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Musical Thin Places at Eternity's edge—5&1 Classical Playlist #30

Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music. Taking a different theme each post, the 5&1 series offers five short pieces (or extracts) followed by one more substantial work.

Thin places—a concept familiar to some Rabbit Room visitors, I'm sure—seem fanciful, if not absurd, to many of our contemporaries. This is the Celtic idea that certain locations on earth have a closer connection to heaven than others, as if the transcendent was almost tangible there. This is not the place for debating the extent or likelihood of such places, merely to suggest that the arts as a whole, and music in particular, can function similarly.

So let us get into the right frame with a brief aperitif, before kicking off the 5&1 list proper.

Celtic Dance (Anon, Scottish trad.)

Garth Knox (viola d'amore) and Agnès Vesterman (cello)

Garth Knox is an Irish classical and folk string player, and he has particularly been interested in the Viola d'amore, which is a medieval forerunner of the modern Viola. It is bigger than a violin, having seven or eight strings, but is still played under the chin. This is a lovely, simple arrangement of a traditional tune that evokes windswept Scottish Highlands or islands such as St Columba's Iona or St Magnus's Orkneys.

1. Faire is the Heaven (1928)

Sir William Harris (1883-1973, English); Text: Edmund Spenser (1553-1599, English)

VOCES8, Apollo5 & Barnaby Smith (cond.)

One way to make a connection with the transcendent is to try to evoke it in words. That's something the Metaphysical Poets (like John Donne or George Herbert) sought to do, for example. But a few years before them, the Elizabethan Edmund Spenser (he of Faerie Queen fame) also had a shot in his 1596 work An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie. He piles vision upon vision drawn mainly from biblical sources, but he is wise enough to admit defeat:

How then can mortal tongue hope to expresse / The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?

William Harris was an experienced church musician, and when writing this anthem, he was longtime organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. He decided to set a few stanzas from Spenser's poem for two unaccompanied choirs.

Medieval chapels were essentially long corridors, with pews arranged in parallel rows all along the north and south walls. St George's is no exception. The choir sits roughly in the middle of the building, on either side of the aisle so, like the rest of the congregation, they face one another. Harris makes the most of this physical arrangement, by having each 'choir' echo or prompt its opposite. The musical effect is magical, evoking a sense of the celestial choirs spurring each other on to greater praises (listen out for the resounding Archangels and the sublime soprano line in the very last bars). The piece is glorious: it always feels to me like stained glass in sound. But it is even better to sing!

2. There Will Be No Mysteries ('A Hidden Life', 2019)

James Newton Howard (1955- , American)

James Newton Howard, James Ehnes (violin) & Andrew Armstrong

Sometimes an artist will intentionally seek to create a thin place. A recent cinematic example—which in my opinion and indeed experience—succeeded with astonishing power, is Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. Franz Jägerstätter was a peasant farmer from in a small community living in the Austrian Alps near the German border. He and his wife, Fani, have three daughters and are popular with everyone. When the Second World War comes, he is called up into the army. However, when he refuses to swear absolute allegiance to Hitler out of his Christian convictions, he is arrested. His family are ostracized while he refuses to back down even at his trial, and so is sentenced to death. He was executed in August 1943.

It is a powerful story, but from a dramatic point of view, it might seem insufficient to sustain nearly three hours of film. In Malick's hands, however, it is an astonishing visual experience. He crafts a cinematic love-letter to the lush beauties of creation as a way of articulating Franz's deep conviction's about the life to come. Heaven implicitly has accessible tangibility that is more real than this earth, not less. This serves to make Franz's courageous faith more understandable, and even wise. His hope for the new creation makes complete sense in the light of his love for the first creation. And James Newton Howard's adds glorious depths to this sense. For then, 'there will be no mysteries' - all will be laid bare.

3. Quartet for the End of Time: V. Praise to the Eternity of Jesus (1941)

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992, French)

Joshua Bell (violin), Stephen Isserlis (cello), Michael Collins (clarinet), Olli Mustanen (piano)

NB this is not the Joshua Bell recording in the playlist because that is inaccessible in some regions.

