Q&A with Howard
Questions for Howard Goodall as part of the Rambert Dance Education Pack
1. What were your inspirations for the piece?
Of course I knew when I started that there were already many beautiful and powerful Requiems out there and some of these (the Mozart, the Fauré and the Duruflé in particular) I myself really adored. I didn’t think I could compete with these giants in the repertoire but I did feel that my ‘take’ on what a Requiem could be, written in the early 21st century, was quite distinct from theirs: I found this reassuring. Events in my private life and some tragic public losses made me think that it might be possible to provide a semi-secular, semi-sacred piece to help in some small way with the terrible loss and pain people feel at these times, a Requiem that would not be about hell, damnation, guilt or sin. I especially felt that I wanted to write something focussed on the interruption and loss of young lives. When I accepted the commission, the first thing I did was to read through the Latin texts of all the ‘old’ requiems (Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Fauré etc) and try to understand what they meant, what they were trying to say. I was surprised that despite the often soothing, gentle and ethereal music the composers produced, the language of the original text was so angry and vengeful and unremittingly hard on humanity. Basically, movement after movement seemed to be saying that the poor souls of the departed were doomed to everlasting misery if we who were left behind on earth did not intercede with God on their behalf, begging for their forgiveness. There was a assumption that all people are wicked and that a peaceful afterlife was heavily conditional on our owning up to how bad we are. I couldn’t go along with the grimness of this vision and wanted to compose instead a Requiem that would provide some solace to the living that grieve and one that would have meaning for people of many faiths and philosophies. Once I had realised there was something I could offer that wasn’t already out there, it was much easier to begin the composing process. To be honest, what inspired me most was people and the terrible pain they have to endure when someone they love passes away.
2. What were your working methods for the collaborative process with Mark Baldwin and Michael Howells?
It has been at the dim & distant back of my mind for a long time to attempt a Requiem, but – rather like Desert Island Discs – feel you shouldn’t have a go at it till after you are at least 50, a landmark I passed this year. (Mozart doesn’t count since if he hadn’t started his when he did – aged 35 – we’d never have got those sublime few movements)
As is often the case, a series of lucky circumstances collided to make this one come to life. Mark Stephenson, commissioning producer of the project and Artistic Director of London Musici, wanted to commission a full-length piece to mark the orchestra’s 20th anniversary. The initial hope was for something that might bring together Musici’s two key partners, Rambert Dance Company, for whom they are house orchestra, and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, with whom under the direction of Stephen Darlington they perform a passion oratorio every year in Holy Week.
Thus the idea for a sung & danced Requiem came into being and I was approached via the choir’s agent, Val Fancourt (also my wife!). Once the approach was made, music came flooding into my head and it seemed as if I’d had the basis of a Requiem lurking there all along. However, instead of rushing into composing the music as I might if the piece had been commissioned for performance in a church or concert hall, I acknowledged that the ‘dance’ aspect of the commission was going to have a big role to play in what kind of music I’d eventually write.
From this standpoint, I began discussions with my collaborators, particularly Mark Baldwin the choreographer and Michael Howells the designer, to see if my initial thoughts could find a resonance in the dance version. We all agreed that this would be a Requiem for the living, a requiem focussing on interrupted lives and that it would be possible to express this in a complementary way with Rambert’s company of young dancers. We all responded to the images in the original Latin text of an ‘everlasting light’ and from this thought sprang a whole host of other possibilities both in terms of the dance work and the composition. The stage could be flooded with an effervescent light, refracted by crystals (sponsored in the event by Swarovski Crystal), the tears of the Lacrymosa and ‘Drop, Drop, slow tears’ movements would be expressed by hundreds of slowly descending glass tears, the dancers would appear to be floating upwards like human souls, the music would try to capture the sense of an ‘out-of-body’ experience and I would look for (English) poetry that would tease out, react to and illuminate fragments of the Latin mass texts, and so on. Over the months of development, one central image emerged of a female dancer with large black wings, suggesting at once the Angels of the Apocalypse (Revelation movements), Angels over the Western Front battlefields (Dies Irae: In Flanders Fields), the flight of the departed soul (Litany: Belief), and Birds of Paradise (In Paradisum). Naturally, these discussions helped shape the sound of the music I began to ‘hear’ in my head.
