Commissioned by Exultate Singers and conductor David Ogden.

First performed on 1 October 2023 at St Georgeʼs, Bristol.

  • choirchoir; org[pf]
  • choirchoir
  • 6 min 30 s
  • Jean Boyd & Beverly Mack and Nana Asma'u
  • English

Programme Note

Elegy for Fadima is a lilting and powerful 6.5-minute piece for double choir and organ/piano, commissioned by the Exultate Singers and their conductor David Ogden. The text comes from the Nigerian poet and Sufi Muslim scholar Nana Asma’u (1793-1864) with themes of loss (in this case the death of her niece, Fadima) and the omnipotence of God. The two choirs face each other to sing to reaffirm each other’s text, occasionally facing out together to address the audience.

It was quite by accident, whilst googling for some words for a Nigerian choral commission, that I came across the wonderful Nana Asma’u. Asma’u was an eminent and Sufi Muslim scholar living in Nigeria. Originally written in the Hausa language in 1863-4, Elegy for my Niece, Fadima struck me immediately with its intense emotional power and by how it would not be out of place in a Christian context, with its references to God and his influence over us all.

Composed at the end of Asma’u’s life, the poem seemed to me to oscillate between calmer spiritual acceptance and the agony of loss. With the approval of translator Professor BeverIy B. Mack, who co-translated this work with Jean Boyd, I took the liberty of rearranging the lines to create verses and a chorus. In its original language, much would have been made of end-rhymes but, with this beautiful but non-rhyming translation, I instead harmonized the ends of each line, with unison for the words preceding it.

For the music, I took inspiration from Professor Mack’s fantastic book and CD, Muslim Women Sing, and have incorporated Hausa-typical call/shout and response patterns for the verses which are also in an Aeolian mode. During the verses, the choir is split into two parts and they face each other to reaffirm thoughts and words.

The chorus is where all the intense emotion lies – the choir turn to face the audience, barely controlling their grief as the devastating words come tumbling out, with barely a chance to draw breath.

I am hugely grateful to Professor Mack for her help and guidance throughout this project. Also to Exultate Singers for commissioning me for a third time and giving me the opportunity to bring musical life to Nana Asma’u’s stunning poetry.

Roxanna Panufnik, 20 June 2023