The Transgressive Gospel
© Edwin Cowley LRPS
The Transgressive Gospel
commissioned by Spitalfields Music
composed and conducted by Michael Finnissy
Richard Jackson- voice
Kate Westbrook - voice
Caroline Balding - violin
Bridget Carey - viola
Patrick Jones - cello
Marta Janitorova - cimbalom
Mark Knoop - accordion
Philip Howard - piano
Spitalfields Music Summer Festival
Wilton's Music Hall, London
12 June 2009
The prophecy is fulfilled: a man is betrayed, executed as a common criminal, and resurrected from the dead. But this man is also believed to be the son of God.
Weaving together threads from 400 years of musical responses to this subject, Finnissy's raw and contemporary score is both brutally simple and richly detailed. Renowned jazz-singer Kate Westbrook joins Richard Jackson and Finnissy's favourite ensemble IXION.
I have tried to write this piece several times. Firstly in 1971, setting passages of St Mark's Gospel in German translation, interspersed with elaborate arias re-setting Passion texts used by Bach, Handel and Telemann. Failure. So l tried again 17 years later, this time in English and with no elaborate arias, but with (possibly congregational) hymns. Failure again, and in the meantime Christianity was virtually outlawed in academe, politics and the media - England became a 'secular society', except when everyone whizzes back into church and falls on their knees in response to celebrity death and large-scale disaster.
St Mark's gospel is generally believed to be the first. It is very direct and succinct, an indecorous patchwork with the quality of a newsreel. According to early tradition Mark was 'interpreter' to Saints Peter and Paul, both martyred. His text also reminds us that Christ, in fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy, was executed as a transgressor. Rimbaud's Season in Hell obviously echoes Christ's experiences, and I have had no hesitation in substituting his desperate and shocking words for the more familiar biblical ones.
Tyndale's English New Testament translation of 1526 was condemned as heretical, and he was hunted down and burned at the stake. His words, unaccredited, eventually formed the basis forthe 1611 version 'appointed to be read in churches'.
The transgressive texts (St Mark, Tyndale, Rimbaud and a few words from the Gnostic gospel of Mary Magdalene) are punctuated by three excerpts from George Herbert's cycle of poems The Church. These are just intense, which may make them aesthetically transgressive to modern cool sensibilities. The words, or - more accurately - their (possibly quite unorthodox) meaning to me, inform the music.
The music is not always simply illustrative; indeed it has something of an independent narrative, alluding to Bach's St Matthew Passion and the Cruxifixus from the Mass in B Minor, and to Beethoven's Christus am Olberge and the Credo from the Missa Solemnis, as well as to Coptic chant, early American spiritual songs and blues, and to Tippett and Bernd-Alois Zimmermann (both advocates of diversity and inclusiveness).
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The title of the latest opus from Michael Finnissy - a composer whose craggy and politically charged modernism makes Birtwistle seem easy-going - is certainly provocative. The Transgressive Gospel prepares you for a shocking parody of the Bible, something like Pasolini's Last Temptation of Christ.
In fact it's nothing of the kind. Finnissy is a believer, albeit an unorthodox one, and what his work offers is simply the familiar story of Christ's Passion. It's told, as in a Bach Passion, through a mixture of biblical texts and poetic commentaries. These are very subtly chosen, to highlight a truth we easily forget - which is that the truly Transgressive Gospel is the one we already know. Christ's refusal to compromise with expediency will always be an insult to the norms of "civilised" life.
Finnissy has inveighed against contemporary mores before, often in a tone of savage parody. Here he attempts something much more difficult and subtle. The forces he assembles for his two-hour Passion are extraordinarily modest. On the tiny darkened stage there are just six players and two singers - the tenor Richard Jackson and the jazz singer Kate Westbrook. After the anguished shriek of the opening, the prevailing tone is contemplative, the dynamic only occasionally rising above a murmur. Finnissy's ensemble - violin, viola, cello, accordion, cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer) and piano - is a brilliant stroke in itself. It can be a Baroque continuo, it can be "Eastern", it can suggest jazz or a 19th-century nonconformist church.
These different musical connotations emerge as the text demands them. The Greek sections of the text are given in a rhapsodic, almost Eastern style, while the words of Christ are wrapped in a very tender quasi-medieval string sound. The emotional heart of the piece is in the three settings of sacred poems by George Herbert, sung by Kate Westbrook with a combination of deep feeling and jazzy intimacy that was more moving than any impassioned outcry.
Finnissy calls on many things - oratorio, hymns, gospel - without yielding to the insidious modern temptation to milk each one separately for its evocative power. Instead he keeps them all in play at once, but just out of sight, trembling under the surface of his own musical language. His piece is a model of integrity, which is why it is so powerfully moving. I've been to many more "exciting" premieres in recent years, but none more important.
Ivan Hewett - Telegraph