In our programme for ‘Our World’, our summer concert on 2nd July, we continue the celebration of our precious world, which we set up last autumn with our performance of Haydn’s Creation in Durham Cathedral. From a colourful and vibrant setting of the first chapters of Genesis by Aaron Copland to an introspective exploration by Herbert Howells of the human mind as a home for ‘th’ infinite Creator’, this programme starts in the great outdoors of the narrative of Creation in the Bible, and works its way through mountains, rivers, light and darkness, into the humane, intimate experience of man in Creation.
Weir’s homage to the Highlands, a landscape poem for organ, Wild Mossy Mountains (listen out for crags, silver fountains, whistling winds and heather), is just as evocative in its modern musical take on landscape. It’s appropriate that this modernist exploration of landscape, in the first part of our concert, should culminate in the second performance of Janet Graham’s stunning setting of Gordon Hodgeon, The Light. Graham has composed well-spaced and fresh harmonic pictures that draw us through darkness to a glowing celebration of morning.
The part songs from Op. 104 by Brahms that we sing in the second half explore the feeling of being alive in a landscape that is full of hidden meaning. The harmonic pictures in Brahms’s late choral and solo songs hint at the way in which humans learn to reflect on their past, through landscape and memory. When we are alone, searching for answers, music intervenes through the evocation of the natural world around us: Brahms had a lifetime of musical experience behind him when he captured this feeling of the romantic individual in the landscape. In a real continuation of that romantic tradition, Gerald Finzi’s Clear and Gentle Stream asks questions about how we relate to our past and to our present, using romantically sculpted musical lines to describe the lost days of summer, keynotes of our experience of love and memory.
The House of the Mind reflects Herbert Howells’s mastery of the long lines and exquisite harmonies that choirs love to sing. This exquisite motet evolves at a stunningly slow pace. Its harmonies expand powerfully, allowing Beaumont’s poem to unfold its subtle exploration of the human mind, in a study of deep, quiet beauty.
The poetry that is set by Howells and Brahms asks: do we understand what it means to be blessed with minds that are capable of thinking through the implications of creation in all its complexity? Howells’s mindscape is a reminder of that most beautiful element in nature, catching a mood of wonder as we reflect on how our minds encounter the sheer breadth of the universe. ‘Say not that this house is small, girt up in a narrow wall.’ His long phrases and rich harmonies penetrate the mystery of how the world has evolved an organism that can make the effort of understanding and describing the universe.
The music we sing today celebrates our world in different registers. From Copland we move onto Weir, Graham, Finzi and Brahms, exploring the way our lives are affected by our encounter with the world. In its intelligent reflection on the universe, our mind gives the world many layers of meaning. When our minds encounter the world, Beaumont says (and Howells’s stunning music gives the right amount of time and depth to help us think through these complex ideas), the world is changed. It is no longer a rock in space; it is ‘our world’. We need music and poetry to help us understand what that means.
(c) Julian Wright, June 2016