Movement by movement I recorded simple demos of the music in my studio (with me singing all the men and one soprano all the women!) and sent them to Mark (Baldwin) to listen to and start imagining the choreography to. Obviously, as these demos started to appear, he and others in the team made further suggestions which fed into the remaining pieces. It’s much easier for a choreographer (or a stage director, or a designer, for that matter) to talk about a piece of music if they have it in an audio form rather than by staring at a score, so these demos proved very useful as the work progressed.
3. Where did the ideas for the use of the particular poetry come from, in particular the use of 17th century poetry and Revelations?
The most important component in my choice of texts was to find poetry that would add a new layer to the Latin phrases, to try to explain them in a modern context, or possibly to challenge them in some way. For example, for the traditional Dies Irae movement, which is concerned with hell, damnation and terrible judgement, I chose a Canadian poem from the First World War, In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, since hell – in my mind – is something we here on earth are quite capable of creating without the expertise of Satan or the Almighty, and the Flanders trenches must come close to anyone’s idea of hell. In our creative discussions we agreed that the hideous losses of the 1914-18 War still feel relevant, given that the soldiers of that conflict were little more than the age of today’s school children. The ballet’s London première takes place at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 11th November, exactly 90 years from the end of the First World War. In discussions about the stage ballet, we explored the idea of the dual resonance of poppies for Flanders and for our current war – in Afghanistan.
The technique of placing English poetry with fragments of the Latin, often sung simultaneously or antiphonally between soloist and choir, characterises the whole work. The technical term for the mixing of languages in this way is ‘macaronic’ (like the pasta, believe it or not!), but I didn’t know it had a name when I started. One section of Latin text comes not from the traditional Requiem mass but from the Book of Revelation, with its description of the coming of the Angels of the Apocalypse.These two related movements were the last to be composed and the thinking behind them was this. Mark and Paul Hoskins (musical director of RDC) noticed that a great deal of the music in the Requiem was reflective, or solemn, or gentle and they suggested that it might work to have a short movement (or two, as it turned out) that quickened the pace and allowed the dancers the chance to move more energetically, to act as a contrast to the other, more tranquil movements. I liked this idea but I couldn’t find a suitable part of the Latin Mass for the Dead words that seemed to fit this, especially as we had all agreed we didn’t want to go down the same route as, say, Verdi, whose most energetic movements are all about judgement and punishment. I then hit upon the idea that there were some extremely colourful, almost hallucinogenic images in the very last book of the Bible, the Book of the Revelations of St John. There is a kind of Nostradamus feel to these chapters, which are all concerned with visions of the End of the World and the arrival of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. Much of what St John describes – a world being ravaged by raging seas, tempests, fires, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis – rings alarm bells for us, too, living in an unstable, changing planet, so I chose some dramatic passages from his nightmarish visions and had the choir sing a fast and furious chant, building to a hammering climax. In the first version, pizzicato strings and piano push the rhythm along between the choir’s outbursts, in the second version, later in the Requiem, it is just the choir, the only wholly unaccompanied section of the piece: my thought was that humanity would ultimately be ‘on our own’, trying to cope against calamity without all our technology and machinery. From a purely musical point of view, these two movements try to place all the accents onto the words, so the musical metre (ie. whether it’s in 3/4 or 4/4 or whatever) is constantly changing to make sure the textual emphasis is heavy and precise. The first few bars, for instance, go 7/4 , 3/4, 7/4, 5/4, 3/4, 5/4, 3/4, 7/8, 7/4 .
