Oratorio for tenor solo, SATB/SATB chorus and organ [2004 - 2005].
Duration: ca 89'00"
extended work was commissioned by the Vasari Singers in celebration of their 25th
anniversary, with funding from the Performing Right Society. It received its
performance was given by James Gilchrist, tenor, Jeremy Filsell, organ, and the
Vasari Singers under their founding conductor, Jeremy Backhouse.
same artists recorded the work for Signum Records during February 2007 in the
Chapel of Tonbridge School (noted not least for its superb modern Danish organ,
a four-manual instrument by Marcussen). The double CD went on world release on
following essay by the composer is published in the booklet of the Signum CD
The Cloud of Unknowing
The path to this work has been a long one.
Over many years I have
sought to harness words to an overarching structural design without sacrificing
their sovereignty within it. This has now led through several choral works of
increasing scale to The Cloud of Unknowing,
the furthest I can go in one particular direction, just as a parallel journey
led to an immense Passion Symphony for organ solo [Christus,1986-90]
and similarly suggests a phase completed.
Song is Love Unknown (2002) I had the idea of altering sequence in the hymn
text by Samuel Crossman, so that conflict between Hosanna and Crucify! might
serve by juxtaposition to make a point about perennial human nature, with Hosanna
at first confidently affirmative - but then losing heart before the
outnumbering insistence of Crucify!
Later, an unusual King’s Singers commission enabled me to meditate on the
Gunpowder Plot using a mosaic of texts. Such an approach persisted in The
Cloud of Unknowing.
In practical terms this
piece too arose from a commission,
funded by the Performing Right Society, for one of ten new works marking the 25th
year of the Vasari Singers’ illustrious career under the baton of their
founder, Jeremy Backhouse. On a personal level, the music confronts a mid-life
ebbing of faith. Scientific rationalism divests the universe of its mystery and
shrinks our human place in the scheme of things (if scheme it is); while the
state of the world suggests either a suffering God, powerless to intervene in
human misery, or a malignly indifferent one - if any.
response, some have sought a kind of sense in ‘the suffering God’ within his
own creation, and in a Crucifixion perpetually re-enacted within the atrocities
of successive ages. If such thinking has made a difference to me personally,
this is thanks less to any certainty in the resurrection than to a more
humanistic perception of Christ on the Cross as that mysterious figure,
Everyman. The media bombard us with images of suffering too large to absorb, and
in a sense it is easier to be moved to tears by the plight of a single child in
If a commission lent
this sharper focus, so did world events. What became The
Cloud started in the middle, with Psalm 23. This was a response to the
tragedy of Beslan,
Cloud of Unknowing opens
with a sombre organ introduction. The first choral entry evokes a kind of
The soloist typifies a deliberate tendency for identities to blur at particular moments throughout the work. At various points he will assume the guise of prophet, reluctant soldier, Christ figure or worldly Everyman. In essence his is the voice of human conscience, frequently drowned but still insistent amid the sound and fury of war. His vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse launches an immense process leading right to the central climax of the work.
the onset of an agitated Allegro this
text alternates with words by William Blake which uncomfortably locate the roots
of evil in every human heart. The vision of Death, the last Horseman, is an
enervated whisper. A rhythmic tramping arises from the depths, evoking the
mobilisation of an implacably hostile force. The music suggests an inexorable
army on the march by allowing syllabic stresses to ride roughshod over
conventional expectation. A free approach to text highlights ‘shall’
[march every one on his ways] and ‘shall not’ [break
their ranks]. Eventually, like some culinary reduction, this ‘boils
down’ to the single word break,
inhumanly repeated over organ trills.
a quieter section, laments of the oppressed give ground to a single voice from
within the chorus, tremulously questioning ‘who
will rise up with me against the wicked?’.
