At First Light

Requiem for double chorus and 'cello solo

forces: Double SATB Choir, Violoncello
duration: 38'00"
published by: Peters Edition

At First Light received its recording premiere in March 2019 from the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio under its conductor, Matthew Berry, with the ‘cello part performed by the distinguished British artist Joseph Spooner [ ]. The work will be released in July 2020 on the Naxos label [8.573976], where it will be coupled with a performance of Francis Pott’s Word, in which the organ part will be played by Christian Wilson. The score and ‘cello part are due for release in December 2019 by Edition Peters.

Composers' Note

At First Light was commissioned by Eric Bruskin, a resident of Philadelphia, USA, in memory of his mother. Eric had a longstanding enthusiasm for my work, and I was touched to be the person he approached for a task which is both a privilege and a daunting responsibility. In a sense, no music can ever measure up to the weight of love or the hope of consolation vested in it under such circumstances – but in memory I carry the deaths of both my own parents, and I was able to draw upon that. Eric’s fondness for my Cello Sonata (itself written in memoriam) led him to ask that I include a solo ‘cello part in the new work – but his attachment also to my polyphonic sacred choral writing meant that he wanted a centrepiece which would be both a showcase of that approach and the celebration of a life well lived. Therefore, the seven movements of At First Light arrange themselves as a series of slow meditations surrounding an exuberant 9-minute motet in which the lamenting cello falls temporarily silent.

Eric’s Jewish faith meant that approaching an agnostic humanist brought up within the Anglican tradition was hardly free of problems! Gradually, though, I was able to win his approval for a collated mosaic of texts. This embraces some liturgical Latin (necessary for the motet) as the shared preserve of broad western culture in general, but balances it with a secular approach to loss, celebration, remembrance and the many shades of our mourning those whom we see no longer. Eric was adamant that he did not want the title Requiem; but what has emerged is still a form of semi-secular Requiem in all but name, taking its title instead from a phrase in the poem by Thomas Blackburn set as the third movement. This seemed to suggest succinctly how the loss of one very close to us is an awakening into an unfamiliar world where everything is changed. Following the exuberant central movement, the texts by the Lebanese-born Kahlil Gibran and the US, Kentuckian poet Wendell Berry first address the departed loved one directly, then place us within an imaginary funeral cortège, where the perennial and universal in human experience become personal without subscribing explicitly to any particular faith (or lack of it). The final text of all is a translation of a Hebraic prayer, requested and provided by Eric Bruskin, which serves to mirror its Latin counterpart heard at the outset.

Throughout, the lamenting cello represents a commentary on the experience articulated in the text. It evokes and, in a sense, tries to embrace and sanctify the individual existential journeys of the bereft, as they in turn seek to make their own sense of what the short-lived Second World War poet Alun Lewis called  ‘the unbearable beauty of the dead’ (movement 5).

In a modern world hostage to ever greater menace, displacement, bloodshed and anguish, I hope fervently that this music not only brings a measure of solace to the person who commissioned it, but also makes its own small contribution to bailing out the sinking ship of humanity.

© Francis Pott, 2018

Composers' Note