Expanding our vocabulary

First please listen to this. It’s an extract from Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea, from his Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Listen in particular, if you will, to the section from about 2:07 to 3:07.

Not a happy man, Gesualdo. He had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his later life in increasing isolation and, it would appear, psychological turbulence. Even without knowing the details of his personal life, though–and they aren’t for the faint-hearted–you cannot listen to this piece without realising that this is a composer with something out of the ordinary to say.

And he has created a new vocabulary with which to say it.

His harmonic language is way in advance of his time and seems to belong more to the late 19th century than to the early 17th. It is not so much that he shifts between the major and minor keys, but that he fuses them into something more powerful and expressive than either would be on its own–and this in 1611, when the whole concept of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ tonality was only just starting to emerge.

It is still arresting in the 21st century–at least, it was when I heard the extract above earlier this month, for the first time in many years, played in Cardiff by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

We get used to our vocabulary, and with familiarity there is eventually contempt. Our shared language–be it of words or music–has lost its power to shock. We overuse superlatives to the point where we no longer have the words to express real extremes. Abbreviations and text-speak have sapped our routine communication of nuance. Muzak, based on bland, limited and undemanding harmonies, is a background noise, not something to be listened to with rapt attention. It is sometimes as if we have forgotten how to feel.

Not so in Cardiff on the evening of 8th January, though. The Gesualdo was played as a preamble to the UK première of John Pickard’s Tenebrae. From the starting-point of Gesualdo’s theme, Professor Pickard draws us into a soundscape of harmonic and textural richness, spinning about Gesualdo’s major-minor tonal axis, hurling his theme around the orchestra (as remarkable an experience spatially as it was musically) creating an irresistible centripetal force of tonality and texture.

In its harmonic vocabulary, it was at once familiar and new, taking me through doors that were first opened for me by composers like Bartok, Britten, Messiaen and Panufnik. It is in many ways a piece of opposites: there is an extraordinary moment about five minutes in, when the theme is being passed from one section of the orchestra to the next, often starting at a higher pitch than previously, but creating a sense of an inexorable downward pressure. Gesualdo’s emotional and psychological turmoil is writ large. All that from a simple (albeit a rich and expressive) three-note theme. I am still, nearly two weeks later, reverberating from the impact.

And from the impact, too, of Britten’s Violin Concerto, which followed it in the programme. Like Tenebrae it is a work of harmonic and textural tension. It is built upon the simplest and most familiar of motifs–triads and scales–but, where Pickard uses the semitone’s difference between major and minor as a unifying force, for Britten the semitone is (at least at the outset) the main source of ambiguity, friction and momentum. The semitone between major and minor, between tonic and leading note, between tonic and flattened supertonic, and above all between augmented fourth and perfect fifth–these all give the work its tonal instability, its momentum and its emotional charge. Listen, for example, to the majestic descending scale in the trombones, pushing firmly towards bottom A♭, but landing instead on A♮, against bottom G♯ in the bassoons, horns and tuba (19:33 in the following clip):

(Not the best performance I’ve heard, but it serves the purpose…)

Like Tenebrae, too, the Violin Concerto is a piece of opposites and contrast: not least the contrast in the first movement between the lyrical, tonally ambiguous first subject and the percussive, triadic second subject. The two themes meet again in the cadenza (15:20 in the clip above), the insistent pizzicato of the latter beneath the weeping lyricism of the former, as the soloist single-handedly does battle between these two conflicting forces. (Again, it was extraordinary to see the performance–I’ve known this piece for more than 25 years but never before heard it live, nor seen the tension played out in front of me.)

The augmented fourth–the tritone–is at the heart of the musical vocabulary of the Violin Concerto, as it is in so much of Britten’s music. But here it is not only the jarring, discordant tritone of the War Requiem, nor the reassuring pastoral Lydian fourth of the Serenade, nor the brash, joyous polytonality of the opening of Les Illuminations. No, here it has moments of all those, but it is far more besides–embedded firmly in the tonal language, acting sometimes as subdominant, sometimes as dominant, all the while expanding the tonal and emotional vocabulary of the piece. Listen to the trombones’ rising scale which opens the third movement, the Passacaglia (17:44)–starting out as a straightforward C minor scale, but turning on the G♭, the augmented fourth, to become something other.

It is here in the Passacaglia that all the ambiguities and tensions are pushed to their limits–and resolved. To me the two defining moments have always been, first, the soloist’s rising and falling scale, starting on the A♭ augmented fourth and ending with the dominant of A♮ (27:46 in the YouTube clip); second, the double-stopped, unison phrase towards the very end of the movement (30:23). The first doesn’t so much resolve the augmented fourth as a discord, as acknowledge and cement its place in the expanded tonal language. The latter is all about resolution–resolution of the conflict between the two opening themes and the inner turmoil of the cadenza (and notice how the augmented fourth, the G♯, is present as part of this resolution). And thus the final bars of the piece–an open fifth in the orchestra, D and A, with the soloist’s dying F-F♯ trill oscillating between major and minor–is no longer an ambiguity but a fusion, an acceptance that these two seeming contradictions can co-exist.

We need–goodness knows we need–ways of dealing with confusion and ambiguity and complexity, moral, ethical, emotional, spiritual. The world isn’t getting any simpler and neither are the dilemmas we face. We need therefore to look beyond the straightforward if we are to face them.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, just as Gesualdo was writing Tristis est anima mea, we had to do much the same thing. We were forced to relinquish a simplistic, earth-centred model of the universe–the Aristotelian model, based on an abstract philosophical ideal of perfection–in favour of the Copernican model, which acknowledged what appeared to be imperfection, but which ultimately led to the discovery of universal scientific laws far more powerful than anything the Aristotelians could conceive.

We have always turned to music to help us encompass our emotions and make sense of the illogical and the senseless. At a concert in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago, I heard two works which have deepened my capacity to do just that: my old friend the Britten Violin Concerto, wrestling with its embedded conflicts and leaving me with an enlarged sense both of tonal stability and of emotional resilience; and John Pickard’s Tenebrae, which left me feeling as if a god had opened his mouth and I had caught a glimpse of the whole universe.

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