This elicits a casually indifferent statement of murderous intent: ‘yea,
our God shall destroy them’.
soloist - increasingly an impotent intercessor for peace – now admonishes
warring humanity with words from a French poet, René Arcos, who survived the
Great War: ‘the dead are all on the same
side’. In response the hostile marching returns. Two sides are now in
direct conflict, one inexorable, the other bent upon its annihilation. One
faction (by now clearly representing the contemporary West) utters
self-righteous pronouncements suggestive that any atrocity is sanctioned by
certainty of God on its side: an entirely deliberate indictment of two modern
governments for a grievously misguided conflict. Implacable mutual opposition is
again embodied by antiphonal use of ‘shall
break’ [my arms shall break even a
bow of steel] and shall not
break’ […their ranks]. Both sides ignore the despairing soloist. As
before, the process attenuates to the monosyllable‘break’.
The spectre of the prophetically envisaged final Horseman returns. His
name this time precipitates uproar.
headlong climax enlists that (marginally altered) ‘taboo’ verse from the
Psalms which glories in dashing the foe’s children against the stones. An
extended organ interlude finally recedes from the noise of battle into remote
stillness. The soloist, reluctant participant in all that has gone before, sings
words written by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen in a letter home to Osbert
Sitwell from the trenches. Owen likens the individual men in his command to the
suffering Christ; himself to Judas. This leads into Psalm 23.
With the second half of
the work battle returns, but the perspective is now that of Elytis, akin more to
the telephoto lens of modern journalism in the field than to the ageless
hostilities addressed earlier. ‘Something
evil will strike’ recurs as a ghostly echo, reaching sudden consummation
in a single gunshot. Elytis now strikingly conjures pathos by matching the
tragedy of spent life to ostensibly whimsical imagery. When the chorus
re-enters, words from Christ’s final moments follow Owen’s cue, subsuming
the anonymous, solitary death of the unknown soldier into the archetypally
lonely, forsaken death of the Cross. This seems to be the intention of Elytis,
too: ‘The love inside him was such, The whole world emptied with that very
last cry’. His image of ‘one
moment deserting the other’ is met here with a progressively still organ
solo, its note values extending as the pitches of melody and harmony gradually
part company. Ensuing music sets lines by the 17th century mystic,
Thomas Traherne. ‘Who art Thou?’,
addressed to the crucified Lord, is answered instead by the slain soldier (in a
line of Owen made musically famous by Britten in his War Requiem, and one from Arcos): ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend. The dead are all on the same
The remaining music is a
kind of moral epilogue. Despite providing the work’s title, the text here was
the last thing to fall into place. Conceiving a textual ‘mosaic’is a matter
less of lighting on things and
recognising one’s wish to set them, more of knowing what one hopes someone has
said and then tirelessly searching. The enigmatic mediaeval tract entitled The
Cloud of Unknowing was a late, stray idea which I almost failed to follow
up. Written during the last quarter of the fourteenth century in the dialect of
The Epilogue starts much
the same as the work’s opening, offering a semblance of symphonic
recapitulation. An arioso tenor solo
follows, emphasising the poignant brevity of earthly opportunity to be a force
for good. Again the chorus returns to Psalm 90. Its earlier music provides a
backdrop to the true heart of the soloist’s message for the modern world,
leading to the exhortation ‘…lift up
thine heart with a blind stirring of love; for if it begin here it shall last
without end’. The chorus reiterates this text, inexorably expanding it in
imitative polyphonic style. An immense climax is sustained into a prolonged Amen, which subsides until the soloist is heard intoning ‘farewell’,
as if emerging against the flow of some great retreating procession. His
valedictory blessing leads back to undespoiled
This work stands at some
distance from the conventions of Anglican worship, the forbearance for which it
calls being humanist in essence before it is specifically Christian or
devotional. I had wished to write something of this kind long before the
postscript is in order. During July 2005 Jeremy Backhouse told me that the
work’s première would take place in
2006 at St Pancras’ Church,
did not manage to save
did not know how to stop
help where no one called
want to be on time
[Translated by Keith Bosley, Krystyna Wandycz]
Cloud of Unknowing is
dedicated to my wife, who cheerfully and patiently put up with much during
its creation, but also bears the inscription
memoriam: Margaret Hassan
of one of
Francis Pott, May 2007
The Church Times
The icing on the cake at the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music was Francis Pott's new oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing. …When I arrived at St Pancras' Church I could not have been more richly rewarded. …A beautifully conceived, thrilling oratorio, skilfully collated. The early stages of the work, extracted from the famous passage in revelation about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, were as chilling as Franz Schmidt's remarkable setting of the same words (in The Book of the Seven Seals) almost 75 years ago: Pott does, indeed, evoke something of a 'musical Armageddon', much in the spirit of the powerful climaxes of his massive work for organ, Christus.
