From the Beginning of the World
For SSAATTBB Choir
(2015) 11 minutes
Text by Tycho Brahe
From the Beginning of the World was commissioned by the Cardinall’s Musick and premiered at Cadogan Hall on the 20th July 2015 in the first of the 2015 BBC Proms Chamber Music Concerts. The concert launched The Tallis Edition, a new project by the ensemble with an aim to throw new light on Tallis’s work, and part of the commission brief was that my new piece should be a homage to this great English polyphonist.
I spent several weeks in libraries attempting to find a suitable text, eventually settling on excerpts from Tycho Brahe’s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577. Whether Tallis knew about the comet is unknown of course, but this seismic event, to me, seemed emblematic of all the great changes that occurred during his lifetime, in areas such as religion, the calendar, and time-keeping (finding out that Tallis lived out his last days in Greenwich was an extra bonus). The text also seems to speak to contemporary times: whilst Brahe may have thought the comet’s birth would cause the sun to ‘bring unnatural heat’, nowadays we know that its ‘venom [will be] spewed over the lands’ due to mankind’s continued pillaging of the earth’s natural resources. Yet our political ‘pseudo prophets’ prefer to distract us with an austerity delusion rather than confront a reality perpetuated by certain corporations for whom ‘seek[ing] their own honour’ is of primary value.
The music itself is very influenced by Tallis, and canons and imitation abound. During my time as a ‘cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, I performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis many times, and so From the Beginning of the World, which also uses Tallis’s Third Mode Melody from the English Hymnal, is really a homage to both composers.
Funded by the Cocheme Charitable Trust and private donations.
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2015
Then it comes to pass that something new is born in the heavens
Contrary to the custom of nature
And all mankind holds it to be a great wonder.
Videte Miraculum (Behold the miracle)
A miracle of the heavens.
From the beginning of the world
From the uppermost sphere of the fixed stars
This new birth reveals itself
A comet with a very long tail.
Something new can be generated in the heavens.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto (Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost)
But what do such unnatural births mean?
Creator caeli et terrae (Creator of Heaven and Earth)
Respice humilitatem nostram (Be mindful of our lowliness)
Peccavi (Have mercy)
Great mortality among mankind.
Mighty and destructive wind storms Peccavi
Poisonings of the air
Great harm by fire.
Great mortality among mankind.
The sun will bring unnatural heat
The sun will bring harmful, unnatural heat
It will spew its venom over the lands
Great mortality among mankind Gruesome pestilence
Those who deal with political regimes
Will be much stifled
Creator caeli et terrae
Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets
Respice humilitatem nostram
Will be punished, punished.
Great wars and bloodsheddings.
Miserere Nostri (Have mercy on us)
However, there are actually no reliable grounds
For predicting the end of the world from this comet.
It thus behooves us to use well our short life here on earth,
So that we may praise him for all eternity.
Our short life here on earth...
Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet”visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe.
Frances-Hoad’s approach is to plunge the choir into a place of considerable unrest, at time almost borderline hysteria, which sits especially well in the first of the work’s three sections, describing and marvelling to behold the new “miracle of the heavens”. To this end, the voices sound as though their ‘cantabile’ setting has been turned up to 11, twisting harmonies through complex contortions, rendering the singers’ melodic lines by sudden turns angular and emollient. It’s disconcerting but highly effective, concluding in a beautiful Gloria that brings things into a calmer kind of focus. But this also functions to tilt both text and music in a new and more soul-searching direction. Following a pause, the piece progresses through a lengthy bit of doom-and-gloom-mongering tinged with elements of self-flagellating piety. The comet is now cast in the role of portent, promising destruction and pestilence as a comeuppance for humanity’s transgressions. Frances-Hoad now escorts the choir through descending layers of fraught counterpoint, the singers practically tripping over each other. A sense of woe and dread is palpable, all the more so due to the length of this second section, dominating the piece as a whole, but equally striking is the stern tone adopted in reference to “political regimes” and they “who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets”. A desperate lone soprano makes a final cry for clemency, only for the piece to tilt on its axis once again, almost laughably so: “However, there are actually no reliable grounds / For predicting the end of the world from this comet”. The voice of reason maybe, yet while this final section appears to pooh-pooh the preceding wails and lamentations, the choir’s calmer, more united attitude is riddled with harmonic uncertainty, unexpectedly rupturing at the end in a crazed closing ‘amen’.
Strange words and conflicted sentiments to be sure, but Frances-Hoad’s setting conveys them admirably, putting the text’s inherent drama emphatically in the foreground. Whether it works as a homage to Tallis is another matter, but that seems a bit beside the point; in any case, her language weaves in and around choral conventions, never truly alien yet at the same time often sounding unsettlingly odd. A fascinating piece, one that preys on the mind long after the echoes of its demented final shriek have died away.
From the Beginning of the World was commissioned and given its world première by The Cardinall’s Musick, conducted by Andrew Carwood. 5Against4
Cheryl Frances-Hoad's From the Beginning of the World was written for The Cardinall's Musick in 2015. Frances-Hoad sets excerpts from Tycho Brahe's German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577, with Frances-Hoad's selections contrasting Brahe's technical descriptions with the emotional effect on society, along with a dead-pan final section saying that there are in fact no reliable grounds for predicting the end of the world from the comet! Frances-Hoad reflected the complexities of the text in her music, both in terms of structure and in terms of content, writing fluidly for the choir using both tutti and smaller groups, with some wonderfully vivid moments. Whilst she was evidently inspired by RVW in this piece, the richness of the harmonies seemed rather aptly closer to those of Bax. Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill
Period specialists' superb account of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's ravishing world premiere overshadows Tallis
Cheryl Frances-Hoad made a bold, intriguing and difficult choice of text for her tribute to Tallis, From the Beginning of the World. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577 is a scientifically important, but often (as a piece of writing) somewhat leaden explanation not only of that event’s physical phenomena but also its moral and philosophical significance. And Frances-Hoad weaves wonders with it.
