Passion Symphony in five movements for solo organforces: Organ
duration: 2 hours 05' 00"
published by: United Music Publishers
This monumental work occupied Francis Pott from 1986 until 1990 and lasts for over two hours. It was first performed on 11 April 1991 by Iain Simcock in Westminster Cathedral, London, before an audience of over 500. That performance was subsequently released on disc by Priory Records [PRCD 390]. In 2005 Signum Records released a 1997 live recital performance by Jeremy Filsell, given on the Kenneth V. Jones organ of St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, London. This double CD release is SIGCD 062. Christus has been justly recognized as an ‘Everest’ of the organ repertoire and has been performed by only eight organists from among the world’s virtuoso elite: (in chronological order of their respective first performances) Iain Simcock, Jeremy Filsell, David Goode, Robert Quinney, David Leigh, Kevin Bowyer, Tristan Russcher and Christian Wilson. The work has now received over thirty complete performances and a number of liturgical/devotional renditions of individual movements (notwithstanding its taut cyclical structure). It has been played by Iain Simcock and Christian Wilson in Germany, by David Leigh in the Irish Republic and by Jeremy Filsell on tour across the USA.
A recording of the world premiere performance by Iain Simcock [Westminster Cathedral, 11 April 1991] was issued by Priory Recordings soon after the event: PRCD 390. This is no longer available from Priory, but may sometimes be found and bought from second-hand retailers.
Christus (1986-1990) owes little to the French tradition of the organ symphony. Its concern with motivic unity and evolving tonality arises principally from a deep interest in the (orchestral) symphonic methods of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, while certain harmonic habits relate more specifically to his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. It would be rash to suggest such a kinship were Christus not a determined exercise in cyclical integration.The five movements of Christus trace respectively the Coming of Christ; Gethsemane; the Via Crucis/Golgotha/the Deposition; the Tomb; and, finally, Resurrection –portrayed not as a prolonged psalm of victory already attained, but as a vast struggle towards ultimate triumph. Any narrative dimension applies principally to the central three movements, which together approximate to the length of either the first or the last. The music may be described as fundamentally tonal, though listeners may sympathise with a treasured dry comment by the composer Patrick Gowers, who observed that he did not think he would care to be asked to sing doh. Tonal character resides more in long-term destinations, and in individual notes as gravitational points, than in conventional diatonic relationships. Triadic shapes are often in conflict with their harmonic bass, and embrace elements of bi- or atonality as a consequence of chromatic voice-leading. The first four notes of the work (D-E-C sharp-F) articulate a progression which both dictates an overarching tonal cycle and becomes a continual motivic presence. The first movement responds to this motif by ultimately reaching the tonal centre F (the motif’s fourth note). The second movement, opening with the motif transposed to start on F, duly ends on A flat. Repeated application of this principle brings about a fresh start from D at the outset of the finale. However, this movement eventually breaks the cycle by distorting the motif to D –E-C natural-F sharp. C natural is then enharmonically absorbed as a sharpened fourth of the transposed Lydian mode and the work ends in F sharp major.
The first movement, Logos [ λογος ] evolves into a listless fugato after a strict exposition, evoking a world as yet devoid of any affirmative or elevating impulse. After a brief climax a succession of ideas is heard. The mood becomes restlessly expectant and the tempo accelerates. After the first substantial climax in the Symphony (still based on the four-note motif) an extended Allegro is launched. Its rhythms inhabit a consciously middle ground between mediaeval and modern practices, while the intermittent presence of a pedal C sharp undermines an ostensible D tonality. Eventually a further climax occurs, temporarily consolidating C sharp. After a more spacious passage the dynamic level drops. A chorale theme is heard for the first time, ornamented by fragmentary patterns beneath. This is destined for increasing significance throughout the work as a whole, assuming many harmonic guises and ultimately crowning the Resurrection finale. Insofar as there exists any specific ‘Christ motif’, the chorale may be felt to provide it.