The impressive management of dynamic and emotional transition effected by Francis Pott, both in his design and in his increasingly skilled orchestration, picked this out as a gratifying new work.
One sometimes writes, hyperbolically, of a performance moving one to tears. But at the end of Francis Pott's The Cloud of Unknowing, genuine tears were shed. …A heartfelt plea for reconciliation and tolerance is very much the theme of Pott's oratorio. But the work is far from being simplistic peace propaganda. The 48-year-old draws his texts from the psalms, war poets, Blake and other visionary writers, and a mystical mediaeval tract. These are arranged in such a way that mankind's instinctive tendency to lash out at enemies or perceived enemies is continually, and often ironically, contrasted with individual man's capacity for heroism and self-sacrifice, as epitomised by the Crucifixion.
Often the tenor (James Gilchrist, superb) takes the part of human conscience, crying in vain against the chorus's war-cries. But in the glorious epilogue it is the chorus that calls for a "blind stirring of love", in a stupendous outburst of rich polyphony -wave upon wave, gloriously sustained.
Pott's musical style is tonally based, richly chromatic and laced with telling dissonance. It is also thoroughly grounded in the English oratorio tradition, with reminiscences of Elgar, Walton and Tippett -though some exotic passages in the huge organ part (wonderfully delivered by Jeremy Filsell) sound closer to Messiaen. …A sincere, intelligent and admirably unsensational meditation on the darkness at the heart of man, The Cloud of Unknowing deserves a concert life beyond this moving performance.
Cloud of Unknowing
…evoked a spontaneous standing ovation from a discerning audience at its
world première by the Vasari
Singers at St Pancras’ Church …on
Pizzicato, November 2008
Reviews of the CD release by Signum Records [SIGCD 105]:
The enormously gifted Vasari Singers and their visionary conductor
Jeremy Backhouse have made unparalleled efforts in recent years to
revitalise and replenish the modern choral repertoire. This latest example
is an immensely moving oratorio for tenor, choir and organ, written in
response to worldwide conflict generally. Pott chooses texts from the
psalms, Blake, war poets and mystical tracts to illustrate mankind's
capacity both for cruelty and self-sacrifice, setting them to music of
great power and beauty.
Stephen Pritchard, 29 July 2007
its original guise, the medieval text known as The Cloud of Unknowing
served as a guide to the contemplation of Christ’s goodness. Francis
Pott, in his
Andrew Stewart, October 2007
This work, written for the excellent Vasari Singers’ 25th
anniversary, deals with big things. Dedicated to Margaret Hassan ‘and
all innocent lives lost in Iraq or beyond’, it is an extraordinary
expression of Pott’s battle with ebbing faith, with a poignantly
questioning setting of Psalm 23, written as a response to the Beslan
tragedy, at its heart. Pott’s music is unapologetically conservative in
style, but the tenacity and honesty with which he engages in self-debate
is deeply moving, the humanistic interpretation of the Crucifixion as a
symbol of the persistent suffering of Everyman tenable for people of all
faiths and none. This performance is both passionate and precise, with
magnificent contributions from Gilchrist and Filsell.
