Thursday 27 October 2022

In search of eternal life: creating my cantata Et expecto resurrectionem - cryogenics, Burke & Hare, Frankenstein and more

Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, July 1854
Walt Whitman, age 35, July 1854
from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass 

Robert Hugill: Et expecto resurrectionem, cantata for tenor, baritone and piano, will be premiered by Ben Vonberg-Clark (tenor), James Atkinson (baritone) and Nigel Foster (piano) at the concert Out of the Shadows at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Friday 3 February 2023 [further details]. 

My cantata Et expecto resurrectionem looks at ideas of resurrection and eternal life, starting with the Latin creed and moving through cryogenics, body snatchers, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, ending with a passage from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The work had quite a complex genesis, having started out almost as a different work entirely and along the way it spawned my short opera The Genesis of Frankenstein

One Sunday in 2015, I was sitting in the choir at St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Chelsea during Latin mass, waiting for the choir's next piece and rather wool-gathering. At such moments I rather get ideas for music and having just sung the Latin Creed I was mulling over the idea of creating a work exploring life after death, expanding on the phrase 'Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum'.

The problem was, the more I thought about the idea later, the more trouble I had finding texts that I wanted to set. My original idea had been simply a religious work exploring what resurrection meant. But having coffee with a singer friend, to whom I mentioned my difficulties, she responded with the idea of expanding what resurrection might mean.

So, I proceeded to explore subjects such as Cryogenics, the early 19th-century Edinburgh body snatchers Burke and Hare, and even Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, making the cantata less about the religious idea of resurrection and more about man's desperate search for life after death.

The result was an eclectic set of texts which moved from Wikipedia on Cryogenics to a pair of broadsheet ballads about Burke and Hare, to my own highly digested version of Frankenstein, all interspersed with words from the Creed. So far, so good. I set to, writing for three soloists, soprano, tenor and bass, with instrumental ensemble. I completed the piece but remained dissatisfied. The balance did not seem to be quite right, and the Frankenstein section seemed to be far stronger than the rest of the work. I did what I always do when dissatisfied with a piece, I put it to one side so I could come back later and re-think.

I discovered that Ella Marchment's Helios Ensemble, music director Noah Mosley, was looking for proposals for short operatic works to go on a programme to be presented around Hallowe'en. And thus, The Genesis of Frankenstein was born, my expansion of the Frankenstein section of my resurrection piece, adapted for soprano, tenor, baritone, violin, viola, cello, piano and clarinet. It was staged in October 2015 at Helios Collective's Toi Toi 2015, and that seemed to be that.

Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein The Helios Collective with Mimi Jaeger, Anuschka Socher, Isolde Roxby, Noah Mosley at CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015
Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein
The Helios Collective with Mimi Jaeger, Anuschka Socher, Isolde Roxby, Noah Mosley
at CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015

During lockdown in 2020, I started looking out old projects, completing and revising them. I returned to the texts for the work I was calling Et expecto resurrectionem and decided to have another go, starting again by setting the texts from scratch. The first thing I realised was the Frankenstein section wasn't a satisfactory ending for the work, so I cast around for a final text.

During 2019, I had interviewed composer Ian Venables [see my interview]; technically the interview was supposed to be about his Requiem, but we ended up chatting extensively about song writing and the subject of Walt Whitman came up. I had confessed that I found Whitman tricky to set, and Ian had said that he had too, but recently had returned to the poet and found him rewarding.

Thus, I went looking at Whitman, and remembered Holst's Ode to Death, which I sang as a student in Manchester, and which was done at the BBC Proms in 2018. I found that the text from the Leaves of Grass fitted my requirements, a sort of transcendental meditation on death, the afterlife and music.

I set to, and wrote a new cantata for tenor, baritone and piano, though one or two fragments of the original material found their way into the new piece. The piece developed organically. Rather than individual solos for the two singers, the vocal lines weave around each other, sometimes the one completing the other's phrases. And as the piece progressed, I realised that the movements flowed into each other, forming a single continuous whole and I had great fun writing suitable linking passages so the transitions worked.

The result has a dramaturgical flow to it, and I fancy that it might even be staged. We begin with a firm statement of the creed, and then move onto cryogenics, followed by extracts of the Burke and Hare ballads and then Frankenstein. Between these, material from the original creed section returns, but the ending of Frankenstein merges into the beginning of the Whitman setting, almost as if our bold explorers flee their monster and find themselves in Whitman's transcendent landscape. 

Et expecto resurrectionem will be premiered on 3 February 2023 at Hinde Street Methodist Church by Ben Vonberg-Clark (tenor), James Atkinson (baritone), Nigel Foster (piano) in a programme that includes the premiere of my cantata Out of the shadows along with something of a retrospective of past works including settings of words by Lord Alfred Douglas, M.V. Lively (from How can you write a poem when you are dying of AIDS), J.A.Symonds translations of Michelangelo's sonnets and the contemporary American poet Carl Cook. [further details]

Out of the Shadows - Robert Hugil

1 Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum

        [Graduale Romanum]

2 Cryogenics
A central premise of cryonics is that long-term memory, personality and identity are stored in durable cell structures within the brain that do not require continuous brain activity to survive. In certain conditions the brain can stop functioning and still later recover with retention of long-term memory. Brain structures encoding, personality, long-term memory persist for some time after clinical death preserved by cryopreservation. Future technologies could restore encoded memories to functional expression
Theoretic'ly possible
Morally responsible.
Morally responsible?
[adapted by the composer from Wikipedia entry on Cryogenics]

3 - Burke & Hare
Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef.

When first I began this wild career,
'Twas with the old pensioner,
Who died a natural death last year,
But did not obtain a sepulchre.

The body we brought to Surgeons Square
Soon got a ready market for't,
And encourag'd thus to bring some more,
The rest soon followed after it.

Four were chok'd in Broggan's house,
Though Broggan did not know,
And four were murder'd in my house,
Which caused my overthrow.

My sentence, therefore, must be just,
For God's commandment says,
He that sheddeth another's blood,
His blood must it appease.

4 - Et vitam venturi
Et vitam venturi saeculi
[Graduale Romanum]

5 - On a dreary night of November
On a dreary night of November
I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.
With anxiety that almost amounted to agony,
I collected the instruments of life around me,
that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.
It was already one in the morning;
when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light,
I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open;
it breathed hard,
a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
I beheld the wretch
the miserable monster whom I had created.
His eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.
His jaws opened, he muttered inarticulate sounds,
one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me,
but I escaped
[adapted by the composer from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein]

6 - Come lovely and soothing death.
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
[Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass Book XXII]

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