• Michael Nyman
  • Symphony No 11: Hillsborough Memorial (2014)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • SA children's choir
  • soprano
  • 42 min

Programme Note

In early 1985 I was commissioned by the Festival de l'Été in Rouen to write an hour-long work for the soprano Sarah Leonard and the Michael Nyman Band to be performed in a 'deconsecrated' electricity generating station in Yainville in June 1985. I visited the venue (which, unlike Tate Modern Turbine Hall, had not had its turbines removed) and discovered that the reverberation time of the vast performance space was around 10 seconds.

Accordingly, the music I invented and 'found' for this work (the found music was the so-called 'Cold Music' from Purcell's 'King Arthur') needed to be harmonically slow, so that the acoustic would not confuse fast harmonic changes. I could have reverted to the overlapping harmonic practices of the multi-piano 1-100, of 1976 (which features in my 'Aztecs in Liverpool', my two-screen film commission from the Bienniale which is currently showing at the Walker Arts Gallery).

On 29 May 1985, whilst I was in the middle of writing 'Centrale Electrique' I sat down in front of a television to watch the Liverpool v Juventus Champions League match at the Heysel Stadium. In the days after the Heysel disaster I read not only about the deaths of 41 Juventus supporters but of the 'extended' effects these deaths had on the families of the dead. At that point ‘Centrale Electrique’ become ‘Memorial’, dedicated to the deaths of the Juventus fans.

Over the following few years Jayne Casey – who was then Director of Performing Arts at the Bluecoat Centre – and I failed to arrange a second performance of ‘Memorial’ in Liverpool. But since I felt that there was too much good music never to be played again I reluctantly decided to ‘asset strip’ the piece and to find new roles for some of the separate movements. One D major movement would become a song setting Rimbaud’s poem ‘L’Orgie Parisienne’ in ‘La Traversée de Paris’, a large-scale work commissioned to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution, while the Purcell-derived piece self-evidently found its way into Peter Greenaway’s film ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’. This has become well-known, confusingly, as ‘Memorial’ and some of the scenes it accompanies in the film have continued to embarrass me for the last 25 years.

On 15 April 1989, when I was recording the instrumental part of the Rimbaud song, I was constantly trying to catch radio reports on the two semi-finals being played that afternoon. For some reason I seemed never to be able to find out the score of the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest match during the recording breaks. Some hours after the recording ended I discovered why. For some years I felt partially ‘responsible’ for the Hillsborough disaster: during the first working of this musical material the Heysel tragedy occurred and on the very afternoon when I had taken the Heysel material ‘out of the box’ since the sole performance of ‘Memorial’ in Yainville, the 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough.

On 29 May 1996 I started compositing a piece called ‘Hillsborough Memorial’ in which the names of all the 96 were set as a new vocal line above the very same D major sequence from ‘Memorial’ that I started to record on 15 April 1989 and on 13 June 1996 Sarah Leonard and the Michael Nyman Band, as part of a Michael Nyman Band tour to coincide with Euro 96, performed Hillsborough Memorial on one occasion only, in Liverpool.

On 5 July 2014 ‘Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial’ is performed in Liverpool Cathedral on the opening weekend of the Liverpool Bienniale. This symphony ‘revisits’ both ‘Memorial’ and ‘Hillsborough Memorial’ and adds new material to fill the physical space and the emotional space suitable for such an occasion.

The first movement is a new presentation of the names of the 96 dead fans in ‘Hillsborough Memorial’. The second movement is a transformed version of a rejected aria, ‘I now know you are my son’, from my opera ‘Facing Goya’ (2000). The third movement uses numerical symbolism of ‘96’: there are a number of accumulative repetitions of a 4 bar phrase, made up of 3 chords: the number of bars of the entire piece consist of 96 times 3 divided by 4. And the final movement is a new version of the piece that has come to be known simply as ‘Memorial’.

And unspoken, unplayed, unsung, beneath the surface of this Symphony is the history of family pain and my personal anger with the corruption of the Thatcher government and her duplicitous police force.


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