CELEBRATE THE POWER OF VOICE

The Immortal



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JUANJO MENA conductor
ROD GILFRY baritone
ROOMFUL OF TEETH
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair

BRAHMS
(1833-1897)

Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”), Op. 54

WILLIAMS
(1872-1958)

Toward the Unknown Region

MARK SIMPSON
(b. 1988)

The Immortal    U.S. PREMIERE

Part I

Part II


 

(1813–1901)

Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”), Op. 54

Composed in 1868–1871.
Premiered on October 18, 1871 in Karlsruhe, conducted by Hermann Levi.

The idea for the Schicksalslied germinated during Brahms’ visit in 1868 to the home of his friend Albert Dietrich in Bremen. Dietrich left an account of the events of that day, which included an excursion to the great naval port at Wilhelmshafen. “On the way to Wilhelmshafen,” he wrote, “my friend, usually so lively, was silent and serious. He told us that early in the morning (he arose at about 5:00) he had found a volume of Hölderlin’s poems in a bookcase and had been stirred to his depths by the Schicksalslied. When later on, after much rambling and viewing of all the most interesting sights, we took a rest at the edge of the sea, but we discovered Brahms was far away, sitting on the beach and writing. Thus originated the first sketches of the Song of Destiny.... [He was so intent upon this project that] a lovely excursion we had arranged to Urwald was never carried out. He hurried back home to Hamburg instead, in order to give himself up to his work.” Despite this impetuous beginning, Brahms did not finish his Song of Destiny for three years.

Hölderlin’s poem, in the words of Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer, “describes the bliss of the immortal gods, and, as a contrast, the despair and suffering of mankind.” Brahms’ music clearly reflects these different emotional states. The poem ends with the expression of the sorrowful human condition and so, too, would have Brahms’ composition if it strictly followed the progression of the words. Such fidelity to Hölderlin’s text, however, would have made for an ending of hopelessness that was at odds with the optimism Brahms had expressed in such earlier choral works as the German Requiem and Alto Rhapsody. The solution that took him three years to discover was the repetition of the serene opening “music of the gods” as a postlude to the work. This innovation makes for a wonderful formal balance—with the peaceful music at beginning and end flanking the stormy central section—but it changes entirely the effect of the poem. The message of the music is a far more encouraging one than that of Hölderlin’s words, and says much about the personal philosophy of Brahms. The Schicksalslied brings to mind Suzanne Langer’s perceptive comment about vocal compositions: that “the music ‘eats up’ the text”; that it is the music rather than the words which makes the stronger impression. (The “text–music” relationship is almost never one-sided, however, but symbiotic.) Walter Niemann, in his study of the music of Brahms, put it this way: “Brahms does not see it as his principal task [in the Schicksalslied] to bring out the dread contrasts in this poem between heaven and earth, gods and men, in equally pitiless, inflexible and inexorable music...but rather to veil it in compassion and pity.”

 

(1872–1958)

Toward the Unknown Region

Composed in 1905–1906. Premiered on October 10, 1907 in Leeds, conducted by the composer.

It was while Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1890s that he was introduced to the poetry of Walt Whitman by his fellow student Bertrand Russell. Whitman’s verses were enjoying a considerable vogue in England at that time, and Vaughan Williams was not immune to the lure of the American poet’s daring topics and experimental poetic structures, nor to his themes of mysticism, human dignity, love and freedom. The budding musician acquired several editions of Leaves of Grass, including one small selection he carried with him constantly for a time.

As early as 1903—the year in which Delius brought out his Whitman-based Sea Drift—Vaughan Williams was considering a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra using the words of the American writer. As the basis of this proposed composition, tentatively titled “Songs of the Sea,” he chose passages from Leaves of Grass that philosophically likened an ocean voyage to the individual’s journey of life. Both the topic and its musical realization were imposing artistic challenges for Vaughan Williams, who, at age 31, had written only some songs, chamber pieces and small works for orchestra. He sketched a few preliminary ideas for the new work, but was unable to bring the piece to completion.

Two years later, Vaughan Williams turned his attention to another poem from Leaves of Grass, “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” and set a passage from it as “A Song for Chorus and Orchestra” titled Toward the Unknown Region. The work brought him to the front rank of young English composers when he conducted its premiere at the prestigious Leeds Festival on October 10, 1907, and its success encouraged him to again take up his earlier Whitman piece, which he completed in 1910 as A Sea Symphony; he returned to Whitman again in the mid-1930s when he included some of his verses in the war-wary Dona Nobis Pacem.

