The Cortège

Santarcangelo

This opens with "Free As A Bird”. It should really be “Flee As A Bird" from Psalm 11.1. My 78 record of Louis Armstrong’s “New Orleans Function" has the title as “Free As A Bird” and I’ve hung on to it. This hymn is one of the pieces traditionally played on New Orleans Funeral parades.

Having never had formal training in orchestration, I find arranging hymns exceptionally hard. I was trying all kinds of ways to arrange this when, at the last minute, The CortegeI went back to the basic three part harmony of the New Orleans front-line: clarinet, trumpet and trombone. The theme is played by four unison trumpets. Trombone and tenor horn play a harmony based on the line played by Jack Teagarden on the Armstrong record. I wrote a third line to be played by the four soprano saxophones, in unison - a sound reminiscent of the little, piercing Eb clarinets used in some street bands. I added a bass line for the tubas.

Some of the things that one wants to express, including many that I have tried to express in The Cortège, demand complexity. Hastily scribbling the parts out for “Free As A Bird” before a rehearsal,  I had no idea how powerful so simple an arrangement would prove to be. When arranging for the Orchestra, and writing, for example, lots of block chords for the four trumpets, I sometimes have to remind myself what a glorious sound can be produced by four trumpets in unison. Often, finding the simple, direct approach is the hardest, for improvisers and composers alike.

There are moments in the process of composition when one comes up against a simple truth. In an earlier composition, “Love / Dream and Variations”, the piece reached a rich harmonic tangle, and, wondering where to go next, I quite instinctively went into the simple major triad of the beginning of Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call". It felt so right that this blues became built into the composition. Similarly, in “Citadel/ Room 315”, a section called “View From The Drawbridge" resolved from a long passage of dense, multi-layered harmony, into a romantic waltz. Such things are not looked for or thought about, they just happen. “Free As A Bird" I heard on the radio years ago. It stayed with me over the years until I started working on The Cortège and tried to track down the Armstrong 78 (which eventually was found for me in the basement of Dobell’s, in Charing Cross Road). It is, for me, one such moment of truth.
In Viterbo, an old town in Italy, north of Rome, they have an annual street festival of Brass Bands from the region. The CortegeIn September 1979 the Orchestra was booked to play The Cortège, on a bandstand in the main piazza of the town - a concert memorable for chaotic organisation, an epidemic of sickness in the Orchestra, and scooters and cars buzzing by throughout the performance. I was also asked to help direct the Italian Bands in the festival. These ranged from bands playing dance music and primitive town bands, to a symphonic brass band and a huge Sousa- type marching band with about 100 drum majorettes. These bands (including our own Brass Band) paraded through the streets taking different routes, and arrived in the town square simultaneously, in a real life Charles Ives collage.

The square was solid with musicians and spectators and it was a great moment when the massed bands, about 200 musicians in all, played this four—part arrangement of "Free As A Bird”.

I dedicated this section of The Cortège to Santarcangelo. The 1978 Festival was directed by Roberto Bacci of the Piccolo Teatro di Pontedera and the climax was an anarchic procession of performers and spectators. The procession wound its way through the streets and piazzas of the town, up the hill to the old castle at the top, its drawbridge guarded by the awesome Kathakali dancers, in full costume. As we approached the castle, the air was filled with the sound of hundreds of swifts, circling and screaming in the evening sky. The passage of improvisation by the Orchestra that follows “Free As A Bird" evokes for me that wild sound. Swifts have migrated from Africa every summer bringing that noise, like the highest harmonics on the saxophone, to the skies of Europe.

The CortegeInside, the castle keep was a quiet sanctuary, open to the sky. Actors and musicians gathered there. We climbed onto the battlements and, with flares shooting all around us, played a long version of ‘Jackie-ing”, by Thelonious Monk, to the crowd outside the walls. Eventually, we left the castle and played in a breakneck retreat down through the town, where the crowds dispersed.

