Saturday 24 February 2024

The Lady of Satis House: composer Jacques Cohen talks about finally bringing his 2012 Charles Dickens-inspired monodrama to disc

Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - Marie Vassiliou at Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival in 2012 (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - Marie Vassiliou at Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival in 2012 (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Jacques Cohen's operatic monodrama The Lady of Satis House premiered in 2012. A commission from Bill Bankes-Jones' Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival, it was directed by Joe Austin, designed by Emily Harwood and performed by soprano Marie Vassiliou and the Piatti Quartet. 2012 was also the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth and faced with writing the opera in six weeks, Jacques chose Miss Havisham from Great Expectations as the subject, drawing his text from Dickens' book.

Jacques Cohen (Photo: Lester Barnes)
Jacques Cohen (Photo: Lester Barnes)

Now, some 12 years after those first performances, the work has appeared on disc, on the Meridian label, again performed by Marie Vassiliou with the Tippett Quartet. The disc also features two of Jacques' works for string quartet, When the Bough Breaks: Three Lullabies for String Quartet and From Behind Glass: Tone Poem for String Quartet.

The recording came about because Jacques had several recording projects in mind, of which The Lady of Satis House was one. Jacques is the music director and founder of the Cohen Ensemble and is known for his arrangements for string orchestra. He explains that throughout his whole career, there has been something of a pull between being a conductor and being a composer but his confidence as a composer has increased as his technique and style have developed. He has always composed but has realised that he is writing more.

His first disc with Meridian, Music for Strings, featured a variety of composers including one of his own works, whilst his second disc, Transcriptions for Strings, was his own arrangements for string orchestra. His disc of carols, Cohen's Carols on Willowhayne Records, was the first disc to contain only his music, so he was moving in the direction of a disc of his compositions. The Lady of Satis House felt it needed to be recorded, but it was also economic, just needing soprano and string quartet. 

Jacques admits that he usually considers that operas need to be seen to be properly appreciated, but as a chamber piece, he feels that The Lady of Satis House can be appreciated on disc, more than some other operas. Also, opera is harder and more expensive to stage, so the opportunity to preserve it on disc was ideal.

Generally, Jacques will tweak works after their first performance; he did this with his large-scale work, Creation that was premiered in 2023 but he did not feel the need to do this with The Lady of Satis House, and Jacques wonders whether this is because he wrote the work quickly, in just six weeks. Generally, he takes longer to write pieces, he likes the process of slow working out but with The Lady of Satis House, he went on instinct.

After all, it is a dramatic work and it makes sense to write it quickly, to keep the dramatic conviction. Jacques adds that composers often either aim for perfection or conviction, with The Lady of Satis House, Jacques was definitely the latter and he points out that even a composer like George Benjamin, who famously takes great pains with his scores, writes his operas at a far faster pace.

Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - recording session with Marie Vassiliou, Tippett Quartet (Photo: Richard Hughes)
Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - recording session with Marie Vassiliou, Tippett Quartet (Photo: Richard Hughes)

But why set Miss Havisham to music at all, does she need it? As far as Jacques is concerned, Great Expectations is a great book, whilst Miss Havisham is a dramatic character. But she is also insane, it makes a sort of sense that she sings. Just think about the logistics and hygiene of her shutting herself away for all those years, still wearing her wedding dress. It is not plausible in reality, and in the opera, this becomes an extension into music. This lack of naturalism is one reason, Jacques avers, that so many operas are not set in modern times, with less naturalism it is a less obvious problem for the characters to sing.

In the opera, we only hear Miss Havisham's voice and the other characters are heard via her remembrance of them. He never felt the need to add further performers into the opera, after all, the other characters are an extension of her, she is not being the other characters but recalling them. Also, the string quartet is such a flexible medium that players can express a great deal more. By sticking to just soprano and string quartet the intensity is preserved whilst adding singers as the other characters would dilute things. Also, the opera is about insanity and all the other characters are not insane, so why would they sing?

One thing that he often tells composition students is that when dealing with practical problems in a piece, the solution that is the most practical is often better for the music. He sees the restriction of the original brief as stimulating his creativity. It was created on a limited budget and all the stronger for that.

