Music for 9/11

Richard Blackford: has composed Not in our Time for the 9/11 anniversaryRichard Blackford: has composed Not in our Time for the 9/11 anniversary

Anniversaries are increasingly the very stuff of contemporary artistic programming. As we reel from the double Mahler anniversary – the 150th anniversary of his birth with the centenary of his death hot on its heels – an anniversary of far greater political significance looms on the horizon. It is a cliché to say it, but September 11, 2001, changed the world. None of what has happened since should detract from our ability to reflect upon the brutality and inhumanity inherent in what occurred on 9/11, nor upon our own recollections of the shock of the day itself. By chance I had a ticket for the Proms on 9/11. Like many other ticket holders, no doubt, I checked repeatedly during the day to ensure the advertised performance would still take place. It did. That fine pianist Hélène Grimaud played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto that night and I recall time seeming to slow, or even stop momentarily, as she came on to the platform, sat down and contemplated the keyboard for what seemed like an eternity before opening the piece. Ten years on, almost to the day, she is due back at the Proms, to play the same piece, with an American orchestra. The near-anniversary cannot have been lost on her.

In the interim, the most famous commemoration of the events of that fateful day has been John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which was premiered in 2002 and which has enjoyed something of a life of its own in the concert hall, as well as a hugely successful recording. In the UK, the most notable early response to the horrors of the attack on New York City was Living Voices, a work commissioned in 2001 by the BBC from English composer James Whitbourn. This piece was featured in the service at Westminster Abbey held in honour of the victims of the attacks. It features a text by Andrew Motion and the soprano saxophone that Whitbourn so often favours in his work. It has now been issued in a superb recording by Naxos. The piece is short, but haunting, its very fleeting nature somehow adding to its potency, even now. ‘A composer has to think carefully before making a work of art out of someone else’s experiences, but sometimes you have to respond when the invitation is made,’ says Whitbourn. ‘It means a great deal to me that it has now been recorded by an American choir, many of whom had personal connections with the event.’ Another piece that has been recorded is Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, which has been played by the Kronos Quartet in the USA and also at the Barbican Centre in London. The booklet for the forthcoming Nonesuch CD release of the piece was originally going to feature an image of the second New York-bound plane about to hit the World Trade Center, but that has now been changed after an outcry. Reich himself has commented that ‘as a composer I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them… so, with the gracious agreement of Nonesuch, the cover is being changed’.

The remarkable British violinist Daniel Hope is a force to be reckoned with in Germany, most notably at the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival, and he is never one to shy away from controversial political topics. Three years ago he organised a concert in the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the terrible Kristallnacht and, at this year’s Mecklenburg Festival, he is continuing his annual work with chamber musicians from New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, culminating in a concert on the evening of Saturday September 10. This is unusual: the Festival’s weekend concerts usually take place earlier in the day, to make travelling easier for concertgoers. This change, says Hope, underlines a ‘sombre approach’ to this commemoration of a terrible day, which will serve also to celebrate the often unspoken strength of the post war US-German relationship. The chief rabbi for the region, the wonderful William Wolff (who just five years ago acted as mentor for the first rabbis to be ordained in post-war Germany), will say Kaddish for the victims of 9/11 and the music will be interspersed with readings commemorating the events. The largest work to be performed will be Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, which, poignantly, was originally dedicated to those who died in the bombing of Dresden. An ensemble comprised entirely of the American musicians will perform Barber’s famous Adagio, which, says Hope, is ‘as ceremonial as one can get’ in this context.

Undoubtedly the most significant event in the UK marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 will be the world premiere of Richard Blackford’s Not in Our Time, written both to mark the centenary of the Bournemouth  Symphony Chorus and, in Blackford’s words, to tackle ‘the universal theme of how religion is used as a pretext or justification for war’. He believes that ‘there are villains on both sides’ in the so-called ‘War on Terror’, and ‘they are as bad as each other’. It is the first attempt I have encountered to set to music either the verbatim words of George W Bush or those of Muslim terrorists taunting the West in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers. The piece also features papal and other writings from the time of the Crusades, which remind us of how man’s savagery towards man stretches across the centuries; and also how spiritual sublimity and devotion can coexist with appalling acts of atrocity. ‘For Arabs,’ says Blackford, ‘the Crusades have never stopped’.

Blackford is one of our most celebrated and versatile composers. Like James Whitbourn, he is known as much for his television work as for his concert pieces, but this could well be the piece that truly establishes him in the concert hall. Like those other formidable English vocal pieces, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and Britten’s War Requiem, this work is unashamedly political and pacifist in its message. The idiom is certainly direct, and the piece has been crafted to move, not merely to impress (‘the most important thing is communication’). The US premiere will follow in May 2012, also to be performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. At the time of writing, I have seen only a vocal score, but if Blackford’s orchestration matches his thematic invention, the premiere, in Cheltenham Town Hall on the evening of Sunday September 11 itself, will be a very special occasion indeed.

Michael McManus

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014