The odd combination of instruments for this Quartet is the direct result of who was available to Messiaen at the time of its composition. He was a French soldier in a German Prisoner-of-War camp (Stalag VIII-A in what is now Poland) and the only others who had been musicians before the war played the violin, cello and clarinet. The whole piece lasts 50 minutes and is divided into eight sections. It was premiered in the camp, profoundly affecting everyone who heard it, prisoners and guards alike. As Messiaen remembered, 'Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.'

He wrote at the start of the score that it was inspired by verses from Revelation 10. Section V is scored as a duet for cello and piano and marked 'infinitely slow'. The whole quartet is written 'for the end of time' not in the sense of the end of the world but more literally: for the time when there will be no more time. So he tries to escape the burden of tempo and rhythm to evoke eternity. Of course, that is next to impossible, since we can never escape time in this life. Instead, Messiaen's idea is to evoke through music an illusion of being without time. As such it is an utterly beguiling but strange, other-worldly piece (of which this section is just one part).

4. Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet (c1570)

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585, English)

Taverner Consort, Andrew Parrott (cond.)

Having visited the poetic world of Elizabethan England with Spenser, we return to the dip into the period's sound-world. Thomas Tallis was one of music's great survivors, no mean feat in the religious and political turmoil of the Tudors. He was careful to keep his head down when it was necessary, but his musical genius was a key factor in his changing political masters' keenness to keep him around.

Spem in Alium is one of his masterpieces. From a then familiar latin text, he weaves wonders. Where as Harris composed for two choirs (with four parts each), Tallis composes for eight, each with five lines (the men are divided into three instead of the usual two by adding a baritone line). If these choirs are distributed around a building, say, the effect on the congregation can be overwhelming. The rich harmonies travel in constantly changing waves around the listeners until all eight choirs come in with a resounding Respice (look down) and remain together until the very end.

5. Eternity's Sunrise (1997)

Sir John Tavener (1944-2013, English)

Patricia Rozario (soprano), Choir and Orchestra of The Academy of Ancient Music, Paul Goodwin (cond.)

Sir John Tavener was a bit of a superstar in his day. Widely respected in the classical music world, he was also fêted by the likes of The Beatles (who released a disc of his music on their Apple label) and Björk, for whom he compose a piece to premiere. But it was when his Song for Athene was sung at Princess Diana's funeral that he came to global prominence.

Having converted to Greek Orthodoxy in his 30s, he is perhaps best known for his theologically inflected music. So when invited by Alfonso Cuarón to collaborate on the score for the latter's film of P. D. James's Children of Men, Tavener wrote several new pieces (such as Fragments of a Prayer) and incorporated some older works. Eternity's Sunrise was one, originally composed in 1997 after his father's death. Because Princess Diana died later that same year, he subsequently dedicated it to her memory.

He combines two poems by William Blake (Auguries of Innocence and Eternity) and sets them for soprano solo (representing earth), handbells (representing angels) and a baroque band (representing heaven). The world is thus shown to be a mirror of the eternal world, much as Malick's movie suggested.

The Dream of Gerontius (Op. 38, 1900)

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934, English)

Peter Pears (tenor), Yvonne Minton (soprano), Choir of King's, Cambridge, London Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten (cond.)

When Elgar finished writing the score to this epic work, he borrowed lines from John Ruskin that began, 'This is the best of me...' He poured his life and soul into his majestic setting of Cardinal Newman's weighty 1865 poem, The Dream of Gerontius (meaning 'old man).

Newman is exploring his still relatively new Catholic faith (he converted from Anglicanism in 1845). He imagines Gerontius' journey from when he is lying in his deathbed, all the way through various trials, to his climactic encounter with God for judgment. At that point, he pleads to be removed from God's presence in order for him to be purified in Purgatory.

For this convinced Protestant (on issues of purgatory and heavenly grace, at the very least), this is quite the theological problem! The doctrine is nowhere to be found in Scripture, and seen only in a fleeting reference in the Apocrypha. The idea seems to undermine the very reality of God's grace given in Christ's finished work at the cross. It runs counter, therefore, to the very heart of gospel!

With all that said and clarified, I still can't leave this work out and find myself coming back repeatedly. It is written on an epic scale and goes from moments of acute intimacy and vulnerability to breathtaking scenes celestial grandeur. When Gerontius cries out after meeting God 'Take me away' every ounce of my being wants to shout out 'NOOOO!'. But Elgar's guidance up until that point has led me to reflect on my mortality and eternal hope more than any other piece of music.

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