The premiere of Philip Lancaster’s Challenging War Passion


Three Choirs Festival (3) Howells, Lancaster: Anna Gillingham (soprano); Juliet Curnow (mezzo-soprano); Peter Harris (tenor); James Geidt (baritone); St Cecilia Singers; Bristol Ensemble/Jonathan Hope (conductor). Cirencester Parish Church, 24.7.2016. (JQ)

Howells – Requiem
Philip Lancaster War Passion (world premiere) 

The Gloucester-based St Cecilia Singers is a chamber choir which draws its members from amongst the best singers in the county of Gloucestershire. The group was founded in 1949 by Dr Donald Hunt when he was assistant organist at Gloucester Cathedral and by tradition his successors in that post have been the music directors of the St Cecilia Singers. The latest successor to Dr Hunt at the cathedral, but nowadays with the title Assistant Director of Music, is Jonathan Hope who came to Gloucester in 2014. This was the first occasion since then that I’ve seen him in charge of the St Cecilia Singers. I was impressed.

The concert was given in the splendid surroundings of Cirencester Parish Church, a fine example of a high-ceilinged Cotswold church. I understand that this is the first time that a Three Choirs event has been held there. The church has excellent acoustics and good natural light so I hope that it will host events for future Gloucester festivals – even if the pews are very firm!

Herbert Howells’ sublime Requiem was written in 1936, the year after the tragic and sudden death of his son, Michael at the age of just nine. The score remained unpublished and unperformed for many years: for Howells it was an intensely private, almost confessional expression of grief. However, he mined the score significantly for his great masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi. At length he succumbed to pressure from friends, including Vaughan Williams, and allowed Hymnus to be performed at the 1950 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. The Requiem, however, remained unpublished until 1980, just before his death and I remember vividly the excitement with which I, as someone who regards Hymnus Paradisi as one of the greatest of all English choral works, acquired the LP of the first recording of Requiem, anxious to experience the thematic source of so much of Hymnus. Since that first recording by the Corydon Singers and Matthew Best Howells’ Requiem has become firmly established both on disc and in performance.

It’s not a setting of the Mass for the Dead. Instead the six movements, for unaccompanied choir, comprise ‘Salvator mundi’ (sung in English); Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’); ‘Requiem aeternam’ I; Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes’); ‘Requiem aeternam’ II; and ‘I heard a voice from heaven’.

‘Salvator mundi’ was very well done; the choir was well blended and mellifluous and their words came across clearly. Indeed, those virtues characterised the entire performance, as did fine attention to dynamics. Howells used some thematic material from the Psalm 23 setting, significantly reworked, in Hymnus Paradisi. Here the two or three solo voices used in the opening pages came across confidently. A good deal of ‘Requiem aeternam I’ found its way into Hymnus. I appreciated the skill with which the St Cecilia Singers voiced the grave harmonies; they did this movement very well indeed. They offered excellent dynamic contrasts in Psalm 121. Though Howells used these words in Hymnus Paradisi he set them to different music. I’m not sure why Howells included two settings of ‘Requiem aeternam’ in this work but he did and the music is completely different in the second setting. The start is solemn but Howells builds to a luminous climax on the words “Et lux perpetua”; that came across marvellously here. Arguably the finest, most eloquent music is reserved for ‘I heard a voice from heaven’. This music, too, found its way into Hymnus, albeit somewhat differently cast. The harmonic language is quintessential Howells, full of melancholy but then assuming radiance.  Jonathan Hope and his fine singers brought this movement off very well indeed, crowning a memorable performance of the Requiem.

Philip Lancaster pursues successful parallel careers in the field of music and English literature and he is a particular expert on the poetry and music of Ivor Gurney. He has edited several Gurney scores for publication and performance, most notably Gurney’s 1921 choral work The Trumpet which Lancaster orchestrated; I heard its first professional performance at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival (review) and it’s since been recorded (review).

However, it was reading the poetry of another poet of the First World War, Isaac Rosenberg that first planted the seed that was to grow into War Passion. In particular, Lancaster writes in the programme notes, Rosenberg’s The Tower of Skulls set off a resonance with Golgotha (‘The Place of Skulls’). Lancaster compiled his own libretto for War Passion. In it he interweaves, most skilfully and perceptively, the Passion Gospel according to St Mark and lines by a number of war poets. The poets include Julian Grenfell (1888-1915), Gurney (1890-1937), Edward Thomas (1878-1917), Charles Sorley (1895-1915), Robert Graves (1895-1985), Herbert Read (1893-1968), Rosenberg (1890-1918), Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) and Edmund Blunden (1896-1974). Towards the end there are also two short interpolations in Latin: the hymn ‘Veni, sancte spiritus’ and some lines by Venantius Fortunatus (b 530).

