There’s no doubting the thrill of hearing a pot-bellied orchestra going for climactic points in a score with all its might and dislodging the dust from concert hall rafters. Yet the other end of the textural spectrum can be equally telling. Mozart reminded us that silence is possibly the most powerful element in music. Equally magical are those moments when the layers in a work slim right down to a single line, instilling fear into anyone in the auditorium who might be thinking of releasing a good cough at that moment.
I recall the first time I heard a live performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (8.555869), in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The massed—and massive—ranks of chorus and orchestra were supplemented by two brass bands, positioned off-stage and halfway to heaven in that extraordinary auditorium. The cumulative power was impressive. Of equal impact, however, was that brief interlude when a solo baritone gives us a scene-setter about the ancient city of Babylon. Here was a simple story-teller who needed nothing more than his voice and a soapbox, something the Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz referred to when recalling his Egyptian roots.
“I think what’s always fascinated me,” Fairouz said, “is this concept of story. “You can walk on the streets of Cairo and find people reciting poetry out loud and people will be assembled around them in cafés, and people will be crying, moved to tears by this concept of reading poetry out loud; it translates very, very naturally into the recital.”
Maybe Walton was thinking on this wavelength when he wrote the unaccompanied interlude in his oratorio.
Audiences usually outnumber performers at a concert, but there was one extraordinary recital that saw a motley quartet of musicians (a pianist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist) playing before a literally captive audience. The occasion was the first performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (8.554824), given in Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp in Silesia, before an audience of 5,000 inmates. The work is deeply rooted in Christian spirituality, but one wonders if faith was at the forefront of the prisoners’ minds during the third movement, The Abyss of the Birds, which is scored for clarinet alone and features bird songs mimicking the fanciful style of a blackbird. “Will I ever again be able to hear the live sounds of a real blackbird?” That’s what would have been pressing my mind during those extraordinary eight minutes.
Second only to the opening of his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven is probably best known to Joe Public through the melody he penned for Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the finale of his Ninth Symphony (8.550181). This great platform for the brotherhood of man to shout its message from the rooftops starts, improbably, as a mere seedling; a barely audible whisper from the roots of the orchestra states the single-line melody that soon sprouts wings in the remainder of the movement and has continued to soar through history ever since. What, I wonder, went through the minds of those double bass players when, pianissimo, they sight-read Beethoven’s artless tune at the first rehearsal, giving birth to one of the most popular melodies of all time?
There was a time, of course, when a single-line texture was the norm. Mediaeval plainsong was the daily diet of religious orders during worship. If you’ve ever attended a plainsong service in a monastery, you will know the hypnotic effect that the unaccompanied music’s repetitive process produces (minimalism in all but name). Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th-century example of how women excel at multi-tasking, as suggested by her alternative names: “St Hildegard” and the “Sybil of the Rhine”. A German writer, composer and Christian mystic (to mention just three of her significant talents), she was a Benedictine abbess who founded two monasteries. Quite how she also found time to compose is a mystery, but you can sample a trip back in time to get a glimpse of her genius with O viridissima virgo (8.550751).
Finally, the anonymous Renaissance melody, L’homme armé (8.558057), the words of which translate as:
The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The original melody has turned out to be as well galvanised as the armed man himself, being called on even to this day to act as the basis for new works, witness this extract from Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man, A Mass for Peace, directed by the Welsh composer. There he is, our fabled armed man, at the start of the movement, still in single-line formation, continuing to demonstrate the power of one.