4. Were there any personal experiences which helped to inspire/create the work?
I think I may have answered this above.
5. How much were you conscious of traditional musical structures/well known Requiem compositions when composing Eternal Light?
6. Do you have a particular surrounding which inspires intensive creative work?
Being a professional, full time composer means I have to be able to compose anywhere, anytime, but in reality my daily life in London involves loads of meetings and activities associated with my broadcasting and ambassadorial tasks, so when I have a full-length commission to compose I usually do it at my studio in Burgundy, France. My family and I usually manage to spend a good proportion of the summer at our house there and I am able to hide away in my composing room and get on with writing the long, complicated pieces like this Requiem. Some peace and quiet is helpful!
7. What prompted your choice of orchestration?
First of all, since this was going to be a dance work which went on tour all over the UK, I knew I would have to keep the orchestra to a manageable size (i.e. Verdi or Berlioz’ enormous orchestras for their Requiems would have been impossible!) Apart from that, the ballet company and London Musici gave me a pretty free hand. When I compose a new piece, I ‘hear’ it in my head as a completed sound before I transcribe it onto the page and as the music started to develop I knew the choir would need to be supported by two key elements – by the fluidity and sustain of strings and by the contrasting percussiveness of pianos, preferably two of them. Brass sections and choirs don’t mix together very well as they occupy much of the same harmonic space as each other (plus brass instruments can easily drown out singers) but I didn’t consciously omit brass or woodwind, they just never appeared to be in the sound I was hearing. To some extent I was hearing a piano sound not unlike that used by Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms, a favourite piece of mine. In the Stravinsky, the piano is very rhythmic, with large chords at the top and bottom of its range used like punctuation points. So I started with the sound of strings and piano and then more and more I wanted the second piano to be able to play various other keyboard sounds as well as piano, like a pipe organ, a celesta or a synthesizer. Finally, I introduced the sound of a harp which can either be played on a keyboard or by a real harpist. Again, the flowing arpeggios of the harp (in, for example, Drop, Drop, slow tears) act as a counter-balance to the almost motionless string chords.
8. Do you compose at the keyboard or use Sibelius, or indeed a mixture of the two?
I used to compose at the keyboard, but for the last 10 years or so I have gradually weaned myself off this method, since what can happen is that the muscle memories in your hands keep drifting back to the same familiar chords, licks and figures that you’ve played before many times, whereas your brain is much freer and more likely to come up with something unexpected or surprising. So these days I conceive and edit all the music while it’s still in my head, then when it’s finally finished I input it into Sibelius and create the score(s).
9. Are there any ‘favourite’ moments which you would encourage students to focus on in their journey getting to know the work?
The Recordare/Drop, Drop, slow tears and the Agnus Dei movements were the first parts of the Requiem that came into my head and are in many ways the easiest sections of it to get to know quickly, as they both have – I hope – quite catchy tunes at their heart.
10. When you are composing are you conscious of the potentially massive popular appeal of the work?
No, though it’s very kind of you even to suggest such a possibility! First, I am never really aware of what my music sounds like to other people. I am told that I have a ‘style’ or ‘voice’ in my composing, but I am the one person who can’t recognise that style. Second, after decades of writing musicals for the theatre, I never take for granted that anyone will like what I do, since it’s impossible to second-guess an audience’s reaction to one’s work. Because of this it’s always best, in my view, to compose what you like yourself and hope that maybe – with any luck – other people will like it too. That way, if for any reason it doesn’t take off, at least you’re left with something you are yourself proud of. The worst thing of all is to try too hard to be popular or accessible (or overly complex or clever-clever, for that matter) and end up not being true to yourself along the way.
Having said all that, if the public were to take this piece to their hearts and if it became something that they felt in any way soothed or transported them in times of loss and grief, I would be immensely pleased. I hope very much that people who are religious and people who are not will feel equally at home with the way we have tried to come to terms with what a Requiem might mean in the 21st century.