EX CATHEDRA’S SONGS OF PROTEST
By Christopher Morley
For Sunday’s Remembrance Day concert Ex Cathedra have gone one step beyond “Lest We Forget”, presenting a powerful programme of “Songs of Protest”, putting the case for peace, political freedom, compassion for our fellow human beings, and the fight against torture.
South African-born, Moseley-based composer John Joubert wrote many pieces for Ex Cathedra over the decades, chief of which is South of Line, settings of some of Thomas Hardy’s bitter Boer War poems, already recorded twice under Jeffrey Skidmore, and now given a welcome live re-hearing under his direction.
James MacMillan has also composed several times for Ex Cathedra, notably his oratorio Seven Angels, premiered in 2015. In Sunday’s programme we hear Cantos Sagrados, a protest about political repression in Latin America and the “disappearance” of political prisoners. Combining poetry with traditional religious texts, MacMillan described his intention to create something “both timeless and contemporary, both sacred and secular”.
“Songs of Protest” also features two world premieres, including one from Ex Cathedra composer-in-residence Alec Roth. His The Peace of the Night previews a project with the German group Ensemble Nobiles, who are commissioning a series of pieces ahead of the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II, with strong connections to Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, a humanist prisoner of war who was killed in a concentration camp shortly before the war ended.
The other world premiere is A Knock on the Door, Sally Beamish’s response to the use of torture, and its effect upon the perpetrators as well as the victims. The hard-hitting libretto is by her husband, Peter Thomson, and she tells me how they came to keep a sense of perspective and avoid obvious sensationalism when dealing with this harrowing subject.
“We wanted to emphasise the 'ordinariness' of people affected by torture, and the fact that, given certain circumstances, anyone might find themselves on either side of this human tragedy,” she explains from their Brighton home.
“Peter's language is simple, and so is the music. I have used a basic keyboard, rather than a piano, which gives the score a rather banal - even slightly mechanical - feel. There are two choirs, and the libretto is a dialogue between them.
“At one point we had a meeting with the former Beirut hostage John McCarthy, and he remarked that it was often humour that restored sanity in the most unthinkable situations. So Peter felt he had licence to incorporate a measure of humour into a pretty devastating situation.”
Sally tells me about the pre-recorded elements in the score.
“Music is used in torture - often at an almost unbearable volume level. The heavy metal track I notated was recorded by our guitarist Arthur Dick and is used in stark and shocking contrast to the generally gentle, measured language of the piece.”
We are lucky in that we can experience such works in an open society, I put to Sally. She must feel immense solidarity with creative artists operating under much more repressive regimes.
“I have thought a lot about Shostakovich, who was forced to join 'the party' much against his inclination, in order to continue his career in safety. He was deeply ashamed but felt he had no choice . It is very easy for someone who has never experienced oppression to judge the actions of those whose life is defined by danger and threat. One thinks of the Russian artists whose appearances have been cancelled because they would not openly condemn today’s prevailing regime.
“Growing up in Iran, Peter is only too aware of the censorship that can blight artists - but also of the power of creativity to cut through and challenge political oppression - as in the case of Shervin Hajipour.”
“Peter, as a playwright and actor, thinks dramatically, and this has become a more and more important aspect of my work, even in instrumental works. .I have also been influenced by our doorstep performances during lockdown of songs across a range of genres. A Knock on the Door explores blues, jazz, metal, and bland 'elevator'-type music.”
* A Knock on the Door was commissioned by the Quaker Concern for the Abolition of Torture (Q-CAT) www.qcat.org.uk
In a free pre-concert performance at 3pm – ‘Songs of Protest and Hope’ – Ex Cathedra’s Academy of Vocal Music youth choirs will perform an excerpt from Cecilia McDowall’s A Girl from Aleppo and a selection of their own compositions. All are welcome.
Ex Cathedra with soloists Imogen Russell (soprano) and Lawrence White (baritone), are joined by Backbeat Percussion Quartet for Songs of Protest at Town Hall Birmingham on Sunday 13 November (4pm). Tickets from www.excathedra.co.uk
A film of the live performance of A Knock on the Door is planned and will be available to stream online in the future.