The interlude in the keep was a kind of sacred moment. I wanted to write a universal, spiritual piece of music at that point. Perhaps the traveller’s friends are at Córdoba, waiting for him but he won’t arrive. Or perhaps, after all, he will be able to join them. Kate’s suggestion of ‘Jerusalem" provided the answer. I have written many settings of William Blake poems, most of them suggested by the poet Adrian Mitchell. For that reason it seemed appropriate to use Blake’s poetry in The Cortège and, in particular, Hubert Parry’s setting of ‘Jerusalem", a hymn that so many people sing as children, and that retains a special significance for them all their lives. Phil, with his Welsh choral antecedents, particularly loves the hymn and sings it here.

I wanted somehow to relate ‘Jerusalem” to the texture of The Cortège, rather than including it in a way that might have been rather arbitrary. I found that I could set the vocal melody over modal chords with a pedal F throughout, instead of the usual bass line. The second verse I arranged a la Parry, and was pleased to find in the intro to the second verse a chord of D major over a Bb root that was exactly like some of the hybrid chords I had already come across in The Cortège. At the end of the song the final F is sustained by tubular bells and trumpets, over a passage of shifting chords, on the nine-note pattern, with which I wished to weld ‘Jerusalem” back into the composition.

In the original performance of The Cortège, ‘Jerusalem” came at the end, and the work concluded with a resounding F major chord. The song needed integrating into the work. This was my reason for moving it earlier and weaving it into the   texture of The Cortège.  

A short interlude “Dawn", principally for piccolo, cello, and sopranino saxophone, follows. This was originally part of the score for a BBC TV film ‘Caught On A Train’, directed by Peter Duffell. One of the most beautiful   passages in the film is a bleak, dawn I sequence as the train races through s the German landscape.

This section and the chord passage which precedes it, were both later additions, to the end of ‘Jerusalem”. With this short   interlude, starting with piccolo alone, there is a feeling of the first bird of the day to sing, or the first instrument to play.

The day begins, but this is not like most other days, it is a day when musicians from all countries are flocking into the town, to form a great parade. First there is “Piped Music”, a folk-like rhythm in 11/ 8. The CortegeAt Santarcangelo I was told that, on one of the days before we arrived, as part of a musical animation of the town, all the shepherds from round about came in and played their pipes. I didn’t hear this, but I suppose the thought of such a thing happening was enough for me to get the idea. 
Kate speaks the poem "L’amore de li morti” over the rhythm. For the choice of this poem I am indebted to Iain Crawford, who was publicity manager of the Edinburgh Festival at the time we played The Cortège there. Meeting him some months before in Jerusalem, where he was attending the same Spring Festival in which we were appearing, at the invitation of the Festival director, Avital Mossinsohn, I was able to talk to him about The Cortège. Iain is an Italian scholar, and back in England we received from him a number of Italian poems, of which “L’amore de li morti” immediately caught our imaginations. In Santarcangelo in 1980, where we performed this piece, we were able to find out more about Gioachino Belli. He was a priest/ poet in 19th century Rome whose radical politics annoyed the Pope. In an ironic piece of containment, the Pope put him in charge of censorship: he even had to censor the operas of Verdi.

The vocal is followed by Phil Todd’s tenor saxophone, in an improvisation that in this context expresses some affinity with traditional piped music. As the streets gradually fill with music, so the "Follk” band is confronted first by a group playing “Dirge” and then another playing "Didn’t He Ramble”. (This sort of thing happens all the time in street theatre events, and I remember in Santarcangelo, while playing a jolly Dixieland number, coming across a deadly serious troupe of actors bearing a symbolic hearse, chanting and rattling chains). "Didn’t He Ramble” eventually takes over. In the Armstrong version of “New Orleans Function", after his speech "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and the wails and moans of the All Stars, Louis says “the snaredrummer takes the handkerchief out of his snare, the relatives all form a line and swing back to town playing ‘Didn’t He Ramble’.”
This piece is credited on the record to Will Handy who was one of the first to write down and to copyright a lot of the blues and early jazz music of New Orleans. Karl Dallas says that it is probably derived from an old Derbyshire song, of witch / cult origin.

Out of the tangle of street music escapes the single thread of Georgie Born’s cello, in an improvised cadenza. This refers back to the Santarcangelo event, where the final approach to the castle was very narrow, and the way barred by an almost impenetrable web. From the tumultuous pressure of the multitude, one suddenly found oneself alone, like Lorca’s rider, for the final stretch. 


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