My Song is Love Unknown

for SATB soli, SATB/SATB and organ

forces: Double SATB Choir, Bass, Tenor, Alto, Soprano, Organ
duration: 17'30"
2002
published by: Peters Edition

This work was commissioned for the 2002 Southern Cathedrals Festival.

A fine performance of this work by the Philadelphia-based chamber choir The Crossing, under the direction of Donald Nally and with Scott Dettra performing the organ part, may be heard here:

 

Composers' Note

This anthem was written for the Southern Cathedrals Festival held in Winchester during the Summer of 2002, the last such event conducted by David Hill within his tenure as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Winchester Cathedral.  The music sets all of Samuel Crossman’s verses but one (commonly omitted when the poem is sung metrically as a hymn).  The music begins with offbeat repeated chords prompted – not inappropriately – by the opening to Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Death and Transfiguration.  In its early stages only trebles and altos are heard.  The sequential flow of Crossman’s poem is soon disrupted with particular dramatic ends in mind.  After a seemingly anxious harmonic distortion of the opening chords, the word ‘crucify’ arises initially as a mere mutter from the lower voices, so timed as to afford assonance with other words in the upper parts and thus remain barely discernible, as if only imagined.  In due course, however, cries of ‘Hosanna’ find themselves on a collision course with a rising tide of ‘Crucify’, during which the ‘Hosanna’ faction gradually loses heart and, sheep-like, defects until a single treble voice – plaintively daring to repeat the ‘offending’ word – is swept aside by a murderous outcry.

In due course, ‘Crucify’ recurs as a further angry climax before the opening music returns, this time expanding into an extended polyphonic Epilogue for double choir and SATB soloists.  Imitative polyphony is kept to a minimum prior to this point, in order for the Epilogue to convey a kind of contemplative flowering, and for a moral conclusion in the text to be mirrored by the point or period of greatest textural weight and substance in the span of the music.  The idea was informed by a visual metaphor of comparable intent: many cathedral buildings achieve it in the’counterpoint’ of rose window (light) and nave or transept (solid permanence), while the restored Burgundian Basilica of the Madeleine at Vézelay in France memorably vindicates a deliberate parsimony with daylight in its Romanesque nave by positively flooding its Gothic choir and high altar through clear glass.

The extended principal climax of My Song is Love Unknown subsides into a hushed, wordless chorus meditation, crowned sorrowfully by reiteration of the final verse from a soprano soloist to whom the work has by now presented many challenges. The anthem ends in the key and mood of its opening. The character of its demanding organ part reflects the possibility that it might one day be orchestrated.

My Song is Love Unknown was composed in memory of the designer, engraver, and lettering craftsman, Michael Renton (1934-2001), who had been intimately connected with maintenance of the fabric of Winchester Cathedral since 1994, and who had become a much-loved figure within its community.

Renton is remembered still as a true and humble artist, whose rare order the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne surely included when he wrote that ‘whosoever will profit in the mystery of Felicity, must see the objects of his happiness, and the manner how they are to be enjoyed, and discern also the powers of his soul by which he is to enjoy them’.

Composers' Note

Reviews

Music Web, 2003
…The longest and most discursive piece is My Song is Love Unknown by Francis Pott… A very strong and atmospheric work … The whole is built to a searing, titanic climax before a superbly wrought polyphonic choral passage of great complexity and rich texture. …A magnificent and disturbing work.

I have, however, deliberately left to last the piece which has made the greatest impact on me. This is the other offering from Francis Pott, The Souls of the Righteous Pott has perfectly realised the serenity and consolation conveyed in these lines and has constructed a truly beautiful piece of choral music… Sustains the mood of subdued ecstasy right through to the seraphic concluding Amen. An exceptional piece.

International Record Review, 2003 
Francis Pott’s two works show an altogether different category of mind. … My Song is Love Unknown is …a highly dramatic work, slowly expanding over a large scale, making the fullest use of the choral resources available and with a very challenging organ part. …I am very much aware of a tremendous musical mind – definitely worth hearing.

Classical News, 2003
Pott’s impassioned My Song is Love Unknown stands out as a small masterpiece of choral writing

Classic FM Magazine, 2003
Pott’s My Song is Love Unknown emerges as a miniature masterpiece.

BBC Music Magazine, 2003
…Altogether more challenging is Francis Pott’s My Song is Love Unknown, in which the verbal felicities of Crossman’s poem, familiar in John Ireland’s metrical setting, take second place to a powerfully dramatic and extended treatment of the text.

Jason Overall, Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians [USA], Vol. 21 no.9, November 2012

 

The opening concert of this summer’s conference featured a commission from Francis Pott sung by the professional ensemble The Crossing. The resulting work, To Everything There is a Season, is an ambitious, widely searching piece. The concert also included his monumental setting of Samuel Crossman’s My Song is Love Unknown. Pott’s intensely chromatic, freely dissonant and highly personal tonal style has a rugged beauty and stark authenticity. His language bears strong imprints of his training as a chorister, his career as a pianist, and his fluency in writing concert music or a wide range of instruments, ensembles, and voices. These pieces show his mastery in the handling of musical materials as well as his writing idiomatically for choir and organ. Both motets are very difficult, requiring singers of considerable skill to negotiate the challenging harmonies and chromatic melodies. To Everything There is a Season is an intensely introspective rumination on some of the darkest passages of the Hebrew scriptures. The faint optimism in the final resolution (both textual and musical) is ephemeral and unable to dispel fully the despair that permeates the score. This haunting music is deeply moving, but only on its own terms.

 My Song is Love Unknown, written for the 2002 Southern Cathedrals Festival in the UK, is equally far-reaching, using an even larger canvas in terms of musical forces employed and performance length (over seventeen minutes). The piece fully examines each of Crossman’s stanzas, with the juxtaposition of “Hosanna” against “Crucify!” forming a central synecdoche of the poem. Pott continually develops a small handful of motifs, unifying the piece but also creating a sense of progression. The final stanza (beginning “Here might I stay and sing”) occupies nearly half of the work, incorporating key phrases from earlier stanzas as well as increasingly peaceful settings of “Amen”. One final echo of “Crucify” acknowledges the persistent conflict inherent in the poem. This piece would serve well as a centerpiece for a concert or a meditation on the Passion.

 

Jason Overall, Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians [USA], Vol. 21 no.9, November 2012

 

 

Reviews

Recordings

7

Mother and Child

Nigel Short, Tenebrae

Signum SIGCD501  x   2003

more recording details...