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Didgeridoo in Southwark

19 July 2011

Garry Humphreys on an Australian Requiem


THERE is an Australian thread run­ning through this year’s City of London Festival, and among the featured musicians is the 82-year-old Tasmanian-born composer Peter Sculthorpe — one of Australia’s Liv­ing National Treasures — who has been compared to Aaron Copland for conscious evocations of his country’s culture and landscape.

His Requiem was the major work at a concert in Southwark Cathedral earlier this month, given by the cathedral choir under its director of music, Peter Wright. It was written in 2003 and first performed the follow­ing year, first in Adelaide (by whose Symphony Orchestra it had been commissioned), then in Lichfield Cathedral, as part of the 2004 Lich­field Festival. Both these perform­ances, and the one at Southwark, featured William Barton, playing that quintessential Australian instrument, the didgeridoo.

The Requiem, in Latin, follows the familiar pattern, except for the move­ment that begins the Second Part — “Canticle” — which uses an Ab­original lullaby, made up of nonsense-words, sung by a mother as she rocks her baby to sleep. The middle verse, according to indigenous speakers, is said to be concerned with protection from enemies of every kind. This was the first music to be written and, as the composer points out, “almost all the material in the work stems from my setting of it.” It recurs at the beginning of the Com­munion (“Lux aeterna luceat eis”).

Sculthorpe acknowledges his indebtedness to the plainsong Mass of the Dead, its language and the Gre­g­orian chant associated with it, and the inevitability that he, too, should eventually write a choral Requiem. “I have also been drawn to its concern with eternal rest and with light that is all enlightening, both of primary con­cern to all human beings. . . Further­more, it was important to me that I should do so, that I should seek to uplift people during the present per­ilous time, a time when war is waged without sanction or provoca­tion.”

As for the Lullaby, “it grew from thoughts about children killed in war and thoughts of mothers singing them to everlasting rest.”

Although Sculthorpe claims to be “not a religious composer in any sectarian sense”, he does admit that “most of my output is devoted to seeking the sacred in nature, in all things”, this Requiem not excepted. Sculthorpe’s compassion, as well as his anger, is evident in the music.

And very evocative music it is: Sculthorpe long ago decided that atonality and serialism did not serve his purpose, and instead explores instrumental sonorities to great effect. He has a special affinity to the cello, which is prominent in his chamber music, in many solo pieces, and in another Requiem (1979), for cello alone. In the choral Requiem, the sonorities of cellos and basses complement the didgeridoo, which features in all movements except the Introit and Agnus Dei.

But there were no orchestral in­stru­ments in evidence at Southwark; for this was the first performance of a “revised edition” with organ — which appeared to resemble the piano reduction in the original printed vocal score. Notwith­standing the vir­tu­oso organ playing of Stephen Disley, Southwark’s assistant organist, it was a sonic experience quite differ­ent from the original, which also has a large percussion section and an im-portant timpani part.

There were advantages, however; for the plainsong derivations were perhaps more telling and, despite evocations of the Australian outback, one might at times have imagined a French church, incense rising. It was, as Nadia Boulanger said of Fauré’s Requiem, “perfumed with the Chant”.

The didgeridoo was amplified — of necessity — and rather over­power­ing if one sat near a loudspeaker; but Mr Barton’s virtuosity was staggering, as he had already demonstrated in an earlier improvisation, with Peter Wright at the organ.

The heroes of the evening were the singers, comprising 13 professional lay clerks, boys’ choir and girls’ choir, too numerous to count, who under­took this tough assignment with gusto and versatility, the trebles sing­ing their top As with ease. and the basses their bottom Es (at “Lux aeterna”) comfortably and audibly. There is much syncopation, on and off the beat, and the apparent ease with which this was dispatched resulted in the rhythmic elasticity un­doubtedly intended by the composer. The thunderous applause at the end was richly deserved. Scul­thorpe and his interpreters certainly succeeded in uplifting this audience.

The other thread in this year’s City of London Festival is an ornitho­logical one. The choir responded to this in the first part of the programme by singing four anthems by William Byrd — all firmly in any cathedral choir’s repertoire, and again per­formed with confidence and aplomb — although perhaps the basses are rather too sturdy in tone at times. It was a treat to hear the choir singing out at the audience rather than to each other across the choir stalls.

I have one complaint: the number of people — staff and public — wandering about in the aisles during the performance, as if they were invisible to the rest of us. They were not; they were highly distracting.

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