Toward the Unknown Region parallels the emotional progression of Whitman’s visionary text from apprehensive uncertainty to spiritual enlightenment in words that are “non-religious but ethically aspiring,” according to English musicologist Diana McVeagh. The opening stanzas of the text are cloaked in the modal harmonies in which Vaughan Williams had been immersed while researching British folk music during the preceding three years, mixed with a certain amount of Romantic chromaticism. For the closing verse—Then we burst forth, we float—Vaughan Williams provided a broad, striding melody that brings the work to a fervently confident close.

 

(b. 1988)

The Immortal

Composed in 2015; libretto by Melanie Challenger. Premiered in October 2015 at the Manchester International Festival by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena.

Composer and clarinetist Mark Simpson, a native of Liverpool, gained national attention while still in high school as the first-ever winner of both the BBC Young Musician of the Year and BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year competitions. He went on to study music at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, graduating with first class honors, and then studied composition with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before being selected for representation by the Young Classical Artists Trust. Simpson was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2012 to 2014, received the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award in 2010 and a Borletti-Butoni Trust Fellowship in 2014, and is now Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic and a Visiting Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (as are actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Watson). Mark Simpson has established parallel careers as composer and performer—his first CD was as a solo clarinetist, his second a disc of his chamber works. He has composed for orchestra, chamber ensembles (many including his own instrument), chorus and solo instruments, as well as an opera (Pleasure) commissioned by Opera North, Aldeburgh Music and the Royal Opera House. As a concerto soloist, recitalist and chamber musician, Simpson has appeared across Britain, notably recording Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto at the BBC Proms, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal was commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and premiered there in October 2015 by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena. The work won the 2016 Sky Arts/South Bank Award for Classical Music and received its London premiere at the 2017 BBC Proms under Maestro Mena. Of it, Simpson wrote:

The Immortal is an oratorio for baritone, chorus, semi-chorus and large orchestra based on the extraordinary life of Frederic Myers (1843–1901), who was a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research. The idea for the piece took root after reading John Gray’s The Immortalisation Commission, which narrates some of the Society’s history.

The Society, founded in 1882, held regular séances in the hope of communicating with the dead. During these séances, a designated medium would sit with a pencil and paper and try to forge a psychical link with an entity. Once in a trance-like state, the medium would transcribe what they claimed or believed were messages from beyond the grave.

My librettist, Melanie Challenger, and I both visited the S.P.R. archives in Trinity College, Cambridge, where every automatic writing script is held. They consist of thousands of indecipherable texts and images coupled with the most elegant, calligraphic writings in Greek and Latin that form a vast palimpsest [a manuscript in which the writing has been erased prior to its reuse but still bears traces of the original] of different minds. It was this sense of madness that I wanted to translate for the thicker, denser orchestral passages. Some of these texts were picked out to form the semi-chorus passages throughout the work.

In contrast to these chaotic passages are the heartfelt lines sung by Frederic Myers, clearer and more direct. During his life, he fervently believed that he could use scientific rationalism to prove that there was life beyond the grave. Behind the scientific rationalism he and others in S.P.R. espoused, however, lay the real reason that was driving them: an aching sense of personal loss and tragedy. Each founder member had suffered in some way and Myers had a secret sorrow he kept throughout his life—as a young man his childhood sweetheart, Annie Marshal, committed suicide by cutting her throat with scissors and then drowning herself in a nearby river. As Myers grappled with both science and personal tragedy, he began to lose the Christian faith that might have given some solace. As part of a generation who were coming to terms with the consequences of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Myers struggled to accept a world in which Annie was forever and irredeemably lost. It is this personal sense of tragedy as well as the loss of faith and existential crisis set in motion by Darwinism that Melanie and I have attempted to convey.

The Immortal is cast in two large parts and alternates, broadly speaking, between two types of music. One is made of thick, multi-layered orchestral and vocal textures superimposed to create a sense of disorientation and unease. The other mode is clearer, more direct, in which the solo baritone sings his material accompanied by the orchestra. Indeed, one of the main ideas for the piece was to make listeners feel as though they were somehow taking part in a séance themselves.

The libretto includes adaptations of scripts from the Salter papers and the Frederic Myers papers held in Trinity College Library. With grateful acknowledgement to the Masters and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.