Commissioned by Independent Opera at Sadler's Wells. First performance 11th April at the Barbican Centre, London by Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices (director Eamonn Dougan), with Kelly O'Conner (Mezzo-Soprano) and Tobias Greenhalgh (Baritone), conducted by Natalie Murray Beale.
It was commissioned in celebration of the public unveiling, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, of one powerfully symbolic object in particular. Queen Victoria’s coronet was gifted to her by Prince Albert who included, significantly, details from his own coat of arms in its design. Victoria wore it while sitting for Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s famous portrait of 1842, an image of the young queen that became iconic, hanging on civic walls across the length and breadth of the burgeoning empire. She wore it again in 1866, when, reluctantly persuaded out of deep mourning for the state opening of parliament, she placed it atop her widow’s cap in poignant homage to her beloved husband. Here is an inanimate object that encapsulates the story of a tempestuous, intense and ultimately tragic love affair. In turn emblem, icon, talisman and relic, it is imbued with significance and meaning, holding within itself echoes of profound emotion and experience, symbolising the sweep of history and the lives of the people whose paths it crossed.
And, of course, Victoria and Albert’s is not the only story the coronet has to tell. Each precious stone, every one of the two thousand diamonds and eleven huge glowing sapphires that make up this extraordinary piece of jewellery has its own provenance, stretching back hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The gems were taken from the royal collection & repurposed for the occasion by the ever-industrious Albert. Prised from their previous settings and recut by Albert’s craftsmen, we now have no way of knowing exactly where they came from, who their original owners were, through whose hands they passed on their journey from the mines of India, Afghanistan, South Africa or Brazil, to the London workshop of Joseph Kitching esq., but we can be sure that objects of such value held great significance and all kinds of meanings for the many people who interacted with them.
In choosing to set texts that span the ages and continents I am attempting to mirror the multitude of stories encapsulated both in the coronet itself, and in the wider collection of the great museum in which this important piece now resides. The way in which I have ordered the poems, and the choice to set them for two solo voices – a mezzo soprano and a baritone – is intended to suggest the coming together of a man and a woman, the flowering of their love for one another, the tragedy of bereavement, and a long twilight of extended mourning. All eight poems are by women. The earliest is over three thousand years old, the most recent from some time in the nineteenth century. The English translations are mostly by the brilliant American poet, Jane Hirshfield, and all are taken from her two wonderful anthologies: Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994), and The Ink Dark Moon: Love poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990). I am extraordinarily grateful to Jane Hirshfield for allowing me to use these exquisite poems which speak to us from across the ages with a profound immediacy. The cultural diversity of the source texts contrasts fascinatingly with the universal humanity of the emotions expressed. I wholeheartedly recommend anyone to read both these collections and Jane Hirshfield’s own poetry. Her work has been an immensely valuable inspiration to me.
The cantata has an appropriately regal opening. I fell because of wisdom sets words taken from the Kebra Nagast, an ancient Abyssinian chronicle of the Ethiopian royal lineage and is sung by the mezzo with choral interjections. The two fragments of text are attributed to Makeda, Queen of Sheba and recount her meeting with King Solomon. This ‘great lover of women’ tricked the beautiful virgin queen into his bed, but Makeda delighted in her ‘fall’. The sacred wisdom that she received from knowing Solomon in body as well as in mind benefitted her entire kingdom. Makeda asserts that the achieving of full wisdom requires decisions outside of conventional morality, while the chorus sing a hymn of praise to the merits of wisdom and celebrate their queen’s actions.
The second song introduces the baritone for the first time, singing with an elemental ardour that contrasts with the spiritual serenity of the mezzo’s Makeda. The great sea sets words by Uvavnuk, an Iglulik Inuit woman of the nineteenth century. The legend contained in Knud Rasmussen’s Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924, Volume 7 recounts that one night, having been struck by a meteorite, Uvavnuk, without knowing what she was doing, began singing this verse. The villagers that Rasmussen met held her memory in great reverence, explaining that “the spirit of the meteor had entered her and made her a shaman.”
With the third movement the music takes on a nocturnal air and the baritone’s singing shifts to become more sensual and intimate. Before there was a trace of this world of men is a song of reverential praise for the Beloved with words by Bibi Hayati, a nineteenth century Sufi noble-woman from Persia, whose passionate and mystical writing blurs the line between love poetry and sacred verse. Her work also forms the basis of the next song, Is this darkness the night of power? Here the mezzo returns and the two solo voices are heard together for the first time in an exuberant and muscular duet, which finally transforms into an ecstatic hymn for choir alone: All things are too small to hold me. This short metaphysical poem is by the thirteenth century Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp. Hadewijch was a Beguine, a member of a semi-monastic lay order of women that existed outside the direct control of the established church and was renowned for the mystical visions of its adherents who are sometimes credited with inventing the first European women’s movement.
The sixth song combines two poems: True love in every moment praises God by Mechtild of Magdeburg, another thirteenth century Beguine, and Come, my beloved, an extract from the section of the biblical Song of Songs attributed to a woman known as the Shulammite, The calm confidence of the duetting couple, celebrating the coming to full fruition of their relationship, is accompanied by a processional hymn from the chorus, praising the many forms of love.
The final movement finds the mezzo left alone on stage singing a selection of fourteen tankas by the medieval Japanese court poet Izumi Shikibu. The bravery and unflinching honesty with which Shikibu writes of her grief following the death of her lover Prince Atsumichi seems profoundly, almost shockingly modern and speaks to us across a thousand years of history with extraordinary directness. The final tanka, written at the beginning of her relationship with the prince, was the genesis of the entire piece. It was the first text I found that I knew I wanted to set to music, and the one that led me to all the others. This is a sublime and beautiful piece of wisdom that we would all do well to observe.
Programme note (c) Joby Talbot, February 2019