Concert November 2011

Programme

  • Verdi: Requiem
  • Cole: I Died for Beauty

Soloists

  • Claire Rutter – soprano   (for Claire Seaton, indisposed) 
  • Susanna Spicer – mezzo soprano 
  • Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks – tenor 
  • Michael Bundy – bass-baritone

Conductor

Nicholas Wilks

Performed by

  • Winchester Music Club
  • Winchester College Glee Club and Quiristers
  • Winchester Music Club Orchestra, Brian Howells – leader

This was the first performance of ‘I Died for Beauty’ by William Cole, commissioned by WMC.

In 2009, Winchester Music Club commissioned a new work from young composer William Cole, who has written the following about the work: 

I received the commission for ‘I Died for Beauty’ in November 2008. But it was not until Christmas 2009, still without a text for the work, that I finally began to read the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the mysterious 19th-century American poet. My copy of Dickinson’s complete poems is I think the only volume of poetry I own in which the poems themselves are listed by theme as well as indexed – this concept of linking a series of meditations on a particular subject close to Dickinson’s thoughts, such as Death, or Resurrection, through her work I found particularly striking, especially as one of these subjects was Beauty. 

In reading through the ‘Beauty’ poems, I conceived a work in which a musical narrative would effect the same process as Dickinson’s poems, considering the problematic nature of Beauty from a musical angle, with Dickinson’s poem ‘I Died for Beauty’, one of her most moving and representative, as its focal point. The choir in this piece become therefore not the powerful narrator or commentator of many oratorios, but instead a voice from afar, from beyond the grave and on a higher plane of experience and understanding, as Dickinson herself was, than the work’s main protagonist, the orchestra, and us listeners too. 

Cole’s diagram of the piece

A longer essay on ‘I Died for Beauty’ written by William Cole in January 2011:

I Died for Beauty is a meditation on a question that composers often ask themselves – what is beautiful? That same question was evidently foremost in the creative mind of American poet Emily Dickinson, who in her poetry offers a series of definitions for what we find beautiful. 

I became interested in the possibility of a piece structured around these definitions, which would consider each in turn before suggesting some kind of final answer to that ever-present question. While the piece is scored for choir and orchestra, it is the orchestra that acts as principal protagonist. In a series of clearly defined sections, becoming ever faster and more active, we hear a series of musical images echoing Dickinson’s definitions. 

The music eventually condenses in on itself, and implodes onto a single note, leaving room for the choir to make their only utterance – a quiet, gentle setting of Dickinson’s ‘I Died for Beauty’, which to me presents her most convincing definition of beauty. As if humbled by the calm and gravitas of the choir, the orchestra begins a recapitulation of the first half of the piece, re-presenting the different kinds of music in order. But there is a key difference – whereas in the first half, the music underwent a constant series of compressions, accompanied by constant changes of pulse, here the pulse is regular, and the musical sections, rather than becoming shorter and shorter, become increasingly longer, giving a feeling of constant expansion, towards a peaceful close. 

It was that the second half of the work was something more than a simple recapitulation of the first. I found a potential solution in a discussion of beauty from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – ‘here, all contradictions live together’. This clearly suggested the key to the second half of the work: whereas in the first half each strand of music is presented in series, the strands in the second half are in parallel. Each continues when another enters, so that by the closing bars, all of the musical ideas presented in the piece, all the contradicting definitions of beauty, ‘live together’. Here, perhaps, is an answer to the question that Dickinson struggled with – rather than searching for a single definition, we should be content with contradictory ideas of beauty, accepting each as valid, in the same way that each person has their own personal idea of beauty. A listener may not agree with some of the definitions of beauty as suggested in this piece (or in fact any of them!), but hopefully they might be inspired to keep reconsidering, as Dickinson did, their own answer to that key question.

Cole diagram of his work

An Essay on the Poem, by Jan Lloyd October 2011: I Died for Beauty by Emily Dickinson

I died for beauty, but was scarce Adjusted in the tomb

When one who died for truth was lain In an adjoining room. 

He questioned softly why I failed? “For beauty,” I replied. 

“And I for truth – the two are one; We brethren are,” he said. 

And so, as kinsmen met a-night, We talked between the rooms, 

Until the moss had reached our lips, And covered up our names. 

