Nico Muhly: Our Present Charter

Nico Muhly: Our Present Charter

The world premiere of Our Present Charter by Nico Muhly will take place on December 18 as part of the Temple Winter Festival held at Temple Church, London. The sixteen minute work is scored for SATB chorus and organ, with soloists and treble semi-chorus drawn from the main choir.

The new work is included in a concert to celebrate Christmas and the forthcoming Magna Carta celebrations in 2015. Temple Church Choir and Temple Players, with organist Greg Morris will be directed by Roger Sayer. The programme also includes works by Benjamin Britten, John Rutter, William Walton and Eric Whitacre. The evening is presented by Temple Church and Hazard Chase in Association with BBC Radio 3.


Our Present Charter is a four-movement work designed for the Temple Church in London to celebrate the sealing in 1215 of Magna Carta.

Nico Muhly says:
After a slightly mysterious introduction, the first movement sets, in a declamatory and straightforward fashion the purpose of the Magna Carta. The second movement sets, over a sequence of drones in the organ, the text “Thy kingdom come, O God!” by Lewis Hensley (1824-1905). Baritone, alto, and treble solos declaim the text, and the rest of the choir echoes certain words and syllables, creating a halo around the melody. All the voices join together towards the end of the movement in a strange parody of Victorian hymnody. The textures then dissolve until only the three soloists are left. The third movement sets the Beatitudes, but here, the music is mechanical, obsessive, and repetitive. The organ is in near-constant motion and the voices function almost percussively, repeating the word “blessed.” Eventually, the well-known text emerges in the in the basses and trebles, but we are always aware of the constant unfolding of a process that supports Christ’s words. Whereas much of Our Present Charter borrows from Britten, this movement in particular references rather explicitly David Lang’s music, particularly his exquisite little match girl passion from 2008.

Part of the brief I had from the Temple Church was to have a movement be entirely unaccompanied, and, strangely, it is the fourth and final movement here that is sung a capella. It sets MC 39-40. Here, a semi-chorus of trebles and altos sets up a gamelan-like “open” sonority of repeated cells on the text “to no,” over which the full choir intones the text in a simple, declamatory fashion. At a certain moment, the text switches suddenly, and the mechanism of the trebles goes wild: each singer intones a phrase in Latin at his own pace, resulting in an infinite chattering — a known chord, but with a complicated, ecstatic content. The piece ends with a simple recapitulation of the “open” texture from the beginning, and eventually fades away.

FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our
Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and
Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and
our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of
Us and our Heirs for ever.
(Magna Carta)

Thy kingdom come, O God!
Thy rule, O Christ begin!
Break with thine iron rod
the tyrannies of sin!

Where is thy reign of peace,
and purity and love?
When shall all hatred cease,
as in the realms above?

When comes the promised time
that war shall be no more,
oppression, lust, and crime
shall flee thy face before?

We pray thee, Lord, arise,
and come in thy great might;
revive our longing eyes,
which languish for thy sight.
(Lewis Hensley, 1867)

Blessed are the poor in spirit:
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek:
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness:
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the mercyful:
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peace makers:
for they shall be called the children of God.

39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

What is Magna Carta?
Magna Carta (Great Charter), also called Magna Carta Libertatum or The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, is an Angevin charter originally issued in Latin. It was sealed under oath by King John at Runnymede, on the bank of the River Thames near Windsor, England, on 15 June 1215.

Magna Carta was the first document imposed upon a King of England by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights. The charter is widely known throughout the English speaking world as an important part of the protracted historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond. The 1215 charter required King John to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary—for example by explicitly accepting that no ‘freeman’ (non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right that still exists under English law today.

The Magna Carta influenced common and constitutional law, as well as political representation and the development of parliament. The charter's ideals of democracy, limitation of power, equality, and freedom under law is marked by monuments and commemorative symbols at Runnymede.

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