BURY ST EDMUNDS in Suffolk is currently celebrating — two years late, owing to Covid — the 1000th anniversary of the founding by King Canute of the Abbey of St Edmund, whose ruins stand next to the present cathedral. From April until October, there is a programme of events ranging from anniversary tours, sculpture, and art exhibitions, displays of manuscripts from the Abbey’s scriptorium, lectures, and pilgrimages, as well as concerts, one of which featured the first performance of Into the Light, commissioned for this anniversary from the composer Paul Carr.
This was heard on 28 May at a concert given by the English Arts Chorale, the Eye Bach Choir, and the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leslie Olive. It began with superlative playing in Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, written in 1959 for the Pageant of Magna Carta and scored for three trumpets, placed, as the composer wished, “as far apart as possible”. Next came Parry’s “I was glad” and Vaughan Williams’s Folk Song Suite, then Carr’s new piece, and ending with Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.
Into the Light is a large-scale work, lasting about 25 minutes, scored for tenor soloist (the excellent James Gilchrist), four-part mixed chorus and orchestra, including harp, organ, and an extensive percussion section, but without timpani. The Abbey of St Edmund was a Benedictine foundation and Carr’s text incorporates quotes from The Rule of St Benedict, woven through verses from three psalms (84, 129, followed by an extract from Anima Christi, and 61).
Musically, the opening movement is inspired by Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) — a recent discovery of the composer’s, which he heard for the first time the night before receiving this commission. Although a secular cantata, it seems, in Paul Carr’s view, “to embrace, and even enhance the splendour of devout belief”. On lower strings, ppp, the music begins, and grows, the chorus joining with the words “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God”, a phrase repeated several times with growing intensity and a climax on the word “God”, and repeated at the close of the whole work. The “dramatic core” (composer’s description) of the piece is the second movement, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord”, with movements of praise to the glory of God on either side.
Paul Carr’s music is evolutionary rather than revolutionary — there are no surprises, or anything likely to frighten the horses — and yet the result is music of great beauty and originality, with a structure rooted in melody and (in particular) harmony, which Carr believes can furnish the soul with an “emotional embrace”. He wants everyone to feel love, and, while the music grows like life, it ends positively.
This is achieved not only through his setting of the words (which, incidentally, the choir really seemed to enjoy singing, and sang well), but through his handling of this large-scale score: there is an elegiac quality to the woodwind writing — oboes, cor anglais and clarinets in particular — and (again) trumpet, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the second movement of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony.
The words from the Rule of St Benedict were sung with characteristic fervour and intensity by the tenor James Gilchrist, though not always audibly or clearly over the orchestra in the cathedral acoustic.
When it came to the “Enigma” Variations, in addition to instruments previously mentioned, there were fine viola and cello solos in variations VI and XII. I felt the opening too slow and the finale rather laboured, but, otherwise, this was a hugely enjoyable performance by a first-class orchestra. The near-capacity audience was long and loud in its grateful applause for all the pieces.