of the World
Oratorio in seven movements for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano and Baritone soloists, Chorus, Orchestra and optional Organforces: Orchestra, Choir, Baritone, Mezzo Soprano, Soprano, Organ
published by: Composer
Elgar Commission of the Three Choirs Festival, Worcester, 1999.
This work was conceived many years ago as a Requiem alternating poetic texts with those of the Mass. Much changed in the making, A Song on the End of the World now takes from liturgical sources only the Agnus Deiand Recordare, Jesu Pie. Our pre-Millennial media, however, present us daily with inextricably linked images of communal mourning and the incitement to ethnic vengeance (drowning the pleas for peace of those who have not so suffered). Inasmuch as A Song on the End of the World both embodies these and presumes by its choice of texts to articulate a renewed protest against the horrors of our age, it remains a Requiem of sorts. As such it cannot avoid superficial and unenviable comparison with the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Technical features and attainments aside, the differences of intent between these two works may therefore serve to focus a helpful introduction to the newer one.
Britten equalled his chosen poet in elevating the echoes of particular time and place to a condition of universal protest (‘My subject is …the pity of War’, wrote Wilfred Owen). Nonetheless the specific type of conflict evoked differed from that of the World War following (when a less visible enemy awakened less ‘pity’ and, despite Lewis, Douglas, Keyes, less poetry). It has remained largely remote also from late twentieth century Western experience until the horrors of the nineties; but, with the disintegration of a Communist superpower and the jostling for identity of a host of would-be nations, we can now see things turning full circle: a nuclear warhead launched from the other end of the earth might now travel the skies above parochial atrocities enacted among the ruins of small provincial ‘communities’ slipping from prosperity back into a primitive dark age. In Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, the whites of the enemy’s eyes are once more visible, the participants again men who in another life gossiped and played football together, as on Christmas Day in the trenches. As with Owen, ‘the poetry is in the pity’, and again flowering from the pens of those dumbfounded by the sanctity and madness of human life, such as the Bosnian Serb poet Goran Simić. Our television screens bring such madness to us, showing also the women and children fleeing from razed villages or picked from collapsed buildings as they did not and were not in 1914-18. Improbably, the end of our century is perhaps best captured by familiar words of Dickens in quite another context: ‘…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, …it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way’.
These necessarily sombre reflections show that Britten’s shadow is not to be so easily escaped. But Britten’s War Requiem achieves its terrible spell by juxtaposition: the theatrical ritual of the established church is disembodied, drowned out, powerless to intervene redemptively amid the invincible reality of earthly carnage. Therein lies its (literally) crucial difference from A Song on the End of the World, which is entirely about the ‘everything ./ nothing before us’ expressed by Dickens. If we accept Shostakovich’s moral imperative to ‘look truth right in the eyes’, then those eyes -gazing again out of our televisions -demand that the Christian seek the suffering Christ where he may be found. The present work attempts accordingly, as others have done, to discover a suffering God both without and within his creation, and hence also a Christ perpetually crucified in the atrocities, privations and terrors of each succeeding age. To this extent Christ is also Everyman, as he always was. Listeners may find it helpful not to attribute inflexible identity to the vocal soloists and chorus: the latter offers a disembodied commentary which – much like its Ancient Greek counterpart – conveys an impotent remoteness from what it describes, while the former are now the protagonists and victims of war, now the infant Christ and his mother, now those same figures brought to Golgotha (where by poetic licence their verbal roles undergo ironic reversal).
Reference has been made above to the killing of children in Kosovo and elsewhere. Readers will perhaps forgive the intrusion of a personal note: the death in 1995 of my mother and birth months later of my son heightened the sense that we go whence we came, and that the newborn are our clearest messengers of Yeats’ ‘uncontrollable mystery’. Because the nadir of physical horror attending child murder represents also an ultimate brutalised deafness to any such mystery, Christ the babe in arms is here more than ever indivisible from his predestined later self: the vision of Golgotha is born at Bethlehem and chillingly prophesied from the manger.
These last remarks explain much of what remains to be said about A Song on the End of the World. The metaphor of the ‘timebomb’ suggested itself, its ticking potentially embodying both a narrative ‘treadmill’ of events bearing their hostage along his eternal road from Bethlehem to Golgotha, on the one hand, and our omnipresent image of the modern-day terrorist, on the other. This is insinuated musically by a noticeable recurrence throughout the work of grouped ‘pizzicato’ (plucked) string sounds, of which further mention follows. The music falls into seven movements (a number not without symbolic relevance to the Crucifixion), about which the following comments may prove helpful:
[I]The opening bars present a rising and falling motif (subconsciously stolen from the Third Symphony of Sir Arnold Bax but with very different ends in mind). This pattern generates a great deal of what follows. Another rising phrase occurs whose later significance will be its attachment to the final words of the extraordinary poem by Czesław Miłosz (movement three; q.v.). A central baritone solo section is announced by the first incidence of the ticking bomb [‘The deer runs on…’]. This is framed by hushed chorus passages. The music sinks back into the silence whence it arose.
