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Music: Ghosts in the Ruins by Nitin Sawhney, at Coventry Cathedral

11 February 2022

Roderic Dunnett was at Coventry Cathedral for Ghosts in the Ruins


Coventry Cathedral choristers and community singers led by Rachel Mahon rehearse Ghosts in the Ruins

Coventry Cathedral choristers and community singers led by Rachel Mahon rehearse Ghosts in the Ruins

MAY 2022 will bring the 60th anniversary of the consecration of Sir Basil Spence’s new Coventry Cathedral, the landmark modernist and staggeringly original building that took almost a decade to plan, initiate, and construct during the 1950s, after the destruction of its predecessor, the Gothic St Michael’s, by the raid of 500 Luftwaffe bombers on Thursday 14 November 1940.

Ten years ago, a modest celebration of the 50th anniversary recalled that grim event. But it is greatly to the present cathedral’s credit that in conjunction with the last stages of the city’s (because of Covid) somewhat curtailed year as UK City of Culture, it has reached out and brought to radiant life a truly original, aptly entitled musical work, Ghosts in the Ruins, which has received its dramatic première, and which aspires not just to evoke that appalling experience of destruction, but — more significantly — the richly positive, fresh, original, and arguably unique spirit of the shared ministry of both new and old combined.

This wondrous occasion was truly atmospheric: there have probably been few such overwhelming and visually evocative such adventures in the cathedral’s life. First, because the occasion embraced both locations, opening up (with numerous superbly displayed black-and-white wartime photos) the new; and then transferring — the entire fascinated audience — to the roofless remains of the old to evoke a vision of a shared future.

Second, because of the huge number of active performers, the best of the singing was quite mesmerising: the cathedral choir (under the gifted Rachel Mahon), but also entrancing community groups, including some supportive instrumental playing that added a special vividness to some sections.

Suki DhandaNitin Sawhney

The declared introduction indicated clearly the worthy aspirations: “Created with Coventry’s professional musicians, poets and communities, Ghosts in the Ruins will explore contemporary ideas of peace and reconciliation” and reflect Coventry as “a city of sanctuary, with a strong history of helping refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants”, and — thanks especially to the initiative of its pioneering Provosts Richard Howard and then the immensely active Harold (Bill) Williams) — worldwide associations.

“The work — the aim of music and text — will explore themes of acceptance, healing, transcendence, hope, resilience, regeneration and reconciliation in relation to contemporary conflicts, an acknowledgement of the destruction of the past as well as hope for the future of the world.”

The dazzling impact of the occasion — shifting colours played on to the projecting edges of the old building with a constant feeling of change and, perhaps, new life — was undoubted. The questing new music was commissioned from the multi-talented Ivor Novello Award-winning composer Nitin Sawhney and was designed to pay some level of tribute — most appropriately — to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the great work of the new cathedral’s opening festival. Sawney himself read most movingly at the outset from one of those focal, evocative passages of Wilfred Owen originally set by Britten.

It would be nice to say that a measure of paralleling was achieved here in the music; but perhaps this was not the actual purpose. Sawhney has gifts of varying his movements — vivid scherzo passage; achingly beautiful passages; especially enchanting chorale-like, soothing sequences; a distinguished nobility; and an especially fresh, original use of gaps or pauses, each one captivating; and an almost miraculous frequent use of a solo violin (Eos Counsell). But — unless some present were furnished with the printed words (of limited use in the darkness), the musical and textual aspect — that healing and transcendence and regeneration — seemed well nigh lost.

But the resilience and regeneration we did feel, wonderfully strongly. This was a great strength. So, this was a large-scale event: vivid, exciting, awe-inspiring, visually inspiring. The very full audience will have felt that strongly. And how thrilling that was at its best.

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