Charles Eager met up with Matthew Oglesby, composer of Penthos for St Peter’s Singers, to discuss the work with him. They were joined by Dr Simon Lindley, the choir’s director.
Matthew Penthos is a work for choir, orchestra and soloists and is about how we grieve and how we cope with loss and how we think of our future, particularly our spiritual future.
The word ‘penthos’ is Greek for mourning and the idea that in grief you can perceive joy and salvation when you think about the wrongdoings you’ve committed in your life, and that you can still be saved.
Hannah (Stone) and I wrote the piece as part of the City’s commemoration of the end of the First World War. It was humbling and an honour to be asked by the St Peter’s Singers to write it for performance by them and professional orchestra in October 2018.
Lindley It was interesting for a musician – and the choir found it interesting – because it was devised and evolved as a creative partnership. It wasn’t merely a text – like an ode or a Mass Ordinary setting to which music was added. It was fused right from the start and I think it is a happy coincidence that some of the earliest music which was available for the choir to rehearse was and is very reflective and meditative and has roots within the Orthodox tradition, and it was that tradition which we had gone some way towards in our One Equal Music disc – a bit of Tavener and so on – it was just the way it operated. The singing members were fascinated to realise that it had all been devised as a result of this collaboration. For a long time, it was clear to us that it had been brought to birth by that process. But this can be quite potentially confusing for the public. Drawing near to the performance, we tended to say it was Matthew’s choral work.
It is a work which seemed destined to happen: no one had to crack whips and it just emerged. This is a good thing for the choir because it makes them think about how the process works. It was touching to see how the more demographically senior, traditional members really took ownership of it. There were secret little extra rehearsals on a Friday evening for forty, forty-five minutes or so. The tenor section in the CD project were well organised, coming with a syllabus, having worked out when and what they could come to rehearse. That was one of the nice things about it. It took us back two years to the Somme Centenary when we’d been involved in doing the choral contribution in the Karl Jenkins Armed Man. I like Karl Jenkins’ music but the public are very snooty about it. Whatever you say in a musically critical or abstract way, there is no doubt in my mind that the great success of the Armed Man is the compilation of the stanzas and the verbal text which was done by Guy Wilson, who was Master of the Arms and is a big Catholic laymen. It is so beautiful and esoteric, blending eastern orthodox and really traditional material. We knew where we were going with Matthew and Hannah’s piece because we’d had an experience of that sort of material
By the time we came to 2018, I think it is true to say that the singers were hungry for this work. You can’t exist through life doing Messiahs and Mass in B minors and nothing else.
Matthew Hannah and I are singers and met via St Peter’s. We had collaborated once prior to Penthos for the choir, which is called Picking Fruit on the Feast of the Transfiguration. Hannah wrote the text and I wrote the music, which is the usual process, and it was performed for the first time in 2015 at Leeds Minster.
Lindley It’s not long but it’s got great impact. It’s got a single cantor part by a male singer, the rest of the choir, and no accompaniment.
Matthew The process was collaborative with Penthos from the start. It was initially Hannah’s idea to do a Requiem, but there are a-million-and-one Requiems! We didn’t feel like writing a Requiem based on traditional Catholic text that we would be adding anything new to the repertoire or saying anything new about what it means to live in society. Hannah wrote something close to her academic authenticity. She’d been studying the idea of ‘penthos’ for decades before we started. It seemed the perfect opportunity to say something meaningful, something which was meaningful to Hannah and which she could speak about with clarity philosophically and liturgically, and gave me a broad but defined platform on which to build a soundscape which would be interesting, hopefully unique, but still embedded in the traditions that we feel familiar with as musicians and as listeners. I was able to take my experience of choral music and the choral greats of the early twentieth century – Elgar, Vaughan Williams – and the wider European group of composers – Debussy, Ravel, and Lili Boulanger, Shostakovich , Sibelius and Rachmaninoff – although to varying degrees, and the influence of Eastern orthodox sound is really forefront.
Charles How does orthodox sound manifest itself?
Lindley The orthodox tradition is, firstly, entirely unaccompanied, which is paradoxical when considering that this piece is for orchestra and singers. When listening to the more reflective movements in Penthos, the instrumentation does not drive the agenda; the solo singing does.
