Sunday, 28 February 2010

Cantus firmus - The Enduring Melody

Recently I posted on Michael Mayne's, This Sunrise of Wonder. Having read Jim's post on Mayne, and also Glen's on Musical Church I want to follow it up with a further book I've just read by him.

The Enduring Melody, his final book, is a journal begun at the time of being diagnosed with jaw cancer and published just a few days before his death. The bulk of the book is entitled, 'The Questioning Country of Cancer'. But there are two preceding chapters, one which is a reflection on aging, and the other, which is the theme of the book, the cantus firmus, which is the Latin for fixed melody, or enduring melody. In the introduction he says, ‘From that icy moment of diagnosis, when you know that everything has changed, I recognised ... that this would prove an unwanted but important test of the integrity of what I most deeply believed, both as a human being and as a priest: a kind of inquest on all those words spilled out of pulpits or in counselling others or at hospital bedsides. A few months earlier I had attempted to tease out what I had come to think of as ‘the enduring melody' of my life. This was the time to see how well it would stand up to the fiercest scrutiny.'

The theme comes from ancient music, plainsong, in which the cantus firmus is the basic, or fixed melody line around which counter melodies are sung.

Mayne wasn’t the first to explore this.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison writes, ‘God requires that we should love him eternally with our whole hearts, yet not so as to compromise or diminish our earthly affection, but as a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. ... where the ground bass is firm and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits. ... only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness, and assure us that nothing can go wrong so long as the cantus firmus is kept going. ... put your faith in the cantus firmus.Craig has done some fine work on this, some of which emerged in his Whitley Lecture.

For Michael Mayne, the cantus firmus, the enduring melody, is what he built his life on, the truths that lie not at the surface but at the deep centre, truths that have been refined and pruned over a lifetime. I'm drawn to the idea that each person is developing the enduring melody of their life. For some, the basic melody is still being written, for others there are already numerous improvisations and more being written. 

Michael Mayne speaks of Jesus Christ, ‘that solitary figure [who] stands at the heart of my own cantus firmus.’ I guess that the apostle Paul says something similar in his cantus firmus, ‘For me to live is Christ’. Glen is suggesting something similar, though helpfully in the context of community where there is enormous scope for improvisation around the cantus firmus.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Resurrection at the Royal Festival Hall

On Thursday evening Cazz and I travelled from Milton Keynes to the Royal Festival Hall to hear a performance of Mahler Symphony No. 2, 'The Resurrection', performed by the Philharmonia. Last Saturday, drinking coffee in MK and reading the paper, I saw that it was happening, we had nothing planned so decided to go for it!

I love the music of Mahler. For me, it embraces the whole of life. It is epic and miniature, tragic and comic, grotesquely ugly and sublimely beautiful, extravagant and sparing, it is deep and kitsch, everything between, and more.

While not his largest scale work, the Second Symphony comes close. It requires a large choir, two female soloists, an enormous orchestra including two harps, two sets of timpani, four percussionists, six trumpets, seven horns, six clarinets (including Eb and bass), two off-stage bands, and last but by no means least, an organ.  It isn't cheap to put on and therefore not a frequent occurrence.

I guess even an ordinary performance is pretty dramatic, and at an hour and a quarter it's not short.  The fifth and final movement has one moment when the choir makes its sung entry, and it should be as quiet as possible. And so begins the final build up, the ultimate resurrection, which concludes with all the musical resources going for it, and leaving you at the end thoroughly exhilarated!

It was a wonderful experience, with some outstanding contributions from the principal oboist, cor anglais player, flautist and piccolo player, and the trombonist made a sweet, sweet sound. Another striking thing was the gorgeous sound that the Philharmonia violins make. We could have done without hearing the conductor singing along, not very nicely, at certain quieter moments, but hey!

As we walked back across the Waterloo Bridge, gazing over the Thames at the enchanting capital, and frozen to the bone, I reflected how I repeatedly forget what the power of a fine live performance does for me. And not just Mahler, or indeed 'classical'music. I find it hugely life-giving. And last night, with such massive themes in the music of death, darkness, light, resurrection, humanity, God, it was something that deeply touched my soul and was more than just the tingle-factor.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth, and next year the 100th anniversary of his death, so we should be in for something of a Mahler-fest. Let's see what the Proms has lined up.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

John Dankworth

Just read on Sarah's blog, and the BBC website, of the death of Sir John Dankworth, the jazz legend, and founder of the Wavendon Allmusic Plan, which led to the establishment of The Stables in Milton Keynes.  Last night was the fourtieth anniversary celebration with an all-star line-up, at which the announcement was made at the end of the concert by Cleo Laine, John's wife.

A great man and a huge influence on Allmusic. May he rest in peace.