On the night of 29 December, 1940, after a brief respite over Christmas, German bombers roared back over Britain. They dropped numerous incendiary bombs on the City of London, causing massive destruction, loss of life, and uncontrollable fires that raged for days. Miraculously, St Paul’s Cathedral survived the onslaught intact, even as much of the surrounding neighbourhood was reduced to rubble. Long a symbol of hope amidst the Blitz’s indiscriminate destruction, St Paul’s was a particularly moving setting for the première of the Blitz Requiem, a new work memorializing the Blitz and those whose lives were touched by it.
Francis Warner, author of the work’s text, lived through the Blitz as a child. In his program note, he relates harrowing memories of bombed-out schools with dead children laid out on the playground, as well as the birth of his younger brother under their dining-room table during one of the war’s heaviest bombing raids. A lecture he gave at Cambridge University on the 70th anniversary of the Blitz brought back many of these long-suppressed childhood memories, inspiring him to finally confront the Blitz in his own poetry. He and composer David Goode had collaborated on a number of pieces before, but nothing on this scale. It was an ambitious project, and the rest of the concert programme – given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bach Choir and conductor David Hill – was well designed to set it up.
It began with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, a meditation on descending A minor scales that glowed and shimmered in the booming resonance of the cathedral. Next the choir sang 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis’ How shall I sing that majesty, which led without pause into the string orchestra’s rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The theme was that of the Tallis anthem we had just heard, and it was telling to hear the two works juxtaposed in this manner. Vaughan Williams’ reverence for the older work is clear, but so is the invention with which he spins it into something new and luminous. Both works were performed beautifully, though the Vaughan Williams could perhaps have been taken a bit slower, or with more rubato and breaths between phrases in order to accommodate the reverberant acoustics of the space.
Closing the first half was another Vaughan Williams work, Toward the Unknown Region, on a text by Walt Whitman, for the choir and orchestra together. Beginning gently, it gradually built to a grand climax. The choir and orchestra created an admirably full and powerful, yet never harsh or strident sound. The final chord left the whole cathedral gloriously ringing.
This gorgeous first half of the program set a very high bar for the première on the second half. Though it was a powerful idea to première the Blitz Requiem in this space, the new work unfortunately fell a bit flat. There were some striking and beautiful moments, and Goode writes effectively for choir, but it was hard to sense the unfolding of larger shapes or feel a through-line to the work as a whole. Stylistically, the music was a somewhat incongruous mixture of lush Romanticism and thornier, more modern sounds that had difficulty merging into a single, cohesive language. Warner’s translation and re-imagining of the Latin requiem text in rhyming English verse was often quite touching, although sometimes his rhyming schemes seemed to box him into some awkward corners. This was especially problematic in the Dies irae, the longest movement of the work, which referenced most directly Warner’s own personal memories of the Blitz. The text was set in groups of three short rhyming lines, a structure that led to some word choices and sentence structures that felt a bit forced. It seemed to pose problems for the music as well, which had especial difficulty generating momentum and cohesion in this movement.
The work was performed ably by the choir and orchestra, led by conductor David Hill’s steady hand. The four vocal soloists all sang quite well. Soprano Emma Tring and tenor Matthew Long were especially notable for their angelically clear and pure, yet also dramatic and impassioned deliveries.
It’s uncomfortable to be in the position of passing judgement on a work such as this, which has such deep resonances with the space where it was performed, as well as with the life experience of one of its authors. I applaud the effort to tackle such a weighty subject, and memorialize an important, but fading chapter in London’s history. Though the new work fell short of what I had hoped for, the exquisite first half of the concert and the power of the concert’s theme and venue made for a memorable evening that will stick with me for some time to come.
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