• John McCabe
  • The Chagall Windows (1974)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Hallé Concerts Society

  • 3(pic)3(ca)3(bcl)3(cbn)/4.4.2+btbn.1/4perc/hp.pf(cel)/str
  • 30 min

Programme Note

When the Hallé Concerts Society approached me for a new orchestral piece for their 1974/75 season, I was delighted that they immediately accepted my idea for the fulfilment of the commission, because this enabled me to write a work that had been in my mind for a number of years. The title refers to Marc Chagall's stained-glass windows for the Synagogue at the Hadasseh-Hebrew University Medical Centre, Jerusalem, and the musical idea had been in my mind since the early 1960s, when I first saw coloured photographs of some of these magnificent windows. At first sight they conjured up vivid music ideas for me, and I have been waiting ever since for what seemed the right moment and the right opportunity to write the work that I felt I wanted to. I should add that when Granada TV heard about the forthcoming composition, they decided to make a documentary film about the whole process of writing the music and, as part of this process, they enabled me to visit Jerusalem and see the windows live, so to speak, before settling down to work; this visit was a most memorable and moving experience.

The twelve windows (which for me are masterpieces of visual art) depict the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob, and thus the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and they pursue a chronological course from the first-born Reuben, to the youngest, Benjamin. In my music I have adopted a similar form, and certain details in the score are directly related to pictorial details in the windows. For example, an important melodic element in the fourth section, Judah, is derived from a musical transliteration of the name CHAGALL, this particular window being the only one in which the artist has signed his name in Hebraic lettering, though in the orchestral work this particular idea (which culminates in a trumpet-fanfare treatment of it) recurs at the end of the work, again in the form of trumpet fanfare figures. Then again certain details of instrumentation were suggested by features in the windows, though I have naturally chosen only those that fitted in with my own basic musical scheme (and which I would probably have used anyway). But it must not be thought that the music is designed as "programme music" pure and simple; it is conceived along symphonic lines, with, I hope, a clear and logical outline to it, and it may well be that those listeners who expect each window to be depicted in clearly differentiated sections will be disappointed; they might certainly find it difficult at times to note at first hearing where one window ends and another begins, so to speak. There are, for instance, two substantial slow movements, grouping together the first three windows and, later, numbers 5-7, and the overall balance of the work shifts from a predominance of slow tempi to that of quicker ones.

It might be useful if I gave a sort of running guide to the music, however, for those who want to follow it and see how it related to the windows, though it should always be remembered that it is essentially an expression of my own subjective response to the windows rather than simply an illustration of them (and I shall be very interested to discover if other people share my own response to the windows or find that theirs is different). The music starts with Reuben, the first-born, a slow section which sets out in a preludial manner the main motifs which are varied and developed during the course of the work and which leads directly into Simeon, a dark and sombre Nocturne introduced by a cor anglais tune accompanied by muted brass chords. This window, like its predecessor, is blue in colour, but with more suggestions of violence and the anguish of Jacob's curse. The slow tempo is maintained to lead into Levi, whose tribe became the priestly guardians of the Torah and whose window is yellow and radiant; the music here omits strings and consists of gradually spreading brass chords surrounded by increasingly elaborate woodwind and tuned percussion textures. The tension is increased, to burst out into the fourth section, a fast movement representing Judah ("…like a lion's whelp…") and dominated by a pounding theme heard at the start and by the thematic idea derived from Chagall's name. After this full orchestral movement has reached its climax and died down quickly, harp and piano sweep into Zebulun ("…an haven of ships…"), whose window is a less powerful, more glowingly iridescent red than that of Judah. Here the music is slowly flowing, a chorale theme in cellos, horns and bassoons surrounded by elaborately decorated string chords. At the close, the music sinks to the first point of real repose in the work, for a cor anglais solo to lead into Issachar, a verdant green window depicting this peaceful, pastoral tribe. This slow section is marked particularly by a horn theme, chordal themes in woodwinds and strings, and flecks of colour from harp and celesta, and the slow tempo is retained, after a piccolo solo, for Dan ("…shall be a serpent by the way…"), where the music increases tension and menace, with its convoluted cello theme and inter-twining brass clusters. The pause that follows the climax is sharply broken by Gad, the warrior-tribe, a fast movement full of violent changes of instrumentation and dynamic and using more percussion than hitherto in the work. At the end the music gives way to the second point of repose in the work for the start of Asher, whose tribe, like that of Issachar, was predominantly pastoral and peace-loving. This movement, which is slow, is scored for strings only, unmuted soloists contrasted against the muted main body of strings, with the addition of a brief celesta phrase. It ends with a widely-spaced chord in the main body of strings, and this provides a kind of aural back-cloth for the next movement, a quick flickering scherzo for Naphtali ("…like a fleet hind…") in which the textures use solo instruments in a large-scale format against this softly sustained string background. Suddenly the music sweeps upwards to herald Joseph, the blessed, a movement which starts with contrasted brass and woodwind phrases and gradually builds up a wide-ranging string tune, a theme which in fact lies behind the whole score but is only here begun to be revealed fully. With a climactic change to a faster tempo for Benjamin, the various strands of the work (including the fullest statement of this "new" string tune) are pulled together. This tribe was fierce ("Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth") and heroic, and in the synagogue itself this window is placed at the corner of the square, being thus next to Reuben; the two windows have much in common, notably their predominant blue colour, and they emphasise the continuity of life and the unity within diversity, both concepts important in the windows as an artistic whole and, appropriately enough, both ideas which have long been an integral part of my approach to composition. The work concludes with a much louder and considerably varied treatment of the material with which it opened, and I hope that during its course the music conveys the sense of artistic stimulation that I experience when responding to these windows. I only regret that these notes, already long, are quite inadequate at discussing the often complex thematic relationships between the various movements of the work.
© John McCabe