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Première of Paul Spicer’s Exciting New Choral Symphony Makes a Strong Impact in Birmingham

Vaughan WilliamsDona Nobis Pacem
Paul SpicerA Shared Singing (First performance)
Unfinished Remembering (First performance)

To preface a major new work of remembrance with a recognised masterpiece of similar demeanour and stature makes for a memorable event: one laden with intensity and meaning.

And that is what a Birmingham audience encountered when Paul Spicer – composer, conductor, scholar, commentator and author of a new biography of Sir George Dyson (just published by Boydell and Brewer) – unveiled his new choral symphony, Unfinished Remembering, at Symphony Hall, movingly paired with Vaughan Williams’s memorial Dona Nobis Pacem.  Paul Spicer had discussed the genesis of the work recently in a MusicWeb International interview with John Quinn.

It was certainly a large-scale occasion. At the end we reeled away, stirred by the old – but also dazzled by the power of the new. This new Spicer work is surely as powerful as his millennial Easter Oratorio which had its outstanding première at Lichfield Cathedral and has since been recorded (review).

A significant difference between Unfinished Remembering and Dona Nobis Pacem is that Spicer uses a libretto by one author whereas RVW drew on multiple literary sources for his commemoration, composed in 1936.

Shortly before he composed Dona Nois Pacem there had been something of a Great War nostalgia, beginning in the late 1920s, encompassing R. C. Sherriff’s jarringly truthful stage play Journey’s End, set in the trenches, Siegfried Sassoon’s unfolding memoirs, Erich Maria Remarque’s heartrending book All Quiet on the Western Front and Lewis Milestone’s ensuing film, which both chart the passage of patriotic German youth from schoolboy optimism to war-battered despair.

Vaughan Williams finds strength and meaning in Walt Whitman, his poetry all too conscious of previous wars, plus the Old and New Testaments, including biblical visions (Jeremiah, Micah, Psalm 85) of a time when conflict shall cease and lances be lowered.

 By contrast, Paul Spicer rests on just author for his stirring text: his collaborator, Euan Tait, seeks with various measures of success to fuse gratitude for self-sacrifice with ‘an act of remembrance, a soul’s battle, and a questioning of the life of our own time.’ Thus not all is immersed in the appalling years 1914-18. Rather, Tait also addresses the deaths of others – a 21-year-old German Jew executed for a courageous and desperate anti-Nazi plot; the pointless death of young Stephen Lawrence or that of Matthew Shepard, victims of racist and homophobic brutality respectively. Thus Tait generates a kind of counterpoint akin to David Pountney’s triple-layered text for his Royal Academy and Juilliard School student opera Kommilitonen! (the music there by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.)

These figures people, for instance, Spicer’s Dies Irae, a puzzling text (‘So what were all the Holocaust names? We cannot answer! How can we name them all?’ ‘I, the woman and my child, come to your door and ask, ‘Who do you think you are?’) The lines are often notably direct, sometimes almost deliberately elliptical. It is as if a mystery as mesmerising as the poetry of Mallarmé were being played out: not so much answers as puzzles.

Substantial forces had been amassed: the Birmingham Bach Choir, between 80 and 90 in number, were supplemented by the relatively newly-formed Birmingham Consort, many of whom have been or are members of the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. The calibre of the choral singing was impressive at every turn.

The chorus delivered the dramatic hubbub of the opening ‘Requiem’ – although this was a far cry (literally) from the usual sustained and sublime openings (Fauré, Duruflé, Verdi) to the Missa pro Defunctis. The next section (‘past the rebuilt village, past its children warned of wars’) began almost to sound like Whitman. The same is true of the start of the third-placed ‘Recordare’ – ‘Watching our enemies, All night so many gathered, like flames joining above our heads…’. And when the chorus interacted with William Dazeley, the sublimely effective baritone solo, seeming not so much to condemn the holocaust as to take responsibility for it, the dramatic impact was extremely powerful.

