Page 8, 24th June 1977

24th June 1977
Page 8
Page 8, 24th June 1977 — Hopkins as an exemplary musical inspiration
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Hopkins as an exemplary musical inspiration

A CATHOLIC composer finds himself in a peculiarly difficult situation when faced with the problem of how to express himself musically in the present musical climate. He is on the one hand, for various complex and tragic reasons, unable to work through the liturgy; yet in seeking any coherent and distinctively Christian musico-spiritual kinship with other contemporary composers, finds little fellowship with his own avant-garde generation.

Catholic composers of the past, serious about their faith and great by all the standards of Western music, illustrate some of the difficulties and triumphs of their art. The most authentic liturgical expression ceased in England at its zenith with William Byrd and his elder contemporary Thomas Tallis. Writing for the liturgy was their life-blood. Their music, especially Byrd's, is still powerfully alive, particularly in Cambridge and Oxford collegiate chapels, Anglican cathedrals, to a very significant extent in concert recitals, and yet in but a handful of Catholic places of worship. This is sadly ironic remembering that Byrd ran considerable risk in writing for the Roman rite, and survived execution only because of the blind eye turned by Elizabeth I, who toted his music.

Elgar, born into Victorian England, of parents converted to Catholicism at independent stages of their married life, wrote music of a very different kind. Though he wrote some fine short liturgical pieces while organist at St George's, Worcester, at the turn of the century, his faith was to respond in a way that spoke to the whole world. First to Newman (by whom Hopkins was received into the Church) in The Dream of Gerontius, and later to the Gospel in The Apostles and The Kingdom, he created monumental and distinctively Catholic statements of Christian faith, even considered out of the context of their times.

In the present day, it must be faced that there is almost nothing of lasting value to be found in the music of the English liturgy. Its poverty is perpetuated by a style and standard set by one or two

publishing houses which have a stranglehold not only un the publication of music, but of material for the spoken liturgy. I do not think it is fair to blame the textual quality of the English rite for the absence of fine music, nor would I advocate the restoration of the full Latin liturgy, though its wholesale rejection by the English Church, and with it a wealth of great music from the past, near and distant, is a major iconoclastic tragedy. The fault lies in deep-seated attitudes to art and music within the English-speaking Catholic community, both clerical and lay. The ultimate quality of the music through which we give glory to God, and the way in which such music speaks to the deeper levels of our spirituality are simply not seen as important.

My involvement with the music of a Cathedral liturgy from an early age, as chorister then organist, then directing the music of a university chapel, led imperceptibly to the desire to write large-scale choral/orchestral music. The choice of text happened quite by accident as 1 stumbled on The Candle indoors, knowing virtually nothing of Hopkins. This happened at a time when my personal life was particularly susceptible to heightened response to the poem, and a few months later to The Wreck of the Deutschland, as my sensitivity to Hopkins increased. 1 was particularly moved by Part One, which is a personal statement by the poet of his own spiritual struggles before he submitted to God's authority, My response is articulated through the music in a highly personal way. On the more practical, apart from the purely technical problems of writing for a large orchestra whose material creates an organic whole with the choral writing, setting Hopkins for voices has its own particular problems. Hopkins' verse is undeniably musical.

Indeed, he even wrote music of his own during his later years. But this is at once an inspiration and a cause for great caution. The rhythms and sound colours of Hopkins' lines are a dynamic force in the evolution of thematic material, and the generation of orchestral and vocal colour. But the music must grow from the verse and not be artificially superimposed.

I must be absolutely faithful to his rhythms, and I have felt strongly that in order to preserve the integrity of the verse, words of phrases must not be repeated as happens In traditional choral writing. Even in The Dream of Gerontius, which cannot be classified as an oratorio but is rather a direct setting of Newman's poem, Elgar uses phrase-repetition as a standard technique in the development of tension. And although I use each line only once, the verse, its meaning and import, must still be Intelligible to a listener with but slight acquaintance with Hopkins.

The first performance of The Candle IndOors was recorded in Cardiff on May 16 for BBC Radio, by the BBC' Welsh Symphony Orchestra and Choral Society, conducted by Vernon Handley, to whom I am indebted for a fine performance.

Of The Wreck of the Deutschland, Part I is almost complete, and is scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and may stand as an integral work. I am hoping that it will be heard outside Wales, though a first performance here would not be inappropriate. Hopkins wrote The Wreck of the Deutschland in 1876, while studying theology at St Beuno's College in North Wales, from 1874-1877.

He had been studying Welsh poetry in which alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme form a system known as Cynghanedd. He is the first poet to use them so extensively in English, which is why The Wreck of the Deutschland is so exciting when read aloud, and one hopes when sung. His love of the beautiful pastoral hills of Clwyd, and his perception of God in nature make this probably the happiest period of his life.

It is the power and emotional range of Hopkins' rich imagery, his deep sense of Christ in the Eucharist "the heart of the Host", the mystery of Christ's suffering, "The dense and the driven Passion", his acceptance of God's will and praise of the "Father and fondler of heart thou has wrung" that leads one through music "There God to aggrandise, God to glorify".

David J. Neville




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