[ii] A tortuous descending motif introduces the movement and is a recurrent presence throughout. For the most part the orchestral ensemble is scaled down (in any case trumpets have yet to appear in the work) and extensive use is made of the harp. The mediaeval text is collated from more than one poem. The music seeks to respond to the co-existence of maternal devotion, progressive alarm and, inexorably, horror as implacable adult words of prophesy begin to tumble supernaturally from the lips of this very babe and suckling. (Again, the ‘ticking’ strings.) The chorus enters with a subtext of its own. These words of William Blake were chosen for their curious ‘echoes’ both of the Psalmist (pressed into service elsewhere) and of the Mervyn Peake text in movement six [‘The cities are burned and consumed from the earth’ becoming later a vision inspired by the horrors of the Blitz]. Crucial also is the acknowledgement of the seeds of self-destruction present in all humanity. Mary’s refrain to the numbly repeated words ‘great heaviness’ meanwhile becomes a type of soliloquy, a lament turned inward and seemingly oblivious of its surroundings. This movement too ends in near-silence.
[iii] This poem is central to the conception of the work and lends its own title to it, a fact of which grateful acknowledgement is made elsewhere. This was the first part of the music to be written and orchestrated. Czesław Miłosz was born in 1911. He was active ‘underground’ in Warsaw during the horrors of the early nineteen-forties and wrote this poem there in 1944. Settling eventually in the USA, he collaborated with a small group of academics in translating his past work into English. The present poem speaks entirely for itself, and is set for soprano solo and a reduced orchestra dominated by woodwind. The music seeks to mirror the text’s kaleidoscopically somnolent, Bank Holiday/ late afternoon ambience, at the same time allowing chill shadows to play transiently upon its surface. Only at the end is a sense of menace explicit, as arguably befits the strange meeting in Miłosz of the apocalyptic and the whimsical.
[iv] The fourth movement arises from the ashes of its predecessor without a break. The motif from the opening of the work now generates a sullen Allegro before the chorus enters (its opening words an alarming parody of Christian faith in the resurrection). If the work is a Requiem this movement may be seen as an alternative Dies Irae. The original German texts actually predate the Great War and their air of acute foreboding is authentic, just as the neurasthenic poetic tone is true to its Expressionist epoch. This movement draws also upon the psalms, the selected lines from which teach that, in war, little changes. Their words are plaintively sung at intervals by the three solo voices. Isaac Rosenberg’s harrowing lines might seem to bring back the trenches after all, but were in fact chosen for seeming entirely non-specific to time and place. The overall effect of this movement is of isolated tableaux of war (as if caught in the zoom-lens of present-day reportage) where the tone becomes more personal than collective. Around these move in fitful waves the sound and fury of some timeless, dehumanised military machine. The march-like symphonic manner of Mahler came to mind at such points, and there are a couple of very brief but deliberate near-quotations in the course of the work.
[v] The fifth movement, principally for soprano solo, discovers the Christ figure far advanced on his journey from Bethlehem to Calvary. Gethsemani [sic] is the name of the Trappist monastery in the United States where Thomas Merton was a brother for twenty-eight years, and this poem had for him more than one shade of meaning. It owes its partial presence here to its evocation of a spectral, hypnotic apparition moving through the garden before dawn, embracing all the despair of human suffering. This poem was of equal importance in another composition, the Passion Symphony Christus for organ (1986-90), where the same musical starting point was used as a notional wordless ‘setting’ of the repeated word ‘slowly’. Here the word actually is thus set. Reduced forces are again used: the music is string-dominated, but there is a significant role also for the tuba, an instrument whose quiet melodic properties are often overlooked. The psalm text featured in this movement is sung by a semi-chorus as a remote backdrop to the soprano’s lament. Her insistence on the word ‘slowly’ perhaps echoes the ‘great heaviness’ of movement two. The poem’s final line conveys with nightmarish certainty an ineluctably human sense of frailty and defeat, – the slender hairsbreadth of our salvation which Christian perception of the resurrection as ‘fait accompli’ tends largely to obscure, but which is central to the theme of this work.