Stephen Pettitt, October 2007
Cloud of Unknowing is painted on a large canvas… A clear indication of its themes for
reconciliation and tolerance in a violent world and a condemnation of
extremism can be found in the score’s inscription ‘To the memory of
Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in
Malcolm Riley, October 2007
would be unduly simplistic to describe The Cloud of Unknowing
as an anti-war piece. …Tellingly, it …bears the following inscription:
In memoriam: Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond
It is hard to imagine that the hugely demanding solo role could have a finer advocate than James Gilchrist. …Pott demands a huge vocal and emotional range from his soloist but Gilchrist is equal to every one of the manifold challenges… His voice is ideally suited for this music for it is essentially a light one, and so perfectly attuned to the many moments of intimacy in the score. However, Gilchrist has ample vocal power, when required, together with a touch of steel and so he’s more than capable of delivering the dramatic passages with bite.
organ part is of orchestral dimensions and I can pay Filsell no higher
compliment than to say that never once did I wish the work had been
written for orchestra. The engineers have captured the sound of the organ
magnificently so that the many very quiet passages register
atmospherically and truthfully while the frequent thunderous episodes are
stunningly reported without any hint of distortion or overload. Thanks to
the combined skills of organist and engineers the many complexities of the
organ part are captured with marvellous clarity.
think it’s premature to make a definitive judgement of the artistic
stature of The Cloud of Unknowing. The work is too new.
It’s also too raw in my consciousness. Such a verdict can only be
reached over time, once it has settled with the listener and once, I hope,
a performance tradition has been established. However, …this is a work
of great importance and one that not only stands firmly in the proud
tradition of English choral music but that also carries that tradition
forward and enriches it. It’s an eloquent and hugely compelling work.
…The singing and organ playing are absolutely superb and the engineers
have captured the music in a recording that combines ambience and
thrilling realism. I can’t commend Signum highly enough for having the
vision and the commercial courage to issue this recording.
John Quinn, October 2007
Das Oratorium The Cloud of Unknowing des britischen Komponisten Francis Pott (*1957) verarbeitet verschiedene Texte und musikalische Einflüsse zu einem tief bewegenden Werk, dessen Ethos an Michael Tippetts A child of our time erinnert. Nach der Premiere Anfang des Jahres wurde in England die Aufnahme bei SIGNUM CLASSICS mit großer Spannung erwartet. Bis zur ersten Aufführung auf dem Kontinent wird die Einspielung dem Werk sicherlich viele Freunde gewinnen.
The oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing by the British composer Francis Pott [b.1957] deploys diverse texts and musical influences in a deeply persuasive work whose ethos recalls A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett. After the première at the beginning of the year [actually May 2006] the recording by Signum Classics was awaited with keen anticipation in the UK. Pending the first performance on the continent the recording will certainly win the work many friends.
Musical Opinion, November/ December 2007
A Performance of Compelling Artistry
Francis Pott's large-scale "Humanist Requiem" as it may be termed, of 2005, for Tenor, Chorus and Organ, fulfilled a commission marking the Vasari Singers' quarter-century, combining texts articulating the composer's sincerity in conveying his 'personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of Western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn' relative to those on-going conflicts threatening the world in the 21st Century's first decade.
Such sentiments resonate strongly with many people and Pott's deeply felt, directly expressed score has considerable emotional impact. The juxtaposition of liturgical and non-liturgical texts reflects such examples as Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem and Britten's War Requiem. Musically, Pott's language will not offend either composer's admirers, for his work has clearly been irrigated from their examples, subsumed into a fluent, immediately expressive style.
The composer could hardly wish for a better performance than this. The Vasari Singers' quality and commitment is of the highest, with James Gilchrist an unfailingly outstanding soloist. Jeremy Filsell accompanies superbly, and much praise is due to Jeremy Backhouse, who secures a performance of compelling artistry. The recording quality is admirable. The composer provides detailed notes.
International Record Review, November 2007
This disc seems likely to prove an apotheosis among apotheoses for Vasari, such is the prodigious care with which they tackle Pott's passionate and apocalyptic masterpiece.
…To describe the music as 'moving' somehow seems as unsatisfactory as to sum up the tragedies Pott evokes as 'shocking': just a word. Rather, there is a meditative counterpart to this music, an experience which can really evolve only by taking it in a single hearing.
In fact, it is the calculated exploitation of that most indispensable of musical building blocks – absolute silence – that fixes these choral and solo events together so utterly convincingly. The choir is never more stirring than in 'In one little time may heaven be won and lost', a chilling yet strangely conciliatory entreaty.
