Thursday, 19 July 2012

From bells to accordians

I do like the simplicity of the idea behind Arvo Pärt's tintinnabuli style. You start with a the tonic triad of a particular key, say F minor:
In a four-voice piece you will then have two of the voices sounding the three notes of the triad (F, Ab and C) and their part will consist of arpeggiated lines made from just those notes. The other two voices sing any of the notes from the scale of the tonic key, including those three notes - except for obeying the simple rule that the movement of those two voices must only proceed stepwise. They can, however, change direction - upwards or downwards - at will. The piece is thus rooted on and around a single chord and its various inversions. The effect is to compared with the pealing of bells - hence tintinnabuli from the Latin word for 'bell'. That may all sound very constricting, but the results can be rich, beautiful and expressive. Take Pärt's setting of the De Profundis for male chorus, organ and percussion for example. Tenors and basses emerge from the depths, crescendoing slowly against flickering figures from the organ, with barely audible drum beats and occasional chimes from a tubular bell, before fading back into quietness again and ending. Beautiful, isn't it?

Arvo Pärt is, of course, continuing the long tradition of setting Psalm 130, Out of the Depths. Having looked at Renaissance and French Baroque setting, I thought I might leap forward to settings by  composers written since the end of the Second World War (before moving back in time again in later posts). I think you will find that there is a great deal of variety out there!

John Rutter's Requiem features an English language setting of De Profundis as its second movement. It is one of my favourite Rutter movements. Forget about the John Rutter of the carols and all thoughts of sugariness. Here his style sails very close to Vaughan Williams at his most serene and the warmth of harmony and sound he draws from his forces (mixed chorus, solo cello, orchestra and organ) achieves a deeply consolatory effect. The solo cello's soulful pleading meets the beauty of a modally-inflected melody at the start is immediately winning and the composer certainly knows how to write a radiantly tonal climax. 

Now, if Arvo Pärt and John Rutter take a solacing view of the text of Psalm 130, the same cannot quite be said of Arnold Schoenberg, whose unaccompanied choral work De Profundis, Op.50b encompasses all the moods of the psalm, including anguish. There are many contrasts of texture, usually proceeding simultaneously, with solos, duos and full 6-part choral writing. Most of the music is sung but against these lines are counterpointed chanted phrases, cries, whispers (Sprechstimme), very effectively - as if many voices are crying out from the depth, in whatever way they can. Listen out in particular for the gorgeous passage (setting "My soul waits for the Lord", beginning at 4.10 into the linked video) where Schoenberg's writing becomes almost Brahms-like. Yes, the piece is twelve-tone and, thus, atonal, but the harmonies often strike a passing tonal note and you can feel as if you are hearing tonal music where the keys are modulating so fast that the mind cannot catch them. The setting is in Hebrew. The composer dedicated the piece to the newborn State of Israel. If performed with passion, this piece can really hit the spot. (Dry performances do it no favours). I love hearing it. 

Krzyzstof Penderecki's Symphony No.7Seven Gates of Jerusalem (a cantata/choral symphony written in honour of Jerusalem) features an a cappella movement called De Profundis that seems to me to contain clear echoes of the Schoenberg. His language combines (or juxtaposes) tonality with chromaticism and modality and has space for writing that comes close the the spirit of the gorgeous passage in the Schoenberg and other writing that nears the various Sprechstimme effects of that other piece. 

Naturally, there are also instrumental works that draw on the words of Psalm 130 for their inspiration. You might (or you might not) like to try Sofia Gubaidulina's extraordinary De Profundis for solo accordian, a piece whose opening certainly does evoke the sound of voices crying out of the deep. After a while you will hear a slow chorale. This begins to make repeated efforts to escape from darkness to light, from the depths to the heavens. In the end it succeeds. The range of sounds she conjures out of the instrument have to be heard to be believed. An organ could hardly do more. It's not always a comfortable listen but it is worth hearing and makes for a dramatic contrast to the Pärt piece with which this post began.

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