Many of Emily Dickinson’s works attempt to resolve very personal problems and were written in a heightened emotional state. Her poetry deals not only with the destructive forces of nature which lead to death, fear and the loss of self, but also with its converse; sensibility and human ecstasy. In some poems she shows a calm and civilised acceptance of death. She was also intensely aware of life, reacting to forces such as mountains, the sea, the night, flowers and thunderstorms with a mystical but child-like simplicity. At the same time her intellectual perception of these forces also reveals the beauty of their elemental form. In I Died for Beauty she seemingly makes reference to the final stanza of John Keats’ 1812 Ode on a Grecian Urn—‘Beauty is truth, truth, beauty’. Andrew Motion (1997) sees this poem as an ‘inquiry into the function of art and of its relation to life.’ Motion comments that this ‘reminds us that art is simultaneously like life and unlike it. .Thus, Keats the poet, in loving beauty and truth….. must remain faithful to the world of experience rather than opt for a world of substitutes and abstractions.’ In contrast, there is a transcendent awareness of immortality in Emily Dickinson’s verses. The temporal seems less important than the life of the mind and spirit. Living confined, by choice, her room becomes her near tomb. Her art is at once obscure and eternal; she herself is of far less consequence. The consolation which she finds is what improves life. Here she speaks of the devotion of her spirit to her art; that which is beautiful. The room in which she lies can be paralleled by her self-sacrifice for art – a living death. Her relationship with the mysterious ‘master’ figure is alluded to here. ’He’ is the one who dies for Truth. Lying in an adjacent grave, he manifests this other aspect of her art. Beauty and Truth together are able to transcend life’s pain and suffering. The encroaching moss speaks of the obscurity in which she led her life. It also alludes to the clandestine identity of her ‘master’ figure in this haunting and intriguing poem
Copyright Janette Lloyd

Concert Review by Duncan Eves

Energy and passion throughout club performance

Terrifying brass fanfares, soaring operatic melodies, masterly orchestration, the Day of Judgment – yes, it’s Verdi’s Requiem, and the combined forces of Winchester Music Club almost shook the very foundations of Winchester Cathedral with their inspired performance of this great choral masterpiece on 17 November. 

Before this, however, we were treated to a world première: a twenty minute choral and orchestral work by 21-year old, ex-Winchester College composer, William Cole. His setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem I Died For Beauty presented a performing challenge to both chorus and orchestra with its dissonant vocal harmonies and its exposed instrumental writing. From its very soft, spare, fragmented opening the orchestra built up a gradual and huge climax, adding layer upon layer of sound. 

Nine minutes into the piece, as the sound of the orchestra reverberated around the cathedral, the chorus entered softly with Dickinson’s poem. The words from beyond the grave were highlighted with some atmospheric choral and orchestral scoring. It was slightly unfortunate that the cathedral acoustic muffled some of the intricate detail in the orchestration, but this was a work revealing a young composer of considerable merit. The Music Club is to be congratulated upon its bold decision to commission such a composition. 

The drama and passion of Verdi’s Requiem is a gift for performers: who can resist the theatrical treatment of the Dies Irae, the sobs of the Lacrymosa, or the sheer joy of the Sanctus? Under the inspired direction of Nicholas Wilks the performance took off and the chorus gave it their all. During the Dies Irae and the Tuba Mirum (stunning brass fanfares), as the sound reverberated around the cathedral, one half expected to see the ancient Saxon kings rising from their thousand-year sleep. The choral sound had energy and passion throughout and if the chorus sounded just a little tired toward the end it was no wonder after the challenge of the William Cole and then all the drama of the Judgment Day. 

The quartet of soloists was led by Claire Rutter, a last minute replacement for an indisposed Claire Seaton. Here was some truly fabulous singing: Claire Rutter has a brilliant, diamond-like tonal quality and she combines it with a passionate lyricism. She was well-matched with mezzo-soprano Susanna Spicer, who had power, tonal depth and some gleaming top notes. The blend of these two voices in the Recordare was quite magical. Tenor Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks and bass Michael Bundy provided the necessary male support. The tenor had ringing top notes with a full Italian operatic tone and an appropriate sob in his voice for the Ingemisco while the bass had gravitas and depth to his tone and conveyed a sense of awe and terror. A stunning quartet of solo singers. 

Mention should be made of the orchestral support. The Music Club orchestra always play like a professional outfit and this was no exception. Some particularly fine woodwind playing caught my ear but it would be ungracious not to compliment the whole orchestra. The intricate and demanding music of William Cole’s piece would be enough to terrify a seasoned professional, but then to follow this with the masterly writing of the Verdi… Hats off to our Music Club! Singers and orchestra: you do Winchester proud.

WMC Concert Gallery

Concert Programme