Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dies Irae - Notes

Commissioned by Sydney Philharmonia, Dies Irae for chorus and orchestra was premiered in truncated form by the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers and Orchestra on March 22nd, 2008 in the Sydney Opera House. The commentary below, originally a rubric for the singers, ended up being the official programme note.

In one sense, this Dies Irae is a strange, fantastical ritual. The opening melody in the basses is an idiosyncratic paraphrase of the Roman liturgy's eponymous chant and sets the tone for all that is to come. What's more, its stylised, segmented nature provides a formal template for the rest of the piece, a kind of theme for a set of structural variations. The subsequent fragmentation at both a local and broad level is meant to invoke an imaginary procession, stopping and starting its way through a series of mysterious ceremonial rites.

To a large extent, this procession follows the psychological narrative of the Dies Irae text, tracing a path through fear, awe, desperation and hope. But much as the mediaeval Church forced Friar Thomas's poetry into liturgical garb, this work imposes its own, albeit fanciful, ritual order. For instance, hooked onto the end of the opening gambit is an unexpected rendition of the last verse of the poem. These two rhyming couplets are believed to be late additions to the text, conspicuous in their contrast to the other three-line verses and presumably tacked on to make the whole more doctrinally acceptable. In this piece, I have taken their aberrant nature one step further, employing the last verse as a recurring musical and psychological refrain. The idea is to spread both its evocative image of the Day of Judgment and intrinsic hope of redemption throughout the work, rather than confining it to a few isolated moments. This creates an overarching sentiment not indigenous to the poem's original structure but certainly more in keeping with the ritual character I wanted to put across in this setting.

The notion of ceremony infuses Dies Irae in many other ways. For example, the refrain is first presented within the confines of a triptych (three "panels"), a static, stylised device common to mediaeval religious iconography. This atemporal form effectively encapsulates a series of moods or morals without implying a narrative trajectory, and I make good use of it in this work. It manifests itself in a number of different guises- refrain/opening fanfare, refrain (variable focus), refrain/opening fanfare; refrain/opening fanfare, horror, refrain/judgment; contemplation, declamation, beseeching; beseeching, declamation, contemplation; judgment, ecstasy, declamation. Elements of the triptych's personality are also found in the two-part phrase structure of the opening plainsong, which is a mainstay for much of the work. Similarly, both the triptych and chant's ceremonial aspects are reflected in the overall form, which is loosely palindromic (self-mirroring). It's as if the procession files in, makes its way to the focal point of the ritual- in this case, a state of quiet contemplation- and then retreats out of the hallowed space along the same path, reversing the order of ceremony.

But Dies Irae is not just ritual; it is also a psychological exploration of the Day of Judgment, or more accurately, a day of judgment. For despite drawing from religious doctrine both musically and textually, the work is not necessarily religious in nature. Rather, it concerns itself with the persona of the Dies Irae text, whose own internal struggle with impending doom, compelling in its own right, is entirely independent of the liturgical function imposed upon it. This extraction of the individual from the dogmatic might sound quite contemporary, but in fact is not a new idea. John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), is perhaps the most striking literary example of this kind of reprioritisation. In it, the protagonist, Satan, tempts Adam and Eve away from grace and in consequence is himself cast down. But the focus is as much Satan's personal and political conflict with God, and the empathy we are expected to have for this otherwise maligned figure, as it is a retelling of Genesis. My use of an extract from this poem is meant to symbolise the threat to self experienced by both Friar Thomas and Milton's textual personae, and more pertinently for the unfolding of the piece, to reinforce the former's hopes and fears with the latter's.

Of course, the words of the Milton text are entirely lost, as their consistent, fragmentary role in liberamente textures- that is, organised chaos- means they are essentially garbled, albeit artfully. Their spirit, however, is played out time and time again in the drama of the music. For in the end, this Dies Irae celebrates an individual, not communal day of judgment, whose tenets are not imposed externally, but rather deliberately and emphatically chosen in the cause of personal, personalised salvation.

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