We had the opportunity recently to play some extraordinary music in a stunning Abbey in the town of Malmesbury, Wiltshire. It has a wonderful heritage and was home to King Athelstan the Glorious (whose tomb lies within the Abbey), the 12th Century English historian William of Malmesbury and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The Abbey itself was built in the 12th Century but is much smaller now than it was originally (the tower and the spire fell during storms), only the nave is left of what was an enormous building!
The music we were asked to learn and perform was clearly very carefully selected to tie in with holy week, it was also all totally new to us which is always exciting! Alongside Bach’s chorale prelude 'Ich Ruf zu Dir' and Purcell’s Chacony we performed works by Arvo Pärt, James MacMillan and John Tavener.
Ostensibly, what link these three composers is not only their religious convictions but how it pervades all the music they write, intentionally and not. James MacMillan is a roman catholic and has often spoken about how his faith informs everything he writes, for him music itself is sacred. Pärt and Tavener both belong to eastern orthodox Christian traditions and both became more pious as their music moved from earlier ‘avant garde’ works to the spiritual and almost ritualistic music they are now well known for.
Pärt’s Summa was originally written for SATB choir and transcribed later for String Quartet, incidentally in a version for Violin, 2 Violas and Cello as well as for standard quartet (I ordered the wrong one first!). It’s a perfect example of Pärt’s style, moving through consonance and dissonance within G minor (the same key as the Bach and the Purcell!). It actually served as a great test for intonation and this is what we focussed on in many of the pieces we played. MacMillan’s Memento offered similar challenges; we were often in exact canon with each other and in the same registers as well controlling timing through many bars of complete silence. Both of these shorter pieces were fun to put together and offered a simple beauty that both we and the audience immediately fell in love with!
Tavener’s The Hidden Treasure was the centrepiece of the programme. When we spoke to the Vicar in our journeys to and from the station he mentioned they had Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time a year previously and that he wanted to find another piece with that kind of transcendent quality, certainly it has that! Tavener’s programme note reads thus:
‘I dreamed The Hidden Treasure in the form of twenty-five notes which I immediately saw as a Byzantine palindrome representing 'Paradise'. These twenty-five notes formed the structure of my piece, which represents a journey from Paradise towards Paradise: the constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the unknown Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief. The steps of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ are suggested throughout.’