Charles It is very chant-like.
Lindley Correct—almost like an incantation. Although Matthew was talking about English influence and Rachmaninoff, yes, there is also a hint of Honegger, who wrote a fascinating piece called Le Roi David, which drove itself in the face of established sacred music and went down totally new paths. Some of the paths it went down had this priority to the chanting and this what I call ‘wraparound’ vocal texture, which kind of surrounds everything, but underpinning this was gentle and slightly understated instrumental material which drove the ear – in the same way in which an icon painting compels the eye – in order to compel listening. There are other segments of the work which were almost kinetic in energy and completely contrasted, and that again, is good for the choir: to move from one thing one minute to a completely different scenario the next.
The earlier movements were alto and bass solos. The public perception of solo singers is that the glamorous is done by sopranos and tenors. However, alto and bass soloists lend an unusual gravity to the sound. If you are drawn in by what I call the surround sound rather than the thematic scheme or poetry, it is a very big extra dimension. I think the Honegger influence had receded by half way through the piece. Once you got to the middle, there was a movement which I recommended that they call ‘Trisagion’, which is the Greek concept of the thrice-holy God.
Charles It begins, ‘Holy, holy, holy’.
Matthew We initially called it ‘Sanctus’ for that reason, but it was better to call it ‘Trisagion’.
Lindley A lot of the orthodox verbiage crept into that.
Just before that, there’s a very big and substantive ‘Dies Irae’. That is the old-fashioned hymn which in the Roman liturgy came between the Epistle and the Gospel and is now virtually never heard, save for a few Anglo-Catholic churches in London which are really traditional. It is called a ‘Sequence’: it is a ‘cento’ compilation verbally; it seeks to relate the old Covenant. The first line or two goes,
‘Day of wrath, day of mourning,
David’s word with Sibyl blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes mending’
There are some wonderful poetic translations of the original Latin ‘Dies Irae’. The movement came late in the day. The last thing we want is for a composer to be put under pressure then has to revise the work. But the late movements had such power and almost kinetic energy, they were much easier to deal with owing to their impact and their being rhythm-driven. The more time you give the average adult singer to take in the balm of a very slow, meditative thing, taking in the technique, intonation, and very quiet singing with a very definite purpose, that did really pay dividends. Two or three of the most appealing parts came very early on. The orchestration didn’t drown the choir.
Charles There is quite a thin orchestral texture for the most part.
Lindley It had lots of different colours in it, but it didn’t have, for instance, three trombones blaring.
Charles And no quadruple-Fs!
Lindley There were a few triple-Fs!
Matthew The size of the choir was down by a third owing to illnesses and unavailability, so overpowering the orchestra – when called upon to do so – was quite an achievement.
Lindley We were in discussion for a while electronically. Nine months before the concert date, we realised that, surreptitiously and unintentionally, we were in danger of holding the concert on a Saturday night when people would have their firework parties. You would have thought that one of us, particularly those of us who have families, would have realised. But my family are scattered on the wind! There are only one or two members with young families, and it was very difficult because, although only nine months away – which you might think was ages away – it wasn’t so far away that no-one had booked any holidays. It was a known commodity that we couldn’t do it at full strings. It was a wonderful experience, although a slight blot on the day was that the sandwich lunch from the caterer was in danger of not appearing. This was caused by Guiseley, which is on Saturday busier than anywhere else in Britain. The caterer driving from Menston did eventually get there, but we had to eat very quickly!
In the morning, with Matthew and Hannah, we went solely through the solo material and knew from our normal experience of choral works that when the choir and orchestra came together, it was far less likely for anything to come adrift, but the soloists, who had never heard the orchestra before the day, arrived about two-and-a-half hours early.
We were also singing this very lovely piece by Mauersberger called Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst (‘How desolate lies the city’), a piece he wrote in 1945 after the bombing of Dresden. On Good Friday he went home and wrote this wonderful motet. It had been decided that we’d also do Beethoven’s Mass in C. Well, the orchestra, who were supposed to stop rehearsing half an hour earlier, generously allowed us to play through the Beethoven. Beethoven’s music is a little like the aural version of the wash-and-go shampoo experience, in that once it starts it can’t be stopped!