There follows an extended free development of material heard hitherto. In due course the Allegro is recapitulated, but rising tension is dissipated by a remote chordal statement of the chorale (which shows a tendency to remain open-ended until its apotheosis near the close of the work). The resumed Allegro presents a steady escalation through successive restatements of the ‘motto’ four-note theme, beginning in the depths with an unceremonious interruption and rising inexorably towards the final bars. Fitfully dramatic and beset by sudden contrasts, the movement seeks to convey some impression of the Holy Spirit [Logos] contending with a resistant pagan force. Its peroration retains some austerity, as if not yet free from the shadow of the opening fugato.
Gethsemane begins monodically with the motto theme, soon introducing a very slow procession of chords. These are in effect a non-vocal ‘setting’ of the word ‘slowly’ in the quoted text by Thomas Merton, whose vision depicts Christ as a spectral visitant embodying all the despair of human suffering. Eventually motivic counterpoint asserts itself in a transient chorale prelude (the chorale being sounded by the pedals). The chordal material returns, now silent on the first beat of each bar to allow a pedal development of the four-note motif to show through. An anguished climax intervenes suddenly, subsiding at length until the chordal texture is regained. The music becomes both more meekly accepting and more other-worldly thereafter, though perhaps not before Merton’s vision has exposed the ineluctable humanity of Christ’s frailty and defeat: that hairsbreadth of salvation which Christian perception of the resurrection asfait accompli threatens largely to obscure.
Via Crucis is an exercise in contraction. Its Passacaglia ‘ground’ sounds five times beginning on A flat, then four on A natural, three on B flat, two on B natural and one on C –the furthest point in the chromatic scale from ultimate ‘resurrected’ F sharp. Meanwhile, the ground itself begins to distort rhythmically, to admit rests and to unfold in fewer bars, as if unsteady beneath hostile buffeting. The flow of ancillary counterpoint progressively features a descending chromatic motif from the previous movement, as well as the chorale outline and ironic mimicry of the ‘ground’ notes, whose final reiteration (by now reduced almost beyond coherence) ignites a jaggedscherzo. At its height three abruptly recessed quiet passages occur, each followed by related and dissonant outbursts embodying the crudely obvious symbolism of hammered nails. The intention is to suggest the gulf already separating hideous extremities of outward, physical torment from the silence of the soul’s struggle within. The third outburst escalates further. Momentary silence intervenes before the central climax of the Symphony, headed ‘CRUCIFIXUS’ in the published score and bearing words from Revelation: ‘Every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced him’. This insistent climax finally collapses into an unsettled darkness, from which upward harmonic progressions offer an unashamedly literal suggestion of suffering ended and a winging of the spirit out of this world into another (influenced by Paul Nash’s watercolour, The Soul Visiting the Mansions of the Dead). The chorale returns, harmonised with extreme simplicity in quasi-Renaissance fashion. The poetic lines quoted in connection with the third movement relate to this passage especially and were set by Samuel Barber amongst his Hermit Songs.
Viaticum, the dramatic low point of Christus, provides extended repose between the inexorable treadmill of the third movement and the explosive opening of the last. Its title, meaning ‘wages for a journey’, symbolically denotes prayers attending the departure of a soul from this world into the next. At first the music makes as if to recapitulate the work’s opening in a new key, thereby evoking a spiritual regression to that world before Christ. This is short lived, and after a static chordal passage (balancing that of Gethsemane) a lengthy movement evolves in the time signature of 5/4, its principal melodic idea being a free inversion of the chorale’s later stages. (This recurs momentously in the finale, where it signifies satanic opposition to the true chorale’s determined upward progress.)
Viaticum evokes a world locked in sleep or buried in some deep midwinter of the spirit. Its rhythmic tread bears some resemblance to the tenor solo in the Agnus Dei of Britten’s War Requiem. The music remains confined to modest dynamic levels and pursues its hibernatory course to the prescribed tonal point, D. Far-distant references to the chorale conjure a faint memory of the living world reaching into an entombed stillness. The music embodies two momentary homages to the much mourned Robert Simpson, one of the great symphonists of this or any age.
