Rites of Passage - an introduction
Explore the music that Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing at our concert, Rites of Passage.
On 10 and 15 June 2021 Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra will present an evening that explores ancient and modern English music before the Glyndebourne premiere of Mahler’s 4th Symphony.
Below you can find out more about each of the works that they will be performing.
Don’t forget that if you can’t make it to the concerts in person, you can watch online via Marquee TV. This concert will be available from 4 July. Find out how to buy a season pass.
On 28 December 1694 Queen Mary II died of smallpox. Her funeral the following March was a magnificent state occasion, whose solemn spectacle cost a startling £50,000. Laid in state in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, the Queen’s cortege processed to Westminster Abbey to the strains of music by Henry Purcell.
The March that opens the composer’s sequence of Funeral Music is a sombre affair, whose brilliant trumpets are deliberately dulled by the C minor key. A stately pace is established in brass and timpani, whose dialogue grows from muted melancholy to a full- throated musical shout of grief as the music repeats and returns.
Just months later the March would be heard in the Abbey once again – at Purcell’s own funeral.
The same drum that sets the pace for Purcell’s March turns musical high- priest in Harrison Birtwistle’s Cortege. It’s a piece based on Birtwistle’s earlier Ritual Fragment, and that original title gives us a crucial clue to this strange musical rite in which 14 virtuoso instrumentalists arrange themselves in a silent circle.
Summoned into life by the drum, ten of these players take it in turn to step into the centre and offer up their intricate, wild solos, passing the song to another musician before returning to their vacated place in the circle. It’s a hypnotic visual and sonic ritual, which nods both to Christian burial traditions (Birtwistle describes each solo as a ‘flower’ presented by the musicians) and to older Pagan ceremonies, creating a mesmerising piece of true musical theatre that both describes and enacts something beyond words.
Old and new meet once again in dialogue in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The act of musical homage is embedded in the structures and genres of Renaissance music – from the parody masses that weave borrowed tunes into their polyphony, to the rich seam of ‘In Nomines’ – consort works that all share a single plainchant fragment.
In his Fantasia Vaughan Williams stretches the same tribute over centuries. Taking Thomas Tallis’s solemn, modal melody Why Fum’th in Fight? – one of nine Tallis composed for Archbishop Parker’s psalter in 1567 – Vaughan Williams blurs its stern outline, softening and bending it into something both larger and less earth-bound. Intricately layered orchestration – string orchestra, a smaller ensemble of nine strings and a solo quartet – doesn’t just mirror the call-and-response of a cathedral choir in its facing pair of stalls, it creates the illusion of haze, a shimmering halo of sound that seems to suspend the music in mid-air. Metre that shifts fluidly between time-signatures adds to this illusion of expansion and compression, generating a sequence of radiant variations on Tallis’s melody that swell organically, imperceptibly out of one another.
After the three titanic early symphonies, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 represents something new. Gone are the vast statements, the battering musical force and scope, the tubas and trombones. In their place emerges something slighter, fresher, more innocent – a musical journey from earth to heaven, as seen through the eyes of a child.
Despite its traditional formal underpinnings, the first movement seems to unfold in a continuous rush of themes, a kaleidoscopic blur compared by the composer to ‘a dewdrop on a flower that, suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colours’. Sleigh bells draw us into a nostalgic wintery landscape, whose snows soon melt, giving way to music teeming with birdsong, voiced with captivating variety by the large woodwind section. A march is heard – the seed for the funeral march that opens the Fifth Symphony – but here there’s no menace, only the crisp tread of toy soldiers.
The second movement introduces a more macabre note into the wholesome fantasy. A solo violin is tuned up a tone, leading the orchestra in a pallid, unsettling sort of dance – a fiddler from beyond the grave whose wiry, spectral music promises to play the listeners ‘up to heaven’, but also contains the implicit threat of hell.
But consolation is at hand in the slow movement, where we first glimpse the celestial world the symphony is reaching towards. We’re gently enveloped in a radiant, slow-building theme in the strings, presented over a steady pizzicato heartbeat of a bass line. The oboe introduces a second, more melancholy melody – a musical foil which alternates with the original theme in a sequence of variations that climax in a blazing moment of brass and timpani, before we find ourselves back in the musical world of the start – unsure exactly where we have been.
The revelation comes in the final movement, where the symphony’s secret – a song, ‘The Heavenly Life’ – that has been hidden in the musical detail up until this point, now emerges clearly, sung in full by a soprano. The jangling bells and graceful woodwind all return to embellish this innocent vision of heaven. The child imagines a blissful life of feasting, dancing and delight, and the music willingly follows his imagination, soaring upwards into E major light, leaving behind both the world and the tonality of the start.
Written by Alexandra Coghlan, Glyndebourne’s opera content specialist
Image credits: LPO, photos by Benjamin Ealovega |LPO concert, Festival 2021, photos by Richard Hubert Smith