Charles I have never heard that comparison.
Lindley My own private view is that Beethoven is the most overrated composer that was ever invented! So much of the stuff is absolutely tedious. You listen to stuff that just does my head in, like the Missa Solemnis, which people proclaim to be the greatest piece of sacred choral music ever written. It’s absolute tosh! Compared to the 9th Symphony and the choral element in that. The real genius work is without a doubt the 7th symphony, which Wagner very memorably described as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’. – Anyway, we set off one minute before the end of the proper rehearsal time, we sang through the Beethoven, got to the end, and that was it!
Charles It was a very interesting choice to do the Beethoven, considering your opinion of his work. Is the Mass in C an exception?
Lindley If you conduct a choir, you’re not a dictator, you know! The choir wanted to do an expression of German creativity, too. The Mauersberger came late in the day but made the concert.
Matthew We bookended Penthos with both the German pieces. So, the Mauersberger first, then Penthos, then Beethoven after the break. Young people preferred the Penthos.
Lindley The Mauersberger made a great impression, and Penthos an even greater. We know this because a lot of people didn’t stay for the second half! I think the young people came to hear the Penthos. When I go to hear a new piece and I am in the audience, I often want to leave at the interval – not because I’m contemptible of the other stuff, but because I want to go away remembering the new music.
Next Good Friday the choir will certainly do Penthos and very likely the Mauersberger but not anything as lengthy as the Beethoven: we needed the interval to deal with the emotional energy arising from Penthos. It could have worked going all the way through, but it would have been too much – mostly because there is so much continuous choral singing in Penthos – notwithstanding the odd solo movement, of which aren’t very many, but the Beethoven is nearly the choir singing all the time. There is hardly a segment for the choir to sit down. The whole piece is interwoven. But it is a good piece. It is very like a continuation of Haydn’s late style – beautifully refined.
Matthew It is also worth noting that text of Penthos is not at all derived from the Catholic mass. There is a line here and there from the Latin text, but it is almost entirely original. The emphasis is less on the fire and brimstone of the Dies Irae for instance, and more on the idea of compassion, mercy, meditation and restfulness. There is no sense, when you listen to the piece, that we are all about that Old Testament, wrathful, vengeful God. It’s definitely about the merciful God.
Lindley That is where some of us felt the influence of the Jewish tradition was present as they are, at once, big on judgment and atonement and yet very liberal on matters of humanity and human weakness. It is not hard to sense that when listening to the music, (rather than when playing it).
Matthew I originally designed the piece to be quite easy to perform. I think, as a listener, it is quite accessible, but as a performer it is more difficult than I originally intended it to be. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I was always inevitably going to write the piece as I did. There is one movement which is slightly more energetic. The ‘Trisagion’ is the most energetic, in that it has the most obscure time signatures, the fastest pace and moves on with a rollick. It is an exploration, as far as is possible, of the greater and lesser jihad – the idea that one’s relationship with God and one’s own actions and philosphy are more important than how one perceives someone else’s actions and philosophy and how we deal with people who don’t believe the same things as we do. It’s meant to be slightly aggressive in places and, towards the end, attritional. That’s the only place in the work where the broader concept of war itself is explored.
Charles You also mention the Islamic vocabulary.
Matthew Hannah’s deep-rooted religious knowledge takes as its platform the Syrian traditions.
Lindley Yes, that was most interesting – and also the Serbian traditions. In the First World War, hundreds of Serbians came to Britain and never left. The Anglicans are really keen on the Serbian orthodox music. A very famous publishing firm called The Faith Press issued dozens of pieces by Serbian and Russian composers. They arranged Rachmaninov’s Vesper music into little shorter anthems and so on. There was a big affinity in the English psyche with this very appealing music.
There was a great scandal concerning this and Queen Victoria’s funeral. She’d gone to endless trouble to plan it all with her son, and it was the most awful tragedy. She sent Sir Walter Parrot in 1895 all the way to Kiev to meet the monks. Prior to that he had been away, examining, on the day when a group of Russian orthodox monks had come to sing to her – not by prior arrangement – and had sung orthodox music to her in St. George’s Chapel and absolutely stopped the show: even the vergers and cleaners were sitting down and listening to it, spellbound.