I’d had the chance to read the libretto in advance and even before I’d heard a note of the music it was clear to me that Lancaster has woven a brilliant literary synthesis. The extracts from twentieth-century poetry have been adroitly selected so that each fits into the Passion narrative at the relevant juncture in such a way that the often graphic poetic imagery not only complements but amplifies the brutality and self-sacrifice of the Passion. One of the poems that Lancaster had chosen was by Robert Graves and by sheer coincidence on the very day before this performance the Daily Telegraph carried an interview with Graves’ son, William, in which he described how his father was haunted for the rest of his life by the memories of his time in the trenches, especially during the last two decades of his life when dementia overtook him. Reading that article reminded me forcefully that it wasn’t just those who fell in battle who sacrificed themselves in war; so, too did the survivors, of whom Graves, Gurney and others were the poet-representatives. How apt that we should hear the premiere of Philip Lancaster’s work just at the time when we’re commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

War Passion, which was composed with financial support from the Finzi Trust, is cast in four movements: ‘Gethsemane’; ‘Trial’; ‘Golgotha’; and ‘Epilogue: The Seven Last Words’. The scoring is for SATB soloists and SATB chorus with divisions. The accompaniment is provided by a small ensemble consisting of (if I remember correctly) flute, doubling piccolo; oboe, doubling cor anglais; clarinet; horn; string quartet; double bass and three percussionists. The duration is specified as 67 minutes, which is how long this performance lasted by my watch.

A large amount of the text is delivered by the four soloists with the mezzo acting as narrator. I thought all four soloists acquitted themselves very well, though mezzo Juliet Curnow particularly impressed me, closely followed by the clear tenor, Peter Harris. Perhaps one reason why these two especially impressed me was because I was able to hear them more consistently. And here I must confront my problem with War Passion. Though I’m always reluctant to give an adverse verdict on a new piece on the basis of a single hearing it seems to me that for much of the time the singers are over-accompanied. For much of the work’s duration Lancaster’s instrumental parts are busy and angular and I found that all the soloists, especially Anna Gillingham and James Geidt, were often overwhelmed. I don’t blame the players for this; I think the problem lies in the nature of the instrumental writing. It doesn’t help that the solo vocal parts also are mainly angular in nature, which I admit is not really to my taste.

That said, there was much to admire. The Passion story is stark and uncompromising and so were the poems which Lancaster had chosen. It was right that tough, often confrontational music should be used to set these words. But in the setting of Ivor Gurney in part I (‘He fronts the dark with straining eyes’) James Geidt had great difficulty in projecting his vocal line above the instrumental accompaniment. Part II opened with an effective Edward Thomas setting, well sung by Peter Harris, and the gripping, dramatic Robert Graves setting (‘Down in the mud I lay’) also came across very well.  My ear was caught particularly by the highly effective end to Part II where the quiet, imaginatively scored accompaniment and the tenor’s hushed delivery of two lines by Herbert Read conjured up an atmosphere that was truly eerie.

Part III, ‘Golgotha’ is, inevitably, graphic and harrowing and that aspect of the music reached it apogee in the setting for solo soprano of the Rosenberg poem, The Tower of Skulls. Anna Gillingham’s music was deliberately harsh and uncompromising in nature and the instrumental accompaniment was aggressive. Frankly, by this point I was beginning rather to weary of struggling to hear the singers over the instruments. And then, suddenly, just as I was beginning to have serious doubts about the work Lancaster turned a corner.  

The impending death of Christ and his passing is reflected in a setting of a challenging poem by Siegfried Sassoon (‘He drowsed and was aware of silence’) in which the poet describes the death of a wounded soldier. This is set for baritone with a deliberately spare accompaniment, mainly provided by wind instruments and, at times, by the choir humming. The restrained accompaniment was of itself powerful – dare I suggest a case of “less means more”? Better still, the light accompaniment meant that James Geidt had space to be imaginative and expressive – an opportunity that he seized to devastating effect. This lyrical but very intense section took War Passion to an altogether higher plane of eloquence. The tenor’s piteous, gentle cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was unbearable moving.

Part IV is dominated by a poem by Sassoon delivered chiefly by the mezzo narrator and the baritone as Second Soldier. Here again the music was spare and lightly textured and, for me, all the better for it. The work concludes with the mezzo singing lines by Edmund Blunden (‘Still wept the rain, roared guns). Here Juliet Curnow was unaccompanied save for quiet, irregular timpani, surely suggesting distant gunfire. As she finished singing the drums continued, getting softer and softer as the memory of dread gunfire gradually receded. It was a most effective ending and I was unsurprised that there was a lengthy silence before a warm reception was accorded first to the excellent and committed performers and then to the composer when he joined them.

I think Jonathan Hope and his singers and instrumentalists were persuasive advocates of what is clearly a demanding score. What of the work itself? Benjamin Britten, dismayed by what he regarded as an inadequate premiere of War Requiem commented of his work. “The idea was good”. That could equally be said of War Passion. Indeed, I’d go further. I think the idea behind Philip Lancaster’s work is inspired. The dovetailing of the Passion story and the World War I poetry is a highly imaginative ides. And, as I indicated earlier, the construction of the libretto is masterly – and moving. The trouble is that I’m unsure, on a first hearing, whether the music consistently matches up to the literary achievement of the score – in the second half of the work it does. Perhaps if I have the opportunity to hear the work again some of my reservations will be laid to rest. But there can be little doubt that this work is challenging in every sense. Philip Lancaster doesn’t so much make his listeners think; he demands that they do so.

John Quinn                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Leave a Comment