Resurrectio attempts formal balance with Logos while articulating a great struggle toward the light. It begins with a thunderous declamation of the motto theme and a stormy cadenza-like introduction which comes to rest on a chord of F sharp (anticipating but not forestalling the work’s peroration). The movement ‘proper’ then embarks from the tonal point E and gives prominence to a new, irregular motif. Logosis recalled rhythmically, without specific recapitulation as yet. The chorale reappears (sereno), leading to free development of itself and the motto theme. A chromatic outline, first heard in Gethsemane, appears in inversion, climbing with each recurrence. A moto perpetuo of detached chordal quavers initiates an immense cumulative process, embracing progressive jaggedness of rhythm and the steady return of earlier toccata figuration. The chorale is declaimed first by the manuals over rapid chordal patterns and then, in augmentation and in octaves, by the pedals. Fleeting references to the tonal cycle of all five movements are heard. The eventual climax is as massive as that of Golgotha.
The descent from this climax induces a semblance of calm. References to the opening of Logos lead to a passage where the sustained chords of Gethsemane become fused to phrases from the work’s opening and from the chorale, embellished by triplet quaver figuration. The music becomes hesitant, -the first sign of yet greater struggles ahead. From uncertain beginnings a semiquaver line emerges. This proves to be the exposition of a fugue, but, whereas Golgotha was a study in contraction, this fugue is an essay in elusive tonality. Its entries are pitched not at tonic and dominant, but at the distance of an augmented fourth (‘tritone’). The device therefore relates to the work’s tonal structure, since the diminished chord comprising each movement’s starting pitch may be seen to consist also of interlocking tritones. Such a modal form was shunned in early music, since it supplanted the conventional ‘perfect’ interval between first and fifth note, thus running counter to the established harmonic and tonal order of things -and hence also to the sophisticated mediaeval mind’s apprehension of known creation and divine providence as a pattern mystically and mathematically echoed in music. The mode is sometimes termed ‘Locrian’, and the fugue is headed Fuga Locriana. Eventually it moves unobtrusively, but perhaps unsettlingly, from the time signature of 4/4 to that of 7/8, without interrupting its semiquaver flow. A fugal stretto for three ‘voices’ is succeeded by the rare and eccentric device known as cancrizans. This, beloved of Baroque contrapuntists, earns its historical name through a bizarre and approximate likening to sideways (‘crabwise’) motion, whereas actually a melodic strand (in this case, ten bars long) is heard simultaneously forwards and backwards without concession either to pitch or to rhythm. Scholes observes in the Oxford Companion to Music that a cancrizans is a futile academic conceit, the listener being unequipped to perceive it happening. This in itself was whimsically apt, since the fugue itself is heard to lose its way shortly thereafter and to expire on a perplexed, unresolved chord, much as if will and rational thought had shied back in the face of some onslaught yet to come. To those familiar with Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony the parallel will be obvious, though the context is changed.
An ironic outburst now launches a grotesque parody of the music following the introduction to Resurrectio. Of what follows, ‘War in Heaven’ (Revelation) best summarises the intention. A ‘showdown’ between the affirmative and the demonically destructive is implied through the simple expedients of upward or downward motivic direction and greater or lesser dissonance. The rhythm from the opening of the main part of the movement reaches a furious outburst marked gridando (screeching) before the choral blossoms suddenly forth in C major. Its key indicates the distortion by which the work’s tonal spiral will be broken, anticipating this by embracing both C and F sharp in its opening phrase. Reference to the central climax of the work (inGolgotha) shows that the tonal areas C and F sharp were in collision even there, at the work’s opposite pole, though with no resolution yet in sight.
The final change of the four-note motto theme (marked very obviously by juxtaposition of both its forms) propels the music into F sharp, now affirmed at length through rhapsodic treatment of the chorale. The precedent of all four preceding movements is followed, in that a cadential formula based upon a fragment of the chorale heralds the music’s end. A final reference to the chorale intervenes before sudden silence, and then a greatly prolonged final chord of F sharp, -its duration well earned by the performer.
The easy claim of any definitive spiritual significance in this music must be an impertinence to listener and performer alike. However, a candid –and vulnerable –statement of intention may not go amiss. In an age of scientific rationalism and of casual brutality, Christus attempts to respond in personal terms to the increasing difficulty of any mystical intimations of faith. At the same time, it makes its own search for Christian conviction, in the shadow of a dark century, by embracing anew the notion of a suffering God both within and without creation, and hence of the Crucifixion as an ineluctable truth perpetually re-enacted within all the inhumanities of successive ages. In the event this has become ever more pertinent to Resurrectio, written in the summer of 1990 even as Kuwait became reluctant crucible of the world’s newest human calamity. By pure accident, the ‘failure’ of the central climax inResurrectio to lay its demons to rest now appears prophetic of the re-opened eye of that same storm over a decade later, as western tanks rolled back into Iraq.