She said to Parrot when he returned that evening, ‘I must have this at my funeral service, Sir Walter – will you go to Kiev?’ Seven weeks it took him to travel there and back! He wrote down what is now known as the Russian ‘Kontakion for the Departed’. It was printed by Novello, ordered to be sung three or four months before the funeral – and the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to let his choir sing it because it involved praying for the dead, and that was something the Church of England was not to do. There was such a stink. And Parrot, a Yorkshireman, never got over that: he saw it as the final despairing act of clerical interference, and he went on and on about until the end of his days 22 years later!
Matthew It’s worth being mad about, because it offers one of the finest moments music has to offer in the liturgical tradition.
Lindley There are movements called, for example, ‘Kyrie Eleison’. That in particular is very much an English version with extra bits. But when you get to the end there is an equivalent to the ‘In Paradisum’ in the Fauré Requiem. It is a very powerful ending – quite quiet until it builds up. There is also an ‘Agnus Dei’ which is unaccompanied.
It was enjoyable to sing parts of Penthos as part of the associated war commemoration at Kirkstall Abbey in November. We sang them on the hour each hour for three hours. We didn’t harangue the public with facts. I just spoke very briefly beforehand, but the pieces made their own impact.
Matthew It is good to have a portable section of the piece to travel around with.
Charles The ‘In Paradisum’ seems easier to carry around.
Matthew Yes, you don’t necessarily have to have the accompaniment; it stands alone a cappella. The ‘In Paradisum’ is the movement most based on the Russian ‘Kontakion of the Dead’.
I didn’t particularly have a specific methodology when I was writing it; I was simply taking what the musical sponge had soaked up over the years. The time signatures are something like 11/8 and 13/8. It is not metrical in the standard Western sense. It follows a more verbal rhythm.
Charles We can see that in the time signatures throughout the whole requiem. One could almost mark the whole piece ‘parlando’.
Matthew It doesn’t try to follow too many rules. Generally speaking, I like to write horizontally with lots of counterpoint, where all the voice leading works logically and insistently and propels the music forward. In the ‘In Paradisum’ it’s more about the direct emotional feeling of it and how to produce a sound more vertically (rather than horizontally) and it does break several rules.
Charles Yes, it features parallel fifths, I think.
Matthew Yes, and octaves. It wouldn’t pass any test! But I think it works better because it doesn’t try too hard; it just feels.
Charles Yes, I think it was judged very sensitively. It’s a perfect ending for the piece, varying the mood established over the past hour.
Matthew Its a kind of summation. The last movement, the ‘Libera me’, which is Quentin’s solo – the final D major chord of that is a very solemn conclusion to that. Then the ‘In Paradisum’ acts as a reflection on what just happened. It is outside of the day and night cycle established by the piece. The Requiem follows a ‘dawn–a burning midday sun–evening–darkest night–and dawn again’ time cycle. As the sun comes up, very mistily, on a new dawn, we step out of that dark-and-light cycle, and reflect on the idea of peace as a whole and where it places us as humans.
Charles The second movement is marked ‘Like a grey, misty dawn’
Matthew That movement and no.4 try to replicate the very distant sound of tolling Russian bells – the ones that call to prayer in the morning. The Russian bell is very different from the English. English bells peal in scales, and the Russian are much more percussive, without the pitches that we are used to here. I tried to bring something of that effect – although not a literal translation of it – to no. 2 and the ‘Dies Irae’.
Charles Will the score be published?
Matthew It’s a long journey to publication. We have some decisions to make about how many versions of the piece there will be, and which movements are most congenial for publishing if a publisher won’t take the entire piece whole. As a committee we still have a lot of work to do, as do I. As a composer, I would like to see the piece published whole by a publisher who is really behind the ideas and trusts that enough people will like it for it to be worth doing in whole.
To listen to excerpts from the first performance of Penthos and to see the score, see here.
For more about the piece: penthos.uk
For the St Peter’s Singers: www.stpeters-singers.org.uk
All photographs by Stan Graham.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.