for SAATTB a cappellaforces: SAATTB Choir
published by: Oxford University Press
We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings –
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson [1878-1962]
Fragments of this little piece rattled around in its composer’s head (as a setting of this poem) for many years before coming into sharper focus with the death of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on 31 October 2009, while attempting to defuse an improvised explosive device (IED). He had been about to return home from his tour of duty and had spoken to his 5-year-old stepson only hours before his death. After this he had appeared uncharacteristically agitated for a time, and it is hard not to imagine a degree of premonition, though that will remain forever undiscovered.
I did not know Olaf Schmid, but became aware that he had lived a few minutes’ walk from my own home on the edge of Winchester. To many the quiet heroism of all he did and stood for is largely beyond the scope of comprehension, and my wife and I were moved like most other people by the dignity of his family following his death. Later I learned that for part of his childhood he had been Head Chorister at Truro Cathedral. A New College chorister myself, I had served as an adult lay clerk in Winchester Cathedral Choir for ten years until 2001.
The idea for this modest setting originated from a feeling that the words of Laurence Binyon heard every Remembrance Day may begin to wash over us out of sheer over-familiarity. Moreover, although Binyon himself was a surprising and intriguing liberal thinker (from 1913 he presided over the British Museum’s new Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings and he was instrumental in promoting the work of Ezra Pound in the UK), the poetic conventions of his time can mislead us into sensing a blinkered, imperialist romanticism behind those words, but this is far from the truth.
I had known Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem for some time through an ancient anthology of verse written during (not always about) the Great War, and had responded to a tone in it which seems gentle, personal and largely timeless by comparison with the more public, oratorical words of Binyon, whom Gibson knew (his granddaughter, Judy Greenway, has informed me how in later life Gibson wrote to Binyon that he was the only like-minded friend to whom Gibson felt he could confide his anguish about the waste and bloodshed of war). The low-key simplicity of Gibson’s little poem, sorrowful but also consolatory in its exhortation to keep the departed alive in the hearts and memories of those who miss them, seems to me to make it a fitting vehicle to commemorate the fallen in any time or place; accordingly, dedication of this setting to the memory of Olaf Schmid is both specific and more widely emblematic. My hope is that the music and, hence, this forgotten poem may gradually find a regular place as a suitable, in some ways more private and personal foil to Binyon and various settings of his famous lines (earlier I made one myself). At the time of writing, Olaf Schmid’s widow, Christina Schmid, has been contacted via Help for Heroes (to whom any royalties arising in future from this piece will go), but has yet to respond; the dedication on the score ‘To the memory of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, G.C.’ is therefore inscribed at present without permission.
Thanks are due to Harriet Sanders of MacMillan for negotiating rights to Gibson’s poem (he lived until 1962), and especially to his granddaughter Judy Greenway, herself an academic at the University of Greenwich, for her kind, interested and supportive response to my enquiries prior to this.
Stephen Pritchard, The Observer, Sunday 12 February 2012:
Pott is one of today’s most interesting choral composers, managing to make challenging, intricate music instantly accessible. Even on a cold, snowy night he can draw a crowd. Combine his work with the vocal dexterity of Commotio, one of our finest young choirs, and you know you can expect a programme of rare quality.
Conductor Matthew Berry’s perfectly balanced ensemble has something that many choirs strive for but few achieve: the ability to sing quietly without losing pitch or tempo, most beautifully realised in Pott’s Lament, written last year as a tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, killed in Helmand in 2009 while defusing a bomb. Setting the sorrowful but consolatory words of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (“We who are left, how shall we look again/Happily on the sun or feel the rain”), it is graceful, dignified and heartbreaking.
Commotio lapped up Pott’s polyphonic Mass for Eight Parts, sailing through the tricky counterpoint of
the Kyrie before savouring the thick textures of the Sanctus and its ecstatic, concluding Osanna.
Nicola Lisle, Oxford Times, February 2012:
Commotio’s latest recording — their fourth — is, quite simply, stunning. Pott’s sublime Mass for Eight Parts forms the framework for the CD, from the quietly compelling opening of the Kyrie Eleison, with its intricate texturing, to the heartfelt Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and the poignant Agnus Dei. This is an inspiring work. …Interspersed between the movements of the Mass is a selection of Pott’s other works, all handled with sensitivity and sincerity. The heartbreakingly beautiful Lament, a setting of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem We who are left…, is a moving plea to remember the dead, written in memory of an Afghan war hero. In contrast, Ubi caritas is both joyous and contemplative.