[vi] This is the longest movement. Snatches from three poems by the American Randall Jarrell tell of bombing missions over Europe during the Second World War, but have their place here through their moral numbness before an enemy who is never seen; whose annihilation is no more than a finger on a button, the compliant disappearance of a pinprick light ahead in the darkness, as remote as if on a radar screen. The setting for baritone solo encompasses a stark contrast between the above (complete with a passing impression of the Doppler effect) and the frenzy of what occurs in the cockpit of a stricken enemy aircraft. ‘Is there no thread to bind us…?’ follows as a soprano solo until at the words ‘0 Mother of wounds’ the chorus re-awakens. These lines come from two poems by Mervyn Peake, much better known as the author of the picaresque ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy and as an artist than as a poet. Later he was present ar1he opening of concentration camps in Europe, an experience from which he never fully recovered and which may have hastened the onset of the nervous degenerative illness from which he died in his fifties. And Jarrell took his own life in 1965. The anguish of both resonates with latter-day echoes, but Peake’s invocation of a ‘mother of wounds’ (an image seemingly prophetic of Iraq half a century later) blurs the vision: over what may be a ruined metropolis falls the shadow of the Madonna at the foot of the cross. Abruptly, therefore, the music breaks off from an angry climax. As Mary laments the former roles are reversed: it is now the suffering Christ who beseeches ‘say thou not so’, and his mother whose words cannot be stemmed. The music employs increasingly detailed (‘melismatic’) writing to suggest the predestined course of events imposing a kind of trance into which all humanity becomes locked. A hushed chorus begins ‘Recordare, Jesu Pie’ in the background, while the ticking which has predictably begun again gathers apace. Gradually the two soloists are subsumed into the collective and increasingly urgent voice of universal prayer. This, too, evaporates suddenly to reveal an interloper in its midst: for some time the refrain from the poem of Miłosz has been repeating in the eye of the threatened storm. Now it is heard nakedly, intoned like an innocent nursery rhyme against the final seconds of the ‘timebomb’ motif. The genetic cinematic memory of the audience is presumed upon: perhaps we have all seen some film in which the bomb stops and that final instant before its detonation is the longest and most silent ever counted. Accordingly the ticking ends abruptly here with the prosaic intervention of an orchestral ‘temple block’. The solitary voice attempts one final refrain, but is engulfed by the full force of both orchestra and organ. The climax of the entire work disintegrates at length into a numbed silence.
[vii] This ‘end of the world’ waits in the future, to be hastened or averted (Dickens, again). Accordingly the last movement serves as a kind of moral Epilogue, with the words of the poet Charles Causley providing a reply to the cry ‘Who art thou?’ heard at the end of the previous section. Causley saw active service in Normandy. From the heat of battle he found himself suddenly in a churchyard into which only the noise of distant conflict penetrated. The poem set here was born as he gazed up at a stone cross with those sounds filling his ears. It is one of those rare things which are liable to strike dumb all who encounter them, and the danger is freely acknowledged that it may speak more volumes to the human condition than anything to which it is here attached. The initial three quatrains of the sonnet are given to the three soloists one by one, punctuated by a choral setting of Agnus Dei. In due course roles are again reversed, and a varied choral statement of the quasi-processional melodic subject is punctuated by increasingly agitated solo invocations from the Mass. As if in final warning, the ominous ticking re-awakens yet again in the final pages, attenuating as it rises in pitch. This time the temple block signals not a bang, but a whimper: for “there will be no other end of the world”.
It is a risk for a composer rooted partially in Romanticism to become mouthpiece for the harshest of human realities, which may seem to elude the scope of his language and invite a charge of ‘vaulting ambition’. One’s reply must be that the relative ‘normality’ of this music, commonplace for some, seeks to address a grasp on forbearance, charity and reverence for the sanctity of life which precarious civilisation stands perpetually to lose: without mundane reason there could be no recognition of insanity. Reminded only of evil, not of what must be protected from it, we must become brutalised, and the message of more abrasive, anarchic artistic voices be blunted. Within its own modest compass A Song on the End of the World seeks to acknowledge opposite extremes of looking truth ‘right in the eyes’. Tribute is due to the words of those on whose shoulders I have uncertainly clambered; not least to a departed poet whose surviving son courteously forbade use of one text for reasons which may be surmised: proof, if it were needed, that some wounds will never heal, some hands never be clean. As we stand at the gate of a very particular year, such voices insist that we leave it open behind us, and that, unlike Orpheus, we gaze backward to preserve, not lose forever.
A Song on the End of the World is variously dedicated to my wife (sine qua non Pott est); to the memory of John de Cormainville Guillaume [1920-98], one of whose lesser attributes was to be my uncle, -among whose others, music, courage, faith, hope, charity, – laughter even unto tears; also to the older blessed memory of my parents. Ave atque vale.
Thrilling music, …contemporary and original, …impressive and profoundly affecting
Intense, involving and inventive
Wonderful… A stunningly impressive première, …apocalyptic and luminous
A deeply serious piece, …intensely, almost overpoweringly dramatic, …[ending] with a radiantly beautiful setting of Causley’s I am the Great Sun. Let us hope Pott will create more works of this profundity.
A vast canvas used to great effect, …will be taken up both in this country and abroad, … great music.