As a young, aspiring composition student with a special interest in modern choral writing, I and some of my colleagues took a particular interest in the 1970s in Edward Cowie’s vast choral tapestry Gesangbuch
. It was, alongside Giles Swayne’s Cry
, an ikon of BBC Singers/contemporary choral writing to which we aspired. Unlike the sprawling Cry
(at over 75 minutes), which has a specified 28 amplified voices, Gesangbuch
has a magically used instrumental ensemble. Winds, strings including a harp, solo horn and piano and celesta make up a distinctive sound-world.
is in four movements each representing a season beginning with ‘Herbstich’ (Autumn) - ‘Eaves Wood’. Its soft-toned colours with especial emphasis on the harp and celesta are uniquely distinctive. Movement 2 ‘Winterlied -Martinmere’ is obviously harsher with some strongly contrasted clearly dissonant and more brittle sounds. ‘Habichtswald’ (‘Spring’) is the fastest and shortest movement with its accent on the highest sounds and a brighter tone colour, and ‘Summer- Hest Bank’ is the longest.
These places, ‘Hest Bank’ and ‘Martinmere’ are in Lancashire. At that time Cowie - who was 70 in August this year, 2013 - was working at the University of Lancaster and living in the Morecambe Bay area. Having lived on the bay myself for fifteen years I know only too well the extraordinary sense of light and sudden changes in the weather which can occur around this sometimes notorious area. Hest Bank is right on the bay’s eastern side and on the train line; Martinmere has the WWT Wetland’s reserve - both are unique environments. These also inspired a large-scale orchestral work of Cowie’s his Concerto for Orchestra
written after this big choral work in 1979-80. Nature and the layering of rock structures and cloud formations all formed a part of his inspiration, which he also committed to canvas. The booklet is beautifully illustrated by some of the composer’s coloured etchings and drawings which reflect some aspects of the recorded pieces.
No texts for Gesangbuch
are given. In a way this makes sense, as there is much vocalisation and extensive use of phonetic text devised by the composer. There are, for example many beautiful bird and insectile noises in the ecstatic summer movement. The brief but useful and anonymous booklet notes remind us that Cowie includes quotes from Goethe in German and a setting of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Poem d’Automne’ in movement 1. There are many other texts too, but they are all layered and difficult to decipher. It would have been good to have at least some of them printed.
Coming back to this work after several years away I find it still as fascinating and individual as I did thirty-five years ago.
There are three other pieces on this disc worthy of a few thoughts. As can be seen above, this CD has been compiled from ‘house’ recordings of the BBC Singers under two differing conductors. I won’t go into the corresponding divergences achieved by each. The really perceptive listener may catch a few intriguing technical contrasts but I must add immediately that all of these performances are quite scintillating, both instrumentally and vocally.
The CD opens with the Bell Bird Motet
and closes with the earlier Lyre Bird motet
. I know from experience that the wildlife in the Australian bush country is quite extraordinary and inspirational. In the former piece we encounter an amazing collage of noises from frog-calls, near the beginning in low bass pitches to the random squeaks of the Bell Bird in the female voices towards the end. I remember their quite piercing early morning calls. There are also bits of text, not offered in the booklet but quite audible as and when the composer wishes. The piece was written, appropriately, for the Earth Music Festival week in Bristol.
The Lyre Bird Motet
is a little more focused with the bird calls - heard mainly in the female voices - which the composer overheard one evening on a cliff side, gradually formulating above a sort of chaconne - a series of repeated chords in the lower voices. The Bell Bird Motet
has a tendency towards triadic harmony but this piece more so, creating a hypnotic atmosphere, which has, apparently, proven popular with singers and audiences. Even so, this is not music for amateur choral groups and Cowie is relying very much, in all of these works, on top quality performers to realise his unique and complex sounds.
The last work, The Soft Complaining Flute
takes its title from an aria of Handel and uses a baroque flute in a colloquy, one might say, with six female voices. For me this is the least successful piece here both imaginatively and formally. The flute writing goes out of its way to include as many of the various extraordinary techniques which Stephen Preston can perform, especially in the central cadenza. These include pitch manipulation through a series of cross-fingerings and odd lip-shapes. In this context it just seems to be rather misplaced.
The disc remains a fine birthday tribute to a man who can be regarded a true ‘Artist’, a person of consummate imagination and craft whose music, like that of too many of our English composers, has languished for too long on the periphery of the repertoire. The BBC commissioned a new work from him for this year’s Proms and now the arrival of this disc goes some way towards putting the matter right.
See also review by Dominy Clements