former title "Gentle Flame Cantata"
I Stand At The Door - a cantata for our times comprises twelve short movements with words and musical themes woven through the piece, centred around a series of questions and dilemmas. The heart of the work presents Kurt Masur’s words I was here (movement 6), recounting the famous conductor’s decision to take action against the E. German authorities in 1989, during the candlelit marches that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly thirty years ago. I looked for other texts that capture the idea of instigating change in the face of institutional resistance. I stand at the door and knock (from the book of Revelation) that Bach sets in Nun komm der Heiden Heiland are words that connect with Kurt Masur’s account. In my cantata the choir sings these words in loud unison (movement 5), as if demanding a response. The opening notes of Bach’s cantata also provide a recurrent theme through the work.
The opening movement is an unaccompanied Advent carol Gentle Flame that moves from darkness into light, culminating with cascading alleluias from the choir. It is when the orchestra enters in the second movement If… that the questions begin. Movement 3 Can you hear me? is a combination of an extended violin solo and whispering of Greta Thunberg’s words I only speak when I think it is necessary.
Other words from Greta Thunberg’s speeches are presented twice, in movements 4 and 10 (Act 1 and Act 2): People ask me, what should I do?... Greta’s text is set with a deliberate musical naivety: simple sung rising and falling modal scales, over the more complex and driven engine of the orchestra, up to the climax in movement 10 when the mezzo-soprano soloist declaims …The one thing we need more than hope is action… to an abrasive 12-note pitch sequence. A sense of hope is recaptured with the return of the rising and falling scales from the opening carol, spanning now across both choir and orchestra to Greta Thunberg’s words: …Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.
David Hart’s meditative lines from his book-length poem Crag Inspector resonate with Greta’s clarion call. Written on the remote island of Bardsey – The sea asks the proper questions (movement 8) - strange questions arise about elusive and obscure wild creatures: …If the talk is of the pennywort or the chough? (movements 2 and 7 If…); but the questions are ultimately left unanswered.
The final movement obsesses over these lines:
If talk changes its rhythm
will God appear? If a different rhythm is worked
will the talkers fall down blessed? If the talk is of the pennywort
or the chough, if the talk is of the weevil or the shy seal?
closing with music from the opening that returns as a series of waves with the solo mezzo, violin and oboe floating through the choir and orchestra.
The cantata occasionally employs unusual sounds and whispering, sometimes asking the performers to create ‘clouds’ of sound as individuals. The gut strings and period woodwind instruments provide a raw quality that can generate great power and energy, as well as purity of tone and subtly fragile quiet sounds.
This work was first performed in a shorter version entitled Gentle Flame Cantata (2019), first performed at the Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Gentle Flame Cantata was composed as part of ‘Made at the Red House’ with support from Wild Plum Arts, the Britten-Pears Foundation, Stable Music Ltd and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.