APPOINTING “composers in residence” or “in association” is a custom that doesn’t date back far in the UK. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was among the first into the field in the 1980s, when its general manager, Ian Ritchie, made arrangements with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies which led to ten “Strathclyde concertos”, and then with Sir James MacMillan. The BBC Philharmonic and other orchestras followed suit.
Universities and colleges are now trying out the idea. At St John’s College, Cambridge, the Master and Fellows have commissioned Michael Finnissy, Professor of Music at Southampton University, to compose four anthems that take their lead from sacred works by 16th-century composers.
The first, Dum transisset sabbatum, drawing on the Henrician composer John Taverner — who, it is believed, was in later life an unremitting agent of Thomas Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries — was heard in the college’s chapel last month, sung by its celebrated choir.
Just into his seventies, Finnissy has been viewed as one of the fearsome intellectuals among composers, determined, like Schoenberg, to go his own way; unafraid of “anguished dissonances”, like his composer friends Brian Ferneyhough or James Dillon; and embracing complexity at the expense of popularity.
In a perceptive article, The Daily Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett, then presenter of Radio 3’s Music Matters, observed: “Finnissy is one of those awkward English visionaries, like Blake or Bunyan, whose rough edges are a measure of their burning convictions.”
So, alongside the awkwardness, occasional tetchiness and gloom, the needling the Establishment, the asking of awkward questions, the rhythmic demands, as well as the nihilistic feel, the uncomfortable severity, the scatological and sexual (Six Sexy Minuets, Un chant d’amour pour Jean Genet, That ain’t shit), and the love of things Australian (reflected in several works), Finnissy, though “a doubtful and hesitant worshipper”, has yielded up pieces that reveal a different side to his musical personality.
He is capable of affirmation, triumphant simplicity of effect, and of drawing out a single thread — an elegant, sometimes keening, melodic line — which rises contradictorily out of his “complex mosaic” of densely packed “clots” of music. This gives his works an expressive character entirely his own.
Despite “the thickets and tangles of notes”, as The Guardian’s Andrew Clements has written, “the gnarled and the lyrical” coexist. Finnissy’s sacred works, such as the Seven Sacred Motets of 1991, his Kyrie “Western Winde” (whose title brings to mind the Masses on that cantus firmus by Shepherd, Taverner, and Tye), his Palm Sunday for two choirs and two trombones (surely a Venetian allusion), or his two settings of the Evening Canticles from 2006-07, exemplify this lyrical vision. It is not without allusion, but without the “perverse tumult” of distorted parody.
Ironically, the work that came across as complex on this occasion in St John’s was William Walton’s demanding Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis: sometimes in high tessitura, it enabled the boys to shine, and this rendition exemplified Andrew Nethsingha’s achievement since he has taken over the baton from a line of distinguished predecessors. The Walton was simply stunning: not, perhaps, still the fragile Continental sound cultivated by George Guest, but a miracle of delivery and spiritual intensity. It gave a taste of what to expect in their approach to the new work.
Finnissy’s setting was, in fact, a model of non-complexity, and sensitive to his specific performers: Ivan Hewett writes of his ability to produce “simple and beautiful effects — the opposite of his seeming positive glee in being rough-edged and ungainly”. So it was with this commission, which also eschews his “preoccupation with microtonality and atonality as well as tonality”. From early in the Magnificat, one could hear dancing echoes of the French composer Pérotin (1160-1230), two generations before Machaut. The sense of onward flow in Finnissy’s motet is as strong as it is in Taverner’s.
How far, if at all, Finnissy has relied on quotation, on re-using or refabricating the material of the original, derived his solo lines from those of the 16th century, or invoked structural elements in parallel with Taverner’s treatment of the same poignant text, it was difficult to say on one hearing.
The plainsong, or plainsong-like, line of the boys’ part, and the lyrical feel of the work’s unfolding — apt for the story of the two Marys going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body — evoke feelings of mystery and tenderness. The altos are briefly given prominence, and sang fabulously. A telling two-part section for the same upper voices, later yielding to alto and tenor, again acquired a strong sense of Taverner’s music, in which reduced textures can be compelling.
A slow Alleluia leads to a long, slightly unnerving pause. The altos built on the plainsong ambience, and, when all voices were massed together, the full choir sound was thrilling. One might compare the odd moment of ingenuity here to MacMillan, whose motets reflect the Scottish composer’s gift for drawing on the history of full-blown Modernism while marrying it with a tonal or modal character.
Finnissy has often used modalism to conjure some of his brilliant and telling effects. A beautiful contrast is achieved by uniting forcefully the three lower voices under a floating, independent line for the boys. Tenors and basses introduce a subtly counterpointed Gloria; and, what was as impressive as anything, Nethsingha produced from his choir a memorable diminuendo, as expressive as it was impressive, from fortissimo to pianissimo, as they united on what sounded like a retrospectively allusive conclusion.