Listening to this CD is an unforgettable experience, and it is worthy of a place on any music-lover’s shelf.
John Quinn, Musicweb International, 2012:
The Mass is a most interesting and important work. …Pott’s debt to the masters of sixteenth-century polyphony is clear and readily acknowledged; indeed, he has eagerly built on the foundations laid by Tallis and Byrd in particular and has a deep respect for that tradition.
The Mass was shortlisted for the choral category of the 2011 British Composer Awards and surely merited that recognition. It strikes me as a fine and moving work and I hope it will be taken up by others through the exposure it gets from this excellent first recording.
…The short pieces are equally fine. Ubi caritas… inhabits the same rarefied space as Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite setting of the same words – I can think of no higher compliment than that. This is a most distinguished disc. Francis Pott is a significant composer and his choral music is consistently rewarding. Collectors who are already familiar with his music will certainly want to hear this disc, especially for the chance to experience his new Mass setting. The disc offers an excellent opportunity for others to whom Pott’s music may be new to sample it for themselves. Thereafter, I would recommend newcomers make further exploration through the Dublin Cathedral disc before tackling the magnificent The Cloud of Unknowing.
Anyone thinking of acquiring this disc can be assured that it is a significant addition to the Naxos catalogue.
Malcolm Riley, Gramophone, February 2012:
This important new release of a cappella music by Francis Pott draws its title from the final line of Wilfrid Gibson’s poem Lament. It captures that aching sense of loss which threads through much of this music. This should not imply a lack of joy or exultation – as a supreme choral polyphonist Pott can build up an agitated climax with the best of them – but it is those melting moments of repose which are especially telling and memorable.
…With a duration of over 40 minutes, the Mass reveals all of Pott’s harmonic fingerprints: pivoting chords anchored to false-relation pedal points, rigorous, rolling counterpoint worthy of the Tudor polyphonists and masters such as Rubbra, wrapped up in satisfyingly strenuous textures. For the most part this is demanding music, for both the performer and the listener, not superficial. Those patches of languid repose such as in the Benedictus and the intimacy of Balulalow are deeply moving.
…A powerful disc of important music.
Philip Sommerich, Classical Music, February 2012:
Pott gets marks for courage in seeking to fuse English Renaissance polyphonic structure with 21st-century harmonies. The result is distinctive rather than derivative. The interpolated smaller-scale works contrast well, particularly the swirling Lament.
Robert R. Reilly, Crisis Magazine – journal for the Catholic Laity [USA], August 2012:
[Included under the heading Listen, and Take Heart: Music that Shines through the Darkness:]
…Before we leave Great Britain, I must say something about the music of Francis Pott (b. 1957), compiled in a new Naxos CD (8.572739). Of Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century contrapuntal masterpiece, Spem in Alium, Pott writes, ‘the surface effect unashamedly seeks to capture and bottle eternity, mastering literal time to become spiritually timeless’. This is what he achieves in these precious pieces. …So long as there are composers such as Pott, all is not lost. And you thought Western civilization was over? Listen, and take heart.
Christian Stobbs, New Directions, June 2012:
The music itself is glorious. And, most pleasingly, does not – in the cliché sense – try to be too contemporary. As a chorister at New College and regular fixture of the Winchester Cathedral choir during the Nineties, Pott reveals an innate understanding of the sound world we are all so familiar with.
…The Mass for eight parts …is a work rich in colour and harmonic language. This is a setting that we can only hope becomes as established as [the Masses by] Martin and Vaughan Williams.…[Commotio] should be lauded for championing such a fine contemporary composer. Indeed, the excellent singing certainly does justice to Francis Pott, whose Mass, in particular, is a welcome addition to the choral repertory.
The main work on this disc is the Mass for eight parts…There is the same sense of continuity with the old Tudor masters and the sheer delight in the interweaving of vocal lines. The singers convey the appropriate other-worldly sound without any sense of strain or effort.
Paul Corfield Godfrey, Musicweb International, April 2012:
Pott certainly believes in challenging his predecessors; three of the settings on this disc come into direct competition with well-established pieces by Britten. His Balulalow comes into competition not just with Britten but with Warlock’s beautiful setting; all three use solo voices in conjunction with the choir. Grace Davidson here takes the palm for sheer beauty of voice which convinces one that this setting is fully the equal of its predecessors. In I sing of a maiden Pott actually surpasses Britten in the aptness of his response to the text.