It is because of such atrocities, not despite them, that the attempt to articulate a triumph of light over darkness, compassion over brutality or hope over despair seems to find its own rightness, and to discover at its heart the image of the Crucifixion. If these aims are rooted in the proper modesty of confronting one’s own human smallness, paradoxically their adequate articulation cannot be so; and there will always be those for whom a work on this scale seems founded only upon fatal egocentricity. In any case, the births of my children and death of my mother since the completion of Christus, heightening that sense that we go whence we came and that the newborn are our clearest messengers of what the poet Yeats called ‘the uncontrollable mystery’, have served to humble the pages of this music in a way which critics (fiercely divided!) could not have equalled, though one or two have tried.
The last word is left to Edwin Muir’s poem The Transfiguration, quoted in the published score, from which the following shows exactly where Christus seeks to end:
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the decrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled-
Glad to be so – and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.
The Spectator, 1991
A tour de force. Pott has consistently espoused the strong elements in British compositional practice. Such a composer will need time and space to make his effect, which on this evidence we should grant him
Musical Times, 1991
Artistic depiction of transcendent themes may assume supra-human proportions, and a sensitive balance of detail and breadth is required… This was the singular virtue of Francis Pott’s Christus.. Richly complex, arrestingly original… The large-scale cohesion of Christus fulfils its generic designation as ‘Symphony’ with monumental conviction.
The Independent, 1991
Truly a tour de force.
Musical Opinion, 1992
Truly sensational, …clearly one of the major works for organ in our century.
Organists’ Review, 1992
…A sure grasp of tonality, a natural contrapuntal flow, rhythmic flexibility and vitality… There can be no doubt about the conviction and logic behind the vast overall scheme, and the control of long time spans is superbly judged. There seems to be no point at which the virtuosity is not entirely justified for dramatic and musical reasons. …It deserves to be widely and frequently played.
United Music Publishers, 1992
Takes British organ music into a new sphere… Rivalling even Messiaen in the sheer breadth of its conception… Masterly handling of musical structure combined with highly effective writing for the instrument. The première was justly greeted with a prolonged standing ovation.
Sydney Organ Journal, 1995
Little I can say could substitute for your encounter with this music. Pott has succeeded in his aim. …A journey that has a spiritual dimension as its goal and not just a musical experience. This is certainly true of Messiaen, but Pott seems to take it a few steps further. …The final triumph of good over evil defies verbal description.
Choir & Organ, 1997
Music of such remarkable interest that one became unaware of time and conscious only of the scheme of this mammoth creation, well illumined with cogent notes by the composer.
The Times, April 2001
Not a work beholden to any other: rather, an astonishingly original composition, compelling in its structural logic and exhilarating in performance. All in all, a stupendous achievement.