Why so? Apart from the charged content, Paul Spicer has shown before how he can manage or generate large musical forms. His Easter Oratorio, a work which alludes to and is arguably on a par with Tippett (here the end of the ‘Requiem’, where the two soloists meet, ‘The waters ruffle as the men pass over,…and part into unlived, childless lives’, has a strong Tippett feel), should frankly be a classic – and here, too, in Unfinished  Remembering he does not disappoint. The structure, partly though not entirely strengthened by some modifications to the last large section, the Libera Me, has the kind of driving intensity matched by dynamic contrasts and shifting emphases in the orchestra to make a weighty and satisfying whole. Like the earlier work, it would work well with any strong-ish choral society of large numbers, and would appeal both to the singers and to an audience.

The orchestral touches, some of them quite ingenious, keep appearing. We heard much fine honing, strong, reliable ensemble and some characterful solo playing from Warwickshire’s fine ensemble, The Orchestra of the Swan, a huge asset to music-making not just in the Midlands, but now nationwide. Witness the use of repeating bassoons over pianissimo strings (‘and you pray to us, oh my bleeding child and I whisper back: oh my shattered God.’) Or a hushed passing bell, later revived in a Messiaen-like passage (‘The law of love is perfect and revives our souls’) before the chorus launches afresh into a hymn sung in German. Or the exquisite playing of what sounded like unison clarinets for ‘In the deep of our beings God has set a pavilion for hope…’. Or, following another clarinet passage, set against pizzicato strings, a telling, almost RVW-like trumpet solo (‘That in some imagined judgement they might say to us: “We know you; we too fought not to lose our names, but to remember our humanity”). Trumpets reassert themselves midway through the ‘Libera Me’(’like a comet weeping firedust’), followed by timpani, double basses, then cellos yielding to upper strings. Part of the scherzo could almost be RVW, perhaps from A Sea Symphony, but not the most obvious affinity: it recalls the clustering, even cramped massed woodwind that works such strong, unexpected effects in his Eighth Symphony.

Thanks to the opera-informed artistry of William Dazeley and his lucid supporting soprano, Johane Ansell, sometimes deploying quite angular melodic lines, we are taken through a kaleidoscope of emotions too – isolation, desolation; the declamatory and inflammatory; shame and shuddering; stress and distress. It may be that the text veers a little too much towards the unpredictable, fuses too many strands, misses a moment of impact by the choice of an unnecessarily oblique or obtuse phrase. Yet it works staggeringly well in one key respect: there is the feeling of not just unease, but danger in the air. Battered by cruellest memories, we are reliving – just as Great War veterans, or Holocaust survivors, the bombed and the battered, the displaced and disquieted anywhere, must relive – the horrors of trauma, and seeking to preserve something, even some kind of ideal, from the rubble. ‘Who was the boy surrounded by hate and stabbed to death in our streets? What was his name? He was our dream architect…’. The endless questions boil down to one thing: a mutual, universal quest to discover our humanity.

 Is there just a little too much of this? For all the comments on larger structures earlier, might there be something to be said for a slightly shorter structure?  Looking closely at the later, or last, sections, a case might possibly be made. But nothing could detract from the massive impact this exciting new work made at its first outing. It’s a real boon for choral societies.

 In addition to Unfinished Remembering another, related collaboration between Paul Spicer and Euan Tait was unveiled. We heard the first performance of A Shared Singing, a stirring short song in which the Midlands Military Community Choir made its debut.

Roderic Dunnett

Details of Paul Spicer’s music can be found at www.paulspicer.com

Editor’s note. Normally Seen and Heard aims to publish reviews as soon as possible after the event concerned.  Unfortunately our reviewer Roderic Dunnettt has been unwell since this concert took place and unable to submit his review. We apologise to the performers for the unavoidable delay in publication.


Musicweb International 20.10.2014




©Adrian Burrows