Cantus Maris

Sea Requiem for mezzo-soprano soloist, chorus and orchestra

forces: Orchestra, SSAATTBB Choir, Mezzo Soprano
duration: 29'00"
published by: Peters Edition

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Programme Note


The impulse behind this music and the generous commission which brought it to fruition sit some years apart. In 2009 I wrote to my Canadian close friend, Peter Butterfield, upon learning of the death of his father, James, whom I had known. Peter and I had sung together in the choir of Winchester Cathedral before he and his family moved back to his native Vancouver in 2001. The reply I received makes an eloquent case in our email-obsessed age for a revival in the civilized art of letter writing, and I quote from it here with Peter’s blessing:

‘These have been the most changing of times, though it is hard to articulate exactly what has happened. The sense of loss is fundamentally altering…..where did they go?….how could it all be so swift and inevitable, and yet appear to drag on for decades and the end be utterly, shockingly final. The mysteries are part of faith, I understand that, and James, I believe, did as well. He marvelled at the universe and its ways. His experience at sea (where a man learns to pray ….) sorted out so much for him, and not least a reliance on ‘whoever is running this mud-ball’! (his words).

‘You will be familiar with Psalm 107: They that go down to the sea in ships… My inner preference is never to read a psalm, as they resonate with the entire history of music, and are infinitely more expressive when set. However, I will be reading it at the memorial service. It did occur to me that when you read this verse, great waves of melody and harmonies will be forming in your mind. The connecting of the dots integral to my life are what l seem to try to do. You met James, he loved ships and the sea, you love music and words, I am reading the words for James and his community, you write music, I love the psalms, you are a friend, l love attaching the magic of a creative experience to human existence …thus, were you to set the verses of Psalm 107 in the way you do, so many dots would be connected…

‘Think of us Saturday – and on Sunday James’s ashes will be scattered from a smallish boat, in a brief ceremony at the entrance to Vancouver Harbour, where he sailed in and out many times.’

It is Peter’s English wife, Sarah Fryer, who performs the mezzo-soprano solo part of Cantus Maris tonight.

Aptly, given its unenviable proximity this evening to one of the great masterpieces of western music, Cantus Maris is conceived as a sort of miniature ‘Sea Requiem’ – and, indeed, bore that working title until something else suggested itself (Latin being by its nature timeless in feeling and a common preserve of western cultures). Within its opening bars occurs a fleeting idea whose sense of harmonic tension and release fittingly suggested the rising and breaking of a wave. Accordingly this recurs at many points throughout the music, as do a number of other recognisable motifs. The voice of the mezzo-soprano soloist cannot be ascribed consistently to any single presence; instead, there is a blurring of identities, sometimes placing the soloist alongside those in peril on the sea, sometimes narrating, sometimes articulating a prayer for protection and, finally, conferring valedictory blessing. The music and the assembled words articulate some existential, metaphorical journey across the sea of life and through the dangers attending our human passage on its ever-changing face. The central section seems at times to celebrate the forces of nature in an exuberant, pantheistic fashion, before giving way to mortal fear in the teeth of an escalating elemental menace. The Epilogue sees the mortal vessel safe home to its anchorage and bestows blessing upon life in the evening of its years, before a final chord (appositely transplanted from the end of my earlier oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing, 2005) seeks to enfold all in the perpetual, disconsolate mystery of the sea. This section arises naturally from the scattering of James Butterfield’s ashes in the entrance to Vancouver Harbour.

If Peter ’s words cast a necessary light on Cantus Maris as the fulfilment of an ancient promise, so too do those with which his brother concluded his address at that memorial service in 2009:

‘James drew his faith from the uncertainty of life at sea. A fatalist at heart, perhaps like most sailors, he had no fear of death – he simply ignored it. When it came, he would be ready. If the going got rough, there was one motto: keep her afloat until morning.

So we ask you to think of James, sailing his boat Elsinore in a stiff breeze, gunwales under, and singing at the top of his lungs, a genuinely happy man:

Yesterday was full of trouble and sorrow,

No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.

So give yourself a pat on the back, pat on the back, pat on the back,

And say to yourself, a jolly good health,

I‘ve had a good day today.  


© Francis Pott, 2017

Programme Note


Another major premiere took place on 1 May in the Royal Festival Hall: Francis Pott’s Cantus Maris, a 29-minute, single-span cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra. Pott’s programme note stated that: ‘The music and the assembled words [on seafaring, from the Psalms and a handful of other sources] articulate some existential, metaphorical journey across the sea of life and through the dangers attending our human passage on its ever-changing face’. The work opens with a drumroll and a plangent phrase on horns and strings, which make it instantly clear that this is sea music – English sea music at that – and it soon generates the sense of huge space and understated, heaving power that characterises maritime motion. Cantus Maris came across more as a symphony with obbligato chorus than a cantata; even so, its ceaseless inventiveness, resourceful orchestration and harmonic luminosity brought uncommon pleasure.

Martin Anderson, Musical Opinion, 2017