• Paul Mealor
  • Symphony No.1 'Passiontide' (2015)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • orchestra
  • SATB choir
  • Soprano and Baritone
  • 1 hr 10 min

Programme Note

The idea for composing a choral symphony goes back nearly twenty years to when I was a postgraduate student working in Denmark. I conceived, at that time, the idea of a single work that charts the many emotions and testimonies of those witnesses present at the time of the crucifixion. I did not, however, want to compose a narrative piece like the Bach or Arvo Pärt ‘Passions’. Instead, I wanted to create a work that is fixed in time, examining the crucifixion from many different perspectives. I wanted to explore the feelings of Saint Mary, of Peter, of Mary Magdalene, of Jesus himself and, ultimately, of ourselves.

It was not, however, until the illness and subsequent death of my grandmother that I was able to dig into my grief and find, at that time, the emotional strength needed to begin writing this work. The work was therefore a way of dealing with my grief, and a testament to my remarkable grandmother’s strength and deep Christian belief. As it took twenty years to complete, the work is also a record of my compositional development and, one might say, my development as a thinker and a Christian.

The symphony is divided into two main parts. Each part consists of an orchestral prelude that presents the main musical arguments of that section, and is then followed by a large choral/orchestral section (which itself is divided into many smaller parts) that seeks to shed light upon those musical arguments, develop them and draw some kind of conclusion from them.

The first ‘part’ begins with ‘Veiled Light’. Here, the motivic and structural seeds of the whole symphony are presented, including snippets of the plainchant, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ which pervades the harmony of the ‘Crucifixus’ in the second part of the symphony; the Advent hymn, ‘O come, o come, Emmanuel’ and ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ which form the melodic backbone of the Stabat Mater, and rotating ‘cross’ cluster chords which are built upon a foundational harmony of fifth, fourth and second chords that govern the harmonic language of the subsequent Stabat Mater.

Linking to ‘Veiled Light’ without a break, the Stabat Mater is divided into four ‘sections’ (that are performed attacca) and takes, as its text, the thirteenth century Roman Catholic sequence, "The mournful mother was standing", attributed to Pope Innocent III and Jacopone da Todi. This poem is a powerful and immediate meditation upon the sufferings of the Blessed Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Christ. As He hangs, dying on the cross, she shares His agony and His pain; however, the poem is also an offering of hope – hope that, through the sacrifice of Christ, we may all be free of suffering.

The work is constructed in an arch-shaped design with material being mirrored, stratified and transposed throughout. The first section is a prelude that is built upon a fragment of the plainsong Ave maris stella (Hail Star of the Sea, nurturing Mother of God). The plainsong is never explicitly revealed, but colours the harmony. As the movement comes towards a natural close, the music gently transforms into a lyrical elegy – a solo soprano offers up prayers of hope – and, for the first time, the orchestra enters, playing soft arpeggios (in my mind representing incense – a physical aid to prayer).

The third section is a kind of passacaglia with a number of themes overlapping, interweaving and commenting upon each other in a whirlwind of choral and pianistic virtuosity. This then gives way to the final section, a musical ‘summing-up’ of the entire piece. Material from all three previous movements is brought back in differing guises, until we reach a powerful climax. At this point, the full choir sings, ‘let my soul be granted the glory of Paradise’ – and, after this offering of hope and supplication, the work ends quietly with high voices and piano gradually dropping out, until only the tenors and basses, in their lowest register, remain.

The Stabat Mater is dedicated, in memoriam, to my grandparents with love and affection; the second movement being my grandmother’s song.

The second ‘part’ of the symphony begins with ‘The Way of Sorrows’. This is a prolonged processional marking the fourteen Stations of the Cross – a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion: Jesus is condemned to death; Jesus carries his cross; Jesus falls the first time; Jesus meets his mother; Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross; Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; Jesus falls the second time; Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; Jesus falls the third time; Jesus is stripped of his garments; Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross; Jesus dies on the cross; Jesus is taken down from the cross, and finally, Jesus is laid in the tomb. The harmonic language here borrows from the Stabat Mater but this time also predicts the Crucifixus. This is music in transition.

