Richard Blackford



"Richard Blackford, whose intensely beautiful large-scale work Pietà has just had its première at The Lighthouse Hall in Poole, Dorset, is a composer utterly unfazed in writing music for large choral forces."

Roderic Dunnett for Church Times
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Programme Note

When I mentioned to a friend that I was setting the Stabat Mater he replied that one of the inherent dangers of that famous Latin text is the composer being faced with writing up to six slow movements in succession. Not an unreasonable point – but then the Stabat Mater, when used liturgically, was intended as a meditation on the grief and loss of Mary, mother of Jesus, as she cradles the body of her crucified Son. Furthermore, it was intended as a means to contemplate how, through Mary's suffering and Jesus' sacrifice, we too might be redeemed and attain Paradise. Many of the 250 or so settings from the 15th-21st centuries are indeed predominantly slow, contemplative music. It was only when I came across four poems of Anna Akhmatova in her cycle Requiem that a completely different approach occurred to me. Akhmatova's husband was taken and "disappeared" by Stalin's KGB, then her son was also arrested, and she was convinced she would never see him again. In her Requiem she writes: "For seventeen months I've pleaded, pleaded that you come home, flung myself at the hangman's feet for you, my son - for you, my horror." This seemed less like the contemplation of the grieving mother, but more like an expression of her rage, and it lent an entirely new dimension to the Stabat Mater theme. In another poem Akhmatova imagines the moment of Christ's death: "A chorus of angels sang in that momentous hour, and all the heavens dissolved into fire." This did not feel like the saccharine angelic chorus associated with Hollywood epics, but rather an utter cataclysm of choral sound. Were the angels of Akhmatova's poem perhaps avenging angels, or ambiguous celestial beings, like the terrifying Angel in Tony Kushner's play Angels In America? Was their chorus more of a howl of anguish at the sight of God's Son on the Cross? In my setting of Akhmatova's Crucifixion, the wordless chorus accompanies the baritone a capella throughout, starting softly but rising to a triple fortissimo cry, with sopranos rising straight up to top B-flats. The Akhmatova poems fundamentally changed my approach to setting the Stabat mater text. From the choral outburst in the first movement, "O quam tristis," I wanted to grab the listener by the throat, to not let up on the intensity and drama of this incredible, timeless poem. My setting does indeed contain a great deal of fast music: the Pro Peccatis Suae Gentis, the graphic description of Christ's flagellation, is marked furioso; the first Akhmatova poem is marked Allegro assai; the Flammis Ne Urar Succensus is marked Vivo, then Allegro molto. Even the Andante movements contain rapid accelerandi and huge choral climaxes, such as the unison cry of "Eia" at the end of Eia Mater, Fons Amoris."

I chose the title Pietà after re-visiting Michelangelo's incomparable, eponymous statue in St Peter's, Rome in 2017 with my wife Clare. Although I had seen it many times when I had lived in Rome, it was the luminescent beauty of the marble that struck me this time. How could something so sad, so poignant in its expression of a mother's grief for her son, be at the same time so beautiful, so inspiring of hope? Returning to the composition, I concentrated on the lyrical, tender moments in the poem that are like oases in the scorching desert of grief. I thought not only about bereaved mothers, but the children of those mothers. In all three of my large-scale choral works I incorporated parts for children's choruses, and in Pietà the voices of innocents, often the victims of warfare and strife, deserved a place. Children's voices are featured in the opening of Part II: Sancta mater, istud plagas, and the sonority of their voices augments the main chorus in the a capella "chorus of angels" movement as well as the closing moments of the work. In that final movement, which starts with a tumultuous evocation of The Last Judgement (the Stabat Mater equivalent of the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass) the entire vocal forces, including both soloists, join in a sustained rhythmic fugato over pedal bass in a passionate, determined plea to be admitted to Paradise. It felt to me, re-reading the poem, that if the content of the Stabat Mater is faced unflinchingly, the vision of Paradise is earned. The closing bars are finally soft and consonant, with the soprano saxophone, which is given an obligato role in several of the movements, gently soaring over the hushed choral and string texture. The saxophone, as the third soloist, represents for me the wordless voice of Mary, like an ancient musical shawm in its upper register, but also creating a modern instrumental dimension, very close to the sound of the human voice.

I divided the combined Stabat Mater and Akhmatova texts into three main parts, preceded by an intense string prelude that sets the tone for what is to come. The predominantly dark tone of Part I is contrasted with the gentler children's chorus that opens Part II and the four Akhmatova poems that follow. The turning point, at which light and hope begin to suffuse the work, occurs in Part III, in the middle of Mov. VIII Fac me tecum pie flere, where the saxophone introduces a soft melisma that is taken up contrapuntally by the choir with added solo violin and solo cello parts interweaving with the saxophone, strings and singers. When I started composing the Stabat Mater I realised how hard it is to set, and that the material is not for the faint-hearted. The poem is tough, the images are raw, it is unrelenting in its evocation of grief. Yet the poem offers moments of great tenderness and beauty. It is the delicate balance of emotional extremes, of crisis and the hope of salvation, that I tried to reconcile in the course of the composition.

I am indebted to Carolyn and Sandrey Date and the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, who co-commissioned Pietà, George Vass, my wife Clare, my publishers Antony Smith and Adrian Farmer at Nimbus Music Publishing, the Nimbus Foundation and the conductor Gavin Carr, to whom Pietà is dedicated, for their belief in this project and for their friendship, kindness, encouragement and support.

Richard Blackford 2019

"The entire work has a filmic, visual quality with its gripping narrative and vividly descriptive scoring."

The Cross-Eyed Pianist
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