Patric Standford, 1973

by: 

Gerald Larner

Date: 

1973 March

Patric Standford, 1973.jpg

Patric Standford, 1973
Patric Standford, 1973

There is no precedent for Patric Standford's Christus Requiem. Perhaps the ritual parallel is Liszt's Christus, the third part of which combines 'Passion', 'Stabat Mater', and 'Resurrection'. It also includes the Easter hymn, O filii et filiae with which Standford's work begins. The setting of that hymn as a processional for boys' voices might remind the audience in St Paul's of Britten's A Ceremony of Carols - or even of the same composer's church parables, although Standford's processional has nothing like the far reaching thematic functions of that in the church parables. In fact, then two main characteristics of the Christus Requiem are the bold diversity of its material and the near absence of the usual devices for securing large scale unity.

The work is in two parts. The first, 'The Passion', is a narration for speaker, soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the events from the Communion to the Crucifixion. It is introduced by the procession O filii et filiae, includes among other things both a 'straight' version (in German) of the Gerhardt hymn, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and a variation on the chorale for solo organ, and it ends with the a cappella setting of the Start Mater presented here as this month's musical supplement. The second part, 'The Mass', consists of short sections of the Requiem Mass interspersed with settings of words from Gerard de Nerval's Le Christ aux olives (in French), George Herber's Mortification in three separate excerpts, The Dream of the Most Holy Mother of God (in Russian), Svatek Duse (in Czech). Including English, church Latin, and the Hebrew of Psalm 22 sung over references to the German chorale in the 'Crucifixion' in Part 1, that makes seven languages in the Christus Requiem. There are as many musical styles.

Clearly, the intended unity of the work is not so much musical as poetic, the non-biblical or non-liturgical texts having suggested themselves to the composer as emotionally appropriate to the context. It was actually started as an exercise for a graduate course at the Guildhall School of Music, where Standford teaches. The second part came first - the Requiem, one of the Herbert settings, the 'Agnus Dei' and the final 'Amen'. The invitation to extend it, making use of all the Guildhall's available performing forces (including dancers) coincided with his desire to write on a large scale on the theme of Crucifixion and Resurrection (an idea which originated, distantly, in an eventually discarded Dante project). So the second part was extended and the first part added.

The 'Stabat Mater' has a separate history. It took its present form as long ago as 1966 and then only after it had started life in a less formal, less determinate way in the style which at this period dominated Standford's writing. The influence of Lutoslawski on Standford will be discussed later. In the meantime, since this seems to be the most problematical aspect of the work, it is worth looking for the links between this apparently independent piece and the rest of the Christus Requiem. Its most obvious melodic characteristic, visible in any bar which is not actually a monotone, is that the line moves almost exclusively between adjacent notes. This has, in fact, been established as a general characteristic of the music for the chorus from its first melodic entry after O filii et filiae. It recurs in the choral 'Angus Dei' passages which serve as a background to the words of Christ in the Communion, and it is prominent too in the chorus 'Crucify him'.

Another characteristic - one of Standford's favourite harmonic devices and to be found, for example, in his anthem How amiable are thy dwellings op.24 - is to fan out his harmonies step by step into clusters from a central note. This can most clearly be seen in the 'Stabat Mater' at the words 'Virgo virginum praeclara' and 'Quando corpus morietur'. The 'Angus Dei' passages already mentioned are based on this device, and it recurs with particular force on the words 'let him be crucified' at the end of the 'Crucify Him' chorus. The same characteristic is used on a larger scape: the whole of the 'Stabat Mater' fans out from the repeated G flats with which it begins. Since it ends on a G flat major triad, it could be said to be in G flat, except that its secondary note centre is not D flat but an implacable C which fends off D flat until the closing bars at 'Paradisi gloria'.

This tritone 'dominant' has a function in the second part of Christus Requiem. Whereas the 'Stabat Mater' G flat refers back, enharmonically, to the B minor setting of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, the C is taken up as the first note centre of the first chorus, 'Requiem aeternam' of Part 2. Since the work ends in F, the two parts are arguably (because of this imperfect cycle of 5th) more closely related that they look.

The link is tenuous, however, and the closer unity within Part 2 might actually work against the unity of the whole work. The unifying factor here is a thematic one, introduced by the trumpets over the first entry of the chorus and easily recognisable by its rising 9th (See excerpt below).