Records International, September 2005
This is a tremendously impressive work, and not only on account of its sheer dimensions, though at well over two hours it amply sustains interest – an achievement in itself. Overall the vocabulary, while far from harmonically conservative, is less complex than Sorabji; more dialectically contrapuntal than Messiaen, to invoke the 20th century’s composers of huge organ works with whom Pott will inevitably be compared in this work. Christus really doesn’t resemble either – Ronald Stevenson or Robert Simpson (to the latter of whom Pott pays tribute in the work) are better comparisons. Opening with a wandering, unsettled extended passage of open-textured counterpoint which avoids obvious tonal centres, suggesting a world as yet unilluminated by the coming of Christ: as the huge movement progresses a sense of struggle and conflict emerges in ever-thickening textures, leading to a huge chordal climax, after which the dramatic narrative continues with a greater sense of tonality. The drama plays out with the gradual emergence of a triumphant mood in rich and highly colored chordal harmony. The three considerably shorter central movements depict the Passion – a mysterious and shadowy ‘Gethsemane’ is followed by the tripartite central movement, depicting the crucifixion itself. This starts with a most impressive passacaglia ‘Via Crucis’, followed by a bitter and sardonic scherzo, full of leering creatures out of Francis Bacon’s studies for figures at a crucifixion. The crucifixion itself is depicted graphically, alternating apocalyptic outbursts and restrained lament; an extended epilogue finally establishes the latter mood. The fourth movement is relatively static, the music restrained as though in a kind of shocked detachment from the events which preceded it. This uneasy interlude is abruptly dismissed by the huge finale. Rather than celebrating the Resurrection as a fait accompli, much of this movement is taken up with dramatic discourse, passing through a toccata-like allegro (tonal and invigorating) which develops into a more dissonant and warlike climax. A somewhat pastoral interlude follows, during which the tension starts to rise again, followed by an extended fugue, increasingly unconventional in form, and highly inventive. After this breaks off, music of increasing tension leads into the final section, another dramatic toccata, and when the grandeur of the closing pages is finally achieved it is with the sense of an epic spiritual battle fought and won, not an easy, pre-ordained, triumphant resolution.
The Gramophone, December 2005
An inspired work on a grand scale that gradually reveals its greatness. …I find it growing on me more and more. …Challenging, certainly, …glimpses of gritty radiance, moments of languor, …all supported by a tremendous feeling of solidity.
The Sunday Times, 2005
In his liner notes, Pott sets out his intentions with the same polished eloquence with which he composes: the work is a deeply thoughtful consideration of the Resurrection and the relevance of its symbolism in today’s world. The tonal-based language is vivid, and the determination Pott shows in getting to the root of what he wants to say is impressive. …A remarkable work
CD News, David Aprahamian Liddle
Francis Pott Christus (1986-90) performed by Jeremy Filsell on the Kenneth Jones organ at St, Peter’s, Eaton Square, London.
Christus is a very impressive work, … Pott’s undertaking, Filsell’s playing and Signum’s recording deserve great praise.
Within the clearly tonal framework, Pott’s language is remarkably free, ranging from a carol- like simplicity to angular, post-Messiaen chromaticism where a local tonal centre is all but obliterated. At its fiercest, in the overwhelming climaxes of the central passacaglia, Christus has an elemental power which pins you to your seat when heard live; there is a physicality which leaves you elated. …The music marries considerable textural sophistication with a direct and inspiring life-urge. I was pleased to see from Francis Pott’s note (though I haven’t yet identified it in the music) that the fourth movement of Christus ’embodies momentary homages to the much mourned Robert Simpson, one of the great symphonists of this or any age’. Simpson died soon after the composition of Christus and so could not have known the music but he would have been thrilled and delighted by it. …[This is a] …masterwork which takes an honoured place in the inexhaustible mainstream of musical humanism. You emerge from the experience with your spirit refreshed.
Martin Anderson, Tempo, July 2006
…[I] urge collectors not to be daunted by the sheer magnitude of Christus, nor by its complexities. Persevere. Work your way into the music and the rewards will be great.
Pott is a composer who can work on a big canvas. That was proved by his substantial and very fine choral work, The Cloud of Unknowing. However, Christus, which is an earlier work, is even more substantial in scope. The work is on a vast scale.
…Music of raw power, very great energy and no little force; …an astonishing work and I hope I’ve given some slight flavour of its scale, reach and ambition. …Awesome – in the true sense of the word – and in every sense a compositional tour de force. …Inevitably, I’ve described the work in religious terms because that’s how Pott has conceived this magnum opus. However, I think that a listener who does not subscribe to the Christian faith should still be able to appreciate Christus – and admire it, I hope – as a work of art.
This is a highly significant piece of modern organ music.
John Quinn, Musicweb International, 2012
Francis Pott’s CHRISTUS
Organists’ Review, September 1992
by Gerard Brooks
The 11th April 1991 may very well turn out to have been one of the most important dates in the history of British organ music. On that evening in Westminster Cathedral, lain Simcock gave the first performance of Francis Pott’s Christus, a Passion Symphony for Organ. At a time when the majority of our own contemporary repertoire consists of elegant miniatures or pieces relying heavily on the special sound effects the organ is capable of producing, it seems almost too good to be true that a composer of proven and prize-willing ability should, without even being commissioned to do so, choose to write a full-scale cyclical organ symphony of Mahlerian dimensions.