The sound-blend in this recording is never short of compelling, even in the more sinuous strands of music to be found in the passing of the penultimate 'Amen' from choir to soloist and back again. …The acoustic is sublimely appropriate and the organ colours wonderfully vivid. …A tour de force for Francis Pott and Jeremy Backhouse's Vasari Singers, and a disc of some distinction.
Organists' Review, November 2007
Pairing my favourite adult choir with the excellent soloists Jeremy Filsell and James Gilchrist is an instant winner. Furthermore, to combine all three with Pott’s exciting oratorio is a must, and I wholeheartedly recommend this recording of The Cloud of Unknowing, an interesting and powerful response to the wars and atrocities of the past five years… Not having heard any of Pott’s compositions before, I was immediately won over… The drama this challenging piece demands is captured by the brilliance of the choir’s performance and Filsell copes with an immensely difficult organ part, bringing the work to life with some wonderful registrations. The text is drawn from a number of courses, …creating a powerful voice to demonstrate the conflict and instability of an uneasy world. The emotion is perceptively displayed by the superb Vasari Singers, who treat the quieter sections with complete sensitivity. There are two CDs and the second opens with the brilliant James Gilchrist setting the scene and ambience as he skilfully interweaves with the choir. The wonderful, evocative ending is beautifully executed with a hushed reverence as the choir fades away… A riveting and outstanding experience and an excellent recording.
Muso, September 2007
The Cloud of Unknowing has much in common with Britten's War Requiem both works are lengthy (Francis Pott's opus is pushing 90 minutes), inveigh heavily against the iniquities of contemporary armed conflict, use a range of texts for the vocal settings and are unrelievedly stark in the musical representation of their bleak message. Easy listening this certainly isn't.
The piece is, however, treated to a magnificent CD debut here by the same team that premiered it a year ago in London. The Vasari Singers commissioned the piece and Pott creates for them a hugely testing series of scenarios to articulate, ranging from a setting of Psalm 137 (with its images of infant brains dashed against the stones) to the contrasting placidity of The Lord is my Shepherd, set for women's voices alone. Both technically and emotionally the work is dauntingly demanding, but the Vasaris respond unflinchingly.
There are two other major protagonists. One is a tenor soloist, intended by Pott as 'an anthropomorphic presence: part Christ, part Everyman'. It's a long part and constantly taxing but James Gilchrist delivers it with huge distinction. The other is Jeremy Filsell, whose virtuoso organ accompaniment is virtually never silent and plays a major role in what one commentator has termed this 'meditation on the darkness at the heart of man'.
Church Music Quarterly, March 2008
The Cloud of Unknowing is a vessel which in essence forms a questioning of Pott's faith and ability to believe in his faith. In his own words: '…the music confronts a mid-life ebbing of faith. Scientific rationalism shrinks our place in the scheme of things…while the state of the world suggests a suffering God, powerless to intervene in any human misery'.
Like all great composers, Pott turns to music to try and create some sort of response. To put this into perspective, two events that surround the history of this powerful and emotional work are the tragedy of Beslan in 2004 (after which Pott wrote the first music) and the 7 July  bombings in London.
In his 50th year, Francis Pott has given us a work of huge power and individuality. This is an immense performance of an immense work.
The Organ, November 2007
This is a monumental work in two senses: firstly, it is on a large, oratorio scale; and secondly it is a memento or a challenging of a 'mid-life ebbing of faith' and the darker side of humanity, as well as the selfless sacrifice often made in times of war or other conflict. The composer writes poignantly and movingly about the genesis of the work. The close relationship with the Vasari singers has also clearly influenced the creative process, the result being a superb piece of modern choral writing, both challenging and accessible at the same time. The interaction between the tenor soloist, the choir and the organ is especially effective, and helps to provide a momentum through the work. James Gilchrist is excellent, as is Jeremy Filsell, the whole being superbly directed by Jeremy Backhouse, who confirms his reputation with this recording. It would be inappropriate to single out any particular part of The Cloud for the work stands as a whole. This is simply contemporary choral writing and performance of the highest order. I strongly recommend the CD and hope that we hear the work 'in the flesh' many times in the future.