This theme graphically represents the idea of Resurrection, which is what the whole of the second part is about. On the other hand, in a manner true to the intuitive rather than systematic nature of this work, the theme is not consistently used for structural purposes. Its next occurrence is two movements later, in the first of the 'Mortification' settings, to the words 'How soon doth man decay'. Then five movements pass before it is to be heard again as the main melodic feature of the soprano solo 'Agnus Dei'. It is prominent in the next movement, the third of the 'Mortification' settings, which also includes a recapitulation of 'How soon doth man decay'. It appears for the last time as a soprano solo reminiscent of the 'Agnus Dei' at the end of the 'Lux Aeterna', which is the penultimate movement of the work.

So, though there are links of one sort or another, the structural foundations of the Christus Requiem are not strong. Its success will depend largely on whether it conveys an impression of spiritual unity. This, in its turn, will depend largely on what sort of atmosphere is created by the scoring of the work in the acoustic conditions of St Paul's. And it is here judging on the visual evidence of the score alone, that the strength of the work seems to be. After the trebles' processional entry there is a distinct progression in the choral writing from the shouting, whispering, derisive laughter and vocal violence of the first part to the luminous texture of the 'In Paradisum' and the final 'Amen'.

Scoring, it should be emphasised, implies more than surface colour in the work of a composer who derives so much from the influence of Lutoslawski (and perhaps also Lutoslawski's younger Polish contemporaries). In most places in the Christus Requiem colour is basic to the conception. In the first of the 'Mortification' settings, for example, the writing is almost exclusively coloristic: there can be little rhythmic sense or harmonic function in the independent repetitions of set phrases within the six part female chorus, int he rolling glissandos, and the ad lib treatment of eight contrapuntal lines of Ligeti-like denseness. It is an indication of Standford's eclecticism, however, that only two movements later - in the soprano and baritone duet, 'The Dream of the Holy Mother of God' - expression is achieved, basically, by simple harmonic means, beginning in A flat minor and ending in the tonic major with a symbolic top C for the soprano. Acoustically, the most exciting movement should be the 'Dies Irae', with its wide semi-circle of five trumpets uttering clusters and fanfares, its percussion cadenzas, its brilliant scoring for woodwind, and its combined shouting (i.e. parlance ff) and singing in the chorus. The second 'Mortification' setting, for chorus, percussion and antiphonal brass choirs (a permanent feature of the score, by the way) is an apt successor to the 'Dies Irae'. From here Jiri Wolker's ecstatic poem, Svatek Duse - set for tenor, female chorus, and strings - leads into the gradually more radiant last movements.

There is so much variety in the Christus Requiem that it includes most aspects of Standford's creative personality. If it does not represent him at his most progressive, this is because he has for some time been retreating from the position he occupied five of six years ago.

Though he remembers Berg's Der Wein as an 'eye-opener' when at school at Ackworth, and though his first efforts in composition were serial, that was a technique he soon rejected. Edmund Rubbra, whose composition pupil he was for 'two very good years' at the Guildhall, he describes as 'a remarkable teacher', and he owes much too to Malipiero, with whom he studied in Italy on a Mendelssohn scholarship in 1964. But the composer who influenced him most profoundly was Lutoslawski, with whom he worked at Dartington during the summers of 1964 and 1965. The Nocturne for small orchestra (1967) represents his most extreme advance in that direction, which is not to say that it is inaccessible, even to a school orchestra. It has no bar lines, only those lines which represent the conductor’s down-beat (timed at their discretion); the instrumentalists play and repeat given material in their own time between the downbeats. The related work, Notte for chamber orchestra, was written a year later and, though similarly laid out and rather more difficult for the individual instrumentalists, is the beginning of the reaction, in that the melodic lines and separate events are longer and the note values bigger.

However, it is surprising that the reaction should in only four more years have been as complete as is suggested by the Symphony. The String Quartet No. 3 of 1969 has similar structural preoccupations and (in the Trio section) a certain amount of individual freedom is not incompatible with a well organised construction. The Symphony excludes all such freedom. It is an admirable work - it was awarded the second prize int he Premio Citta di Treieste last year - and, though not yet performed in the country, it would clearly be worth the investment of a little rehearsal time by any British orchestra. On the other hand, from the point of view of Standford’s development, it is a little disappointing to see him restrict his imagination within the very tight unity of the first movement of this Symphony in E fat. However, some Ligeti-like colouring is applied in the third movement and the Lento has something of the daringly slow progress in even rhythms which is to be found in the last movement of the String Quartet No. 3.

The Christus Requiem does not confirm the reaction. It takes risks, it is in no way inhibited, and if it comes off - as it should - it could encourage Standford to give himself more freedom in such interesting future projects as a cello concerto and his opera, Villon.

© Gerald Larner, The Musical Times

Gerald Larner The Musical Times Christus Requiem exerpt