Commissioned by the Bristol Bach Choir.
First performance: Bristol Bach Choir, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, cond. Peter Leech.
Programme note - ‘Movement & Early Music: Some thoughts on Songs from the Sky’
Shortly after I was asked to write a piece for the Bristol Bach Choir, I happened to be in Venice, a city famous for its liberal use of music in a liturgical context. In the early 17th century, the trend at The Basilica of St Mark was to replace some of the standard items of the Vespers service with new musical motets, scored for one or two voices and instrumental accompaniment. These new pieces were grafted onto the liturgy, leaving the traditional verses to be delivered by the priest, sotto voce, in the background.
Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) is a document of this kind of practice. Its musical innovations are praised for the way in which they inherit 16th-century, polyphonic style on the one hand and embrace the new possibilities of the Baroque (especially opera), on the other. And yet, Monteverdi’s compendium and the liturgical practice at St Mark’s imply that something extraordinary was taking place at the interface between aesthetics and theology.
In 1608, Thomas Coryate described the music at St Mark’s as ‘so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like’. Coryate’s remarks appear to praise the music alone - the fact that it was performed as part of a liturgical act seems of lesser importance. And so we might conclude that, in early 17th century Venice, music made a serious claim for the foreground and in doing so, challenged its rank as an art at the service of something beyond itself.
Songs from the Sky makes a comparative investigation into Aztec ritual and Christian liturgical practice. It also refers to a phenomenon of our own time, which has become known as the ‘Early Music’ movement. The work sets an Aztec song-poem, ‘Fish Song’ (‘Michcuicatl’, from Cantares Mexicanos) that dates from the later 16th Century and relocates Aztec lore in the light of Christianity (eg. the Aztecs find common ground between their own, symbolic use of the fish and New Testament stories of Christ and the fishermen).
Two narrators act as our guides during the outer movements by making reference to aspects of Aztec and Christian heritages, setting the stage at the opening, lighting incense and assembling flowers in the form of the five-point, ‘quincunx’, which, as far as the Aztecs were concerned, underpinned the world itself.
At the end of the performance, the narrators clear the stage of its adornments, in theatrical reference to the tradition of stripping the altar on Maundy Thursday. They seem to be in control, but we are not entirely certain about their identities. Perhaps one of them is a contemporary historian with an interest in Mexicana. Perhaps the other is from another age altogether. Sometimes they clarify what is happening (eg when the choir sings in Nahuatl) and sometimes they recite excerpts from one of the traditions - from the Bible or from Cantares Mexicanos. It could also be said that they prevent us from directing our ears towards the choir and make us wonder whether the music ought to be treated as background, as a theatrical backcloth.
Another interesting thing about churches, particularly those of Gothic design, is the implied hierarchy of the seating as regards the distances of individual people from the priestly activity. Curiously, the social history of the concert has left us with a similar paradigm: market economics usually determine one’s distance from the source of the music. And so, this evening, the narrators will move through the central aisle, as if they were priests carrying the Word––as physical object and intangible sacrament––to the congregation during a reading from the Gospel. The narrators deliver their excerpts to certain ‘zones’ and, depending on where you are sitting, you may or may not hear everything they say.
Aesthetically, the second and third movements allow for experiences of a ‘purer’ kind. When the narrators exit, they remove from the performance an aspect of visual, dynamic motion, thereby freezing our focus onto the music. In the second movement, ‘The song-flowers of rain’, the Aztecs say that they are eager to be in paradise and wish to be caught in the ‘net’ of Christianity. In the third, ‘Now God has Music’, they sing of the pleasure they derive from the knowledge that God has genuine music at last, in the form of devotions brought to Mexico from the Old World. Accordingly, this movement is a musical reworking of Manuel de Sumaya’s Lamentations, sung elsewhere in tonight’s concert, and returns in spirit to the Early Music movement, particularly the Venetian polychoral tradition.
In the final movement, the narrators return and the music oscillates between foreground and background once more, representing the fluctuating emotions of the Aztecs (between rejoicing and weeping). Towards the end, whilst the narrators dismantle the stage, the choir assumes the role of commentator and delivers the final, Biblical excerpt of the work. This extract, which ends ‘and to dust you shall return’, echoes the concluding words of ‘Fish Song’ (spoken by the narrators) in which the Aztecs accept both the difficulty of their lives and the promise of immortality. The lines from Genesis remind us of the mortality of the body and the ephemeral nature of human achievement.
It is sometimes said that the Early Music movement tells us more about ourselves than it does about the past. And insofar as it has shown that we are interested in music as something that is context-specific, that addresses a particular culture, at a particular time, I believe the statement to be true. The concert format, as it has developed through the ages, has removed from the musical event all aspects that do not address the ear. Movement, in particular, has become irrelevant. ‘Songs from the Sky’ is part of a larger project, which attempts to address the imbalance.
copyright © Nicholas Brown, 2004