The work was written for Marie Vassiliou, for whom Jacques has written other works. When Jacques and I first met back in 2014 it was to talk about the premiere of his song cycle, Love Journeys, written for Marie Vassiliou [see my interview]. He imagined her performing The Lady of Satis House, but she is different on disc to ten years ago. Returning to the opera, she has found more in it, more depth, but Jacques would also look forward to other sopranos performing the opera and making it their own. He enjoys others performing his music and finds it the greatest compliment when someone performs his music differently from the way he would do it and performs it well. Someone else making the music their own.

He sees the opera as having a particular atmosphere, reflecting the claustrophobia that comes from a house without light. He intends his music for the opera to unify the atmosphere, the unsettling sense of something joyful replaced by tragedy. Humour is important too, and he points out that it is important in music by composers like Beethoven and Mozart that we regard as serious. For Jacques, we don't embrace humour enough.

The other two pieces were chosen because they fit the atmosphere of the disc. From Behind Glass was always going to be on the disc, it has the right sort of dark atmosphere. But originally they were going to perform another work for string quartet that Jacques felt was too upbeat. The three lullabies, When the Bough Breaks, were written for the Tippett Quartet. The first of them was written a long time ago, for piano, and he adapted it specially for the quartet, adding two further movements.

Jacques admits that his music often as a leaning towards the macabre and the creepy, and the new disc has a distinctive atmosphere. All composers have different relationships to tonality, but Jacques feels that he uses simple diatonic melodies undermined by non-diatonic harmonies. And he points out that many lullabies are dark and creepy, using edgy humour.

Jacques Cohen
Jacques Cohen

When I ask how he would describe his musical style, he comments that we have such a limited vocabulary for describing such things, but that for him it is about communicating feelings. Both the opera and one of the other works on the disc are programmatic, but if audiences enjoy the music without thinking of the programme then Jacques is happy with that too. He wants his music to evoke a feeling, and whilst all the music on the disc has a dark element, there is a wide spectrum of emotions.

His piece Creation, which premiered in March 2023 conducted by Jacques as part of Lloyd’s Choir's centenary, is his largest work to date; he would like to work on that scale more. During lockdown, when everything stopped, he had time to work on two large-scale orchestral scores and is currently working on performance plans for them. But works like Creation and Exodus Fragments, which premiered in 2015, both create a bigger sound alongside a sense of drama which makes the works sound bigger.

He uses his own version of tonality. Whilst some composers either eschew tonality or eschew dissonance embraces both and with his opera, with its extremes of emotion, he embraces the extremes of both tonality and dissonance. He wants to convey a wide range of emotions and not be inhibited by a particular style. He wants to embrace the full spectrum, why deprive yourself, he comments. For him, writing music needs a frame of reference, extremes of tonality and dissonance need to be in relation to something.

He has conducted a lot of atonal music, and whatever you conduct you have to be an advocate. Sometimes when conducting, he thinks 'Would I do it differently?' But he tries not to get in the way of the music, tries to be mindful not to do it. He comments that composers who conduct are often drawn to works by composers who are like them. When he is conducting other people's music he tries to forget that he is a composer, and when he is conducting his own music he tries to forget that it is his own.

Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - Marie Vassiliou, Tippett Quartet - Meridian Records CDE84668 [further details]

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Vivid intensity & profound expressivity: Vox Luminis explores the world of the 17th century Italian Stabat Mater at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Revealing a remarkable talent: Solomon's Knot explore the Sacred Songs and Anthems of 17th century composer George Jeffreys - record review
  • Knowing no boundarieson Circus Dinograd contemporary & period performers move between styles & genres without embarrassment - record review
  • In Relations: exploring links from Meyerbeer, to Loewe, to Mendelssohn, to Schumann, to Emilie Mayer and Frances Allitsen - record review
  • Mythical Creatures: I chat to Polish-born, Australian composer Paul Kopetz about the recent disc of his music - interview
  • A Lionel Tertis CelebrationTimothy Ridout, Frank Dupree, James Baillieu; Harmonia Mundi - record review
  • Young Composers 5: the latest iteration of the National Youth Choir's Young Composers scheme challenge & stimulate - record review
  • Direct, determined & loud: Welsh composer David John Roche introduces his new electric guitar concerto for Sean Shibe - feature
  • Celebrating 75 years: London Mozart Players in all-Mozart programme plus the launch of 100 Faces of Croydon - concert review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month