Eternal Light: A Review

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Eternal LightI recently spent an absorbing afternoon getting acquainted with Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light: A Requiem from 2008. The piece was commissioned by London Musici, and was recorded by Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral Choir some months before its premiere with the Rambert Dance Company. As you might imagine from Goodall’s previous work, it sits squarely in the post-Rutter choral tradition of new music that is accessible to amateur choirs.

The sound world is strongly tonal, but with that penchant for diatonic dissonance that gives edge and texture to a harmonic world that might otherwise sound a little saccharine. The timbral palette sits on the tinkly end of the spectrum – harp and piano are more in evidence than trombones and side drums in defining the sound world. But then, this would be consistent with the theme of eternal light.

Goodall talks in his notes to score and CD about the weight of tradition bearing down on a composer writing a requiem today. He aligns himself with Brahms in his choice of vernacular texts and his philosophical approach to the form. To my ears, though, the more immediately obvious comparison was with Britten, since he retains the Latin texts to interweave with the English poems, which include a most moving World War I poem by John McRae – making the comparison almost inevitable.

So that’s all the context-setting stuff to get you in the picture. Of course I was poring over the nitty-gritty to work out what was going on in all the bits that sounded wonderful and/or not quite convincing. And I found myself with two areas of obsession developing as I listened – texture/voicing and phrasing.

There are some very lovely textural effects. Goodall uses the doubling of tenor and alto at the same pitch to deliver melodic material very effectively in the first movement, producing a sound that benefits from the warmth the altos produce in the middle of their ranges with plangency of the tenors in the best part of their voices for projection. The ‘Recordare’, sees a wonderfully transparent sound as the choral sopranos duet above the soprano soloist. And at the start of the ‘In Paradisum’, high hushed strings provide a delicate harmonic wash over which the top three choral parts hover, giving the sense of human voices tuning into the harmony of the spheres.

There are also just a few moments where the generally glorious singing shows a little vocal strain, and I can’t help wondering if the composer could have done something just slightly different to help them. For instance, the sopranos sound a little tight on the top A in the Kyrie which is the highest note they have in the whole piece (interesting to get up to the highest note on p. 6 of a 78-page piece, now I come to think of it). The other three parts are all clustered around middle C in a close-position triad, and I’d be interested to hear if the sopranos might sound happier if they weren’t so distant from the other parts. Acoustically, the triad is going to be a help there (they can plug into the overtones it sends up), but the altos and tenors are very much in their comfort zones there – if they had to exert themselves a little more vocally at that point, the sopranos might experience a little more moral support.

My obsession with phrasing emerged as partway through the first movement the thought wandered through my brain: is this being recorded to a click track?* It was just starting to sound a little, well, ploddy in places. At first I wondered if it were about the text-setting: are there just too many notes of even duration? But actually, Goodall’s vocal lines are good at bringing out the natural prosody of the text in their rise and fall, even when written in even crotchets. I then wondered if it were a function of the accompaniment – it was in the movements with constant running quavers where it started to sound more mechanical. But I’m sure it’s possible to perform that kind of texture with a sense of flow: the ‘Hymn: Lead Kindly Light’, indeed, is begging to be performed as if it were Brahms rather than, say, Michael Nyman.

A useful contrast was in the baritone solo, ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, which was just enchanting. The melodic rhythm here is flexible and varied – more reminiscent of Britten – and the accompaniment simple and chordal, giving the soloist more scope to define pacing. What was interesting was that, whilst soloist Christopher Maltman took the opportunity to perform with a light and sensitive rubato, the pacing of the accompaniment was not adjusted to match, as you would expect in the performance of, say, recitative.

Rather, what we got was what is commonly thought of the ‘old’ style of rubato in which the accompaniment lands on the barline when it is due without waiting for the melody, while the melody shifts subtly backwards and forwards to bring out the expressive qualities of the text and its settings. Classical music has largely abandoned this style of rubato in favour of the full-texture type where everyone hangs back and pushes forwards together, though it remains alive in popular music traditions. It was really interesting to hear this approach with a classical baritone rather than a crooner, and I found it very effective.

Anyway, Howard Goodall is well established as a trusted source of new music for choirs, so I expect we’ll have plenty more chances to hear the piece. And, whilst there is a sense of the original, composer-supervised recording as being ‘definitive’, I’ll be interested to hear what kind of performance tradition the piece accumulates as it gets sung in more.

*Since writing that, I've found some video footage that suggests not. But I still think the melodic writing is asking for more flexibility in performance.

I'm actually disappointed in what I've heard of the recording - I was part of a small gender-mixed (obviously)! pro-am choir for the Birmingham run, and we gave it so much more shape, warmth and general direction. Especially in:

But I’m sure it’s possible to perform that kind of texture with a sense of flow: the ‘Hymn: Lead Kindly Light’, indeed, is begging to be performed as if it were Brahms rather than, say, Michael Nyman.

This, this, this, this, this! It's beautiful when sung with swell and a pushing-onward like a yacht catching the wind - I think probably I brimmed over quite a few times in the safe dark of the orchestra pit.

I'll dig out my rehearsal recording, if you're interested.

(by which I meant mixed pro and am, too)

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