Christus is in five movements, which trace the Coming of Christ, then Gethsemane, the Way of the Cross, Golgotha, the Deposition, Christ in the Tomb and finally the Resurrection. Whilst the programmatic elements in the piece apply with varying degrees of precision, the musical themes used (including a chorale-like tune) are of particular importance in giving the work its great overall cohesion, beginning with the very opening four note motif. The intention of the first movement entitled LOGOS is to suggest the Holy Spirit contending with a resistant pagan force; Marcel Dupré, in the first movement of his own Passion Symphony, depicted an agitated ‘world in chaos awaiting the saviour’, but Pott adopts a different approach, exploring first the idea of the wandering spirit in outer darkness seeking light, and rising through a gradual escalation of mood to a climax which, in the composer’s words ‘though debatably triumphant, remains austere, aloof from any wholly unequivocal victory’, thereby leading the listener into the second movement. Here, Christ is portrayed as a ‘spectral, hypnotic apparition embracing all the despair of human suffering and self- condemnation’ suggested in the lines by Thomas Merton that head the movement.
This seems a good moment to consider the religious motivations of the work: each of the movements is prefaced by quotations from the Bible or from religious poetry, and in a recent interview for Radio 4, Francis Pott stressed the importance of Easter as being the culmination of the church year, and therefore of his Passion Symphony. In particular the Crucifixion itself, as a living symbol and atonement of all that goes wrong in the world, is central to the conception of the work, just as it is central to the Christian faith.
The third movement, which begins as a passacaglia, portrays Christ’s serenity and “unreproaching distress” as he is besieged by the uncomprehending mob, and leads into the scherzo which brings us to Golgotha and the Crucifixion. Here, as one might expect, the climax is long and insistent before collapsing into an “unsettled darkness”.
After these climactic events, the restful and dynamically modest nature of the fourth movement (Viaticum) is both musically welcome and apposite in its portrayal of a world locked in the sleep of the tomb. Moreover, it provides the perfect foil for the thunderous opening declarations of the fifth and final movement (‘Resurrection’). Here, the composer has tried to project the resurrection not as a ‘fait accompli’, but as a “cosmic struggle towards a hard-won ultimate triumph”. To this end, how appropriate that Pott should introduce a fugue, which incorporates musical intervals derived from previous movements. The final sections of the work are best summed up by the composer’s use of the phrase ‘War in Heaven’ (from the Book of Revelation).
Christus is the work of a composer who has a demonstrably clear grasp of compositional form and structure – instanced by the clever and original use of musical techniques from the familiar (passacaglia, fugue, stretto, etc.) to the less well-known (cancrizans, in which a melodic strand is heard simultaneously forwards and backwards) – but much more significantly, this musical armoury is harnessed to a truly original imagination that has resulted in a musical language which is not only new, but beautiful and accessible to the listener. The work is long by conventional standards (about two hours and five minutes), but, as the composer says, if the work seems ambitious, then that ambition resides in the human or spiritual, rather than the technical dimensions: in other words the size is dictated by what the music is seeking to express. Although the outer movements could be performed separately, it should be borne in mind that the work is cyclical, and in any case, as those who have been present at performances have found, the music generates an energy and an imagery that renders insignificant the mere passing of time…
As far as the performer is concerned, the work demands a considerable amount of stamina as can be imagined, but the technical requirements are never insurmountable: although Pott is a pianist rather than an organist, he has a sure grasp of what is and what is not possible on the organ, and the music whilst not easy, nevertheless remains firmly within achievable bounds. As lain Simcock says, it is never ‘mere empty virtuosity’, but is always ‘rhythmically exciting and varied, using the full spectrum of organ colour’.
As I suggested at the opening of this brief account, it may be that Christus will mark the beginning of a new interest in the organ as a ‘symphonic’ medium for contemporary British composers. For those players and listeners who have longed for a British work to equal the emotional power of those by Reger, Liszt, Eben, Dupré et al., the wait may well be over.