What a sound. Where the words were sometimes dry, Frances-Hoad drenched each phrase in dramatic expression – wonderment and horror, principally – of the most ravishing intensity. Dissonant chords of breathtaking complexity squirmed and spun, while exposed vocal lines, pitched and balanced perfectly by this core of singers, weaved an astonishing tapestry of vocal and emotional colours. And amongst the delirious power of the music, little Tallis quotations glimmered teasingly. The final “Amen” was a harrowing wail, far removed from its traditional flaccid blandness. Technically, it must have been extraordinarily difficult to sing. This is not something amateur choirs will be giving up their Karl Jenkins for.
Interviewed onstage by BBC Radio Three’s Petroc Trelawney, Frances-Hoad explained her piece’s relevance to a contemporary audience that is alarmed by environmental and political conundrums as 16th-century populations were by the comet. After music of such originality, it felt a bit predictably political. Yet Tallis and his arguably greater Catholic contemporary William Byrd conjured ecstatic pieces in an environment of perilously shifting political sands. So here, too, perhaps Frances-Hoad fits the bill, able to read the political tea leaves as Tallis did before her. Though it’s mainly for her sublime premiere, and a (mostly) commanding performance by The Cardinall’s Musick, this concert has set a standard for Chamber Proms that will be extremely difficult to sustain. Matthew Wright, the Arts Desk
“This was a substantial, detailed and wide-ranging setting, effectively juxtaposing passages for full choir with episodes for smaller groups. An impressive achievement with Tallis-like canonic and imitative writing, it confirms Cheryl Frances-Hoad as a naturally inventive composer for the voice.“ Paul Conway, Musical Opinion
The text she happened upon. For Frances-Hoad, the Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577 (by Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601, astronomer, astrologist and alchemist), time, the calendar and the cosmos conjure an atmosphere of nebulous change, and specifically the spiritual and musical shift Tallis underwent as a result of the Reformation. Organum and double canons pay homage to 16th-century forms then shrouded in clusters, chords stacked high with additives, moments of sky-high glissandos and others of basses like kettle drums. Steve Reich might have infiltrated the BBC booth and begun looping the microphones so off-the-wall were the moments of polyphony, and Gabriel Jackson and Orlande de Lassus too seemed present. “A comet with a very long tail” would have found footing where no man has gone before...
Kate Telfer, Classical Source
The first and immediately striking thing about From the Beginning of the World was the relevance of the words to today’s climate. In a week where NASA received ground breaking pictures of Pluto and Charon this tale of an earlier astronomical event – the ‘comet with a very long tail’ resonated strongly, especially with its talk of ‘Mighty and destructive wind storms’, ‘Poisonings of the air’ and ‘Terrible earthquakes’.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music only enhanced the dramatic impact. Written as a homage to Tallis its a cappella setting carried the same freedom through the air – but here the harmonies were daring, rich with added notes, the most distinctive melodies tending to use wide leaps and drops. This heightened the feeling of unease – especially when the tritone was used to highlight the ‘great wars and bloodsheddings’.
The end of the text is curious, the author questioning suddenly that the comet might not destroy the earth after all – but the damage has been done in all the worrying beforehand, and it was on this that Frances-Hoad’s music really made its mark.
The performance, subtly directed by Andrew Carwood, was one of clarity and pure intensity.
In a brief interview, Cheryl Frances-Hoad explained her choice of text, by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) for her new work, From the Beginning of the World, premiered here by The Cardinall’s Musick. The text is about the Great Comet of 1577, but also explores how it might be interpreted as the result of the actions of humanity. Frances-Hoad also argued its potential significance for us today, in terms of our treatment of the planet (“The sun will bring unnatural heat”), and her hint that corrupt politicians (“Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets”) will (hopefully) be punished. Set for eight voices, she makes incredibly striking and effective use of techniques, which allow her to extract much from this at times disturbing text. Particular words – “earthquake”, “spew”, and “punished” are given almost scary emphasis, using harsh clashes within voice parts, rapid canon and echo effects, and on the word ‘peccavi’ (I have sinned), a highly challenging solo soprano cadenza, expertly performed by Katie Trethewey. This was a challenge for all concerned, and the high level of concentration needed was palpable, but the singers pulled this off with accomplishment. I hope this impressive work secures the further performances, and hopefully recording, that it deserves. Nick Boston, Bachtrack
Performance history (post-premiere)
14th June 2019 - The Cardinall's Musick at Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, UK
16th February 2019 - The Edvard Grieg Kor at the RNCM Concert Hall, RNCM, Manchester, UK
30th November 2018 - The BBC Singers conducted by Ben Palmer at St. Giles' Cripplegate, London, UK
9th October 2018 - The Cardinall's Musick conducted Andrew Carwood at The National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland
9th July 2018 - The Cardinall’s Musick at Lichfield Cathedral, UK. Part of the Lichfield Festival
October 13, 2016 - The Edvard Grieg Kor at Marquand Chapel, Yale University (US Premiere)
13th August 2016 - The Edvard Grieg Kor at The Larvik Festival, Norway
31st May 2016 - The Edvard Greig Kor and Haakon's Hall, Bergen, Norway, as part the Bergen International Festival
16th November 2015 - The Cardinall's Musick at St. John's College, Cambridge, as part of the Cambridge Music Festival
15 August 2015 - The Cardinall's Musick at St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny as part of The Kilkenny Arts Festival