SIMONE WEIL had rather an odd relationship with Christianity. She used to be a name much heard in church circles, but — perhaps with the decline of interest in mysticism — we don’t seem to hear as much about her now. Nevertheless, Susan Sontag, writing in 1963 in the New York Review of Books, saw her as “one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit”; T. S. Eliot, no less, recognised “a genius akin to that of the saints”; and Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our time”.
She was born to Jewish parents in Paris, was a precocious student, but also a political activist, supporting the working class and workers’ movements. Her life was spent largely as a teacher, but she gave most of her income to political causes, undermining her own health in the long term. During the Second World War, she and her family escaped to New York and then to London, where Simone worked for the Free French cause. She contracted tuberculosis and died at the Ashford Sanatorium in 1943, aged only 34.
Her letters and notebooks have been published, and these formed the basis of Modern Times: the life and death of Simone Weil, written in 2016 and given its première at Morley College, in south London, last Sunday, in an afternoon concert of music for voice and percussion.
The work’s composer, Miriam Mackie, explains that Modern Times takes its name from the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film — a commentary on increased industrialisation and the consequent danger of dehumanisation — and a favourite of Weil’s. The music is in seven sections, and the second, “Factory”, based on letters to Albertine Thévernon, is a potent illustration of this, with engine noises, whistles, and even a typewriter. Weil’s own factory experience led to her realisation that this, besides being grim and exhausting, also led to loss of dignity and self-respect.
Weil took a great interest in all religions, and George Herbert’s poem “Love” was of special significance to her. Familiar from the settings by Ralph Vaughan Williams (one of his Five Mystical Songs) and Roderick Williams, Miriam Mackie’s setting forms the third movement of this cycle, and is followed by “Italy” (letters to the neuroscientist Jean Posternak), which features a recorder and evokes a Baroque soundscape. The cycle’s ending, “Days are done”, uses the traditional folk tune Dives and Lazarus (“I heard the voice of Jesus say”), which, played on a mouth organ, winds down most movingly, leaving the audience (on this occasion) enraptured and silent before well-deserved applause.
Modern Times requires the largest complement of instruments, which were managed brilliantly by Catherine Herriott (who also played the piano, recorder, and mouth organ) and Rosie Bergonzi, who performed Paul Burnell’s And she flew — a narration with hand-rubbing accompaniment — with aplomb. She and Herriott also performed Steve Reich’s famous Clapping Music. The opening piece, Piazanore, by Alexej Gerassimez — originally an arrangement of music by Astor Piazzolla, but eventually taking on a life of its own — demonstrated Bergonzi’s elegant way with the vibraphone. From time to time, notably in Riddle Time by Pamela Gates (another première), the percussion effects were too quiet (perhaps written with broadcasting or recording microphones in mind), and could be seen but not heard.
The singer was Jillian Bain Christie, who also has a reputation as an artist, through exhibitions at the Barbican and elsewhere. The programme was a challenging one and seemed to hold no fears for her: she has a rare and admirable talent. In a programme in which so much of the sung narrative depends on being audible and understood, however, the words needed to be articulated and projected much more clearly, and the colouring of the voice and delivery needed to be more varied.
In three songs from A Winter Come by the ubiquitous Morten Lauridsen — reminiscent of Britten, I thought — and elsewhere, there was also a lack of facial engagement with the audience. At the very end of the concert, after the moving close of Mackie’s work, Christie sang, unaccompanied, the traditional Scottish song “John Anderson my jo” (words by Robert Burns) and was here transformed: she sang it from memory and, being Scottish, identified with it completely and took us all into her confidence; here, almost too late, we saw and heard something of her potential magic as a singer.