The Crucifixus (‘The Crucifixion’) which follows immediately, without a break, is a mediation in six parts upon the prophecy and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The text is taken and adapted from Peter Davidson’s powerful and beautiful poem of the same name, with the addition of three complementary texts: How Beautiful on the Mountains, O Sweetest Jesus and Drop, Drop, Slow Tears.

My Crucifixus begins with a setting of Isaiah 52:7, ‘How Beautiful on the Mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.’ Here, Isaiah predicts the birth of the Messiah – he, who would save the people of Israel. The meaning in this passage seems also to suggest this: Isaiah was describing the certain return of the Jews to their own land. He sees in visions the heralds announcing their return to Jerusalem, running on the distant hills, declaring that the long and painful captivity was closed, and that the Holy City and its temple were again to rise with splendour, and that peace and plenty and joy were to be spread over the land. My setting of this vision of hope and rebirth is accompanied by a solo cello singing the advent hymn, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel’. This, of course, is in allusion to Isaiah’s prediction that God would give us a sign, and He would be called ‘Emmanuel’ - God with us. The movement begins and ends with a plainchant, high in the strings, a re composing of the compline hymn, ‘Te Lucis ante terminum’ (at the closing of the day) which, suggesting Christ’s destiny and death even at His birth, becomes the harmonic and melodic backbone of the entire work.

The Second meditation, ‘Your Silence is Stillness’ presents the scene of our Lord on the Cross, injured, silent before the hour of his death. This gentle, choral hymn is accompanied by a canon of descending lines, representing the precious blood dropping. The music feels trapped here; ever decreasing, descending lines in the orchestra are detached from the choral part, swamping it at times. One brief pause is given as Christ himself speaks. This is set in Latin and as plainchant accompanied by a solitary bell. Even this, however, cannot stop the relentless march of time.

‘O Sweetest Jesus’ is a hymn of mediation and devotion, taking its text from the Roman Catholic prayer before a crucifix. For me, this is the most deeply personal part of my setting of the Crucifixus, and one which allows us to join with Christ’s suffering. Amid the anguish of the orchestral accompaniment, a solo violin offers a prayer of hope and light, recalling some of the melodic and harmonic material of the opening movement. Here, the descending lines of the second movement are transformed from fear and hurt to tears of compassion, love and hope as we all weep at the sight of Christ.

‘Drop, Drop, Slow Tears’ is a choral interlude which is sung without orchestral accompaniment. It is the emotional heart of the entire work, and sets Phineas Fletcher’s deeply moving poem which tells of the devotional Mary Magdalene as she uses her tears to wet and bathe the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:38). Mary’s great act of love and penitence frees her from her troubled life, and shows us all the beauty of redemption.

‘The Tree Takes Living Flame’ is an aggressive, tortured response to Christ’s treatment and final moments on the cross. An intense battery of percussion is set alongside virtuosic parts for strings and piano to create a whirlwind of emotion representing the tree (the cross) taking ‘living flame’ (washed with Christ’s blood). The choir also actually becomes ‘flames’ at various points, as some words are set in hocket between male and female voices.

The finale, ‘I Tend You in Paradise’ begins with a lament from Christ, ‘What have I done to you?’, but quickly moves into a long processional that brings all the other movements from the entire symphony together, leading to a rousing conclusion of ‘Alleluia’ (Praise God), before the final words from Christ, ‘Consumatum est’ (it is finished) and the music dissolves upwards. This quiet, gentle resolution brings the symphony to a close.

Crucifixus was commissioned by the Sound Festival and premiered on 11th November 2012.
It is dedicated to Professor Derek Ogston C.B.E.

Symphony No 1 ‘Passiontide’ (2009-15) is dedicated to James and Leslie Jordan and it was premiered on 19th November 2015.

Paul Mealor