Unfinished Remembering – Q&A: Paul Spicer

An in-demand conductor, composer, record producer, lecturer and writer, Paul has been conducting Birmingham Bach Choir since 1992.

The first complete recording of Paul’s large-scale Easter Oratorio, originally commissioned as part of the Lichfield Festival Millennium celebrations, was released in 2005 and has received considerable critical acclaim.

He presently teaches choral conducting at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where he also directs both chamber choirs, and at Oxford and Durham Universities, and has recently published a full-scale biography and study of composer Sir George Dyson.

For full biography, including details of other compositions, recordings and work, see: http://www.paulspicer.com

Paul Spicer

Q: Having read Euan’s prose for the first time, were any particular lines that resonated with you?

I liked very much the wide-ranging nature of his text. The fact that he wasn’t focused purely on WW1 but used it as the basis for a remembering of all people lost in conflicts since. I also liked his way of bringing in other deaths from conflicts of different sorts, like the murder of Stephen Lawrence through racial hatred, and Matthew Shepard who was murdered for being gay. In this way the First World War became the ‘grandfather’ of modern conflicts big and small.

I liked the way the dead soldiers in Euan’s text became living characters demanding of us if we are worthy of their sacrifice. That’s quite a facer if you ask the question directly of yourself.

Q: How did you begin the process of writing? Did you start at the beginning and work through…? Or work on different passages at the same time?

Yes, I began at the beginning and worked through the whole libretto in order. I prefer to do that because, with a big piece, it is better for seeing the progression of a work.

Q: What specific challenges did the work present for you?

There were many challenges to overcome. There was the whole overarching thing of whether I could actually create four big symphonic movements – something I had never done before. I was also always having to respond to a text which I had been given and I had to ask Euan for a lot of changes, big and small. The biggest of them was the total re-writing of the final movement as I felt what Euan had written was too close in character to the third movement and I needed a complete contrast. Something he supplied quickly and very effectively.

Q: Unfinished Remembering is in four movements, can you take us though each movement…

The first movement (‘Requiem’) begins with a relentlessly quick marching theme with a repetitive note chimed throughout which feels doom laden, but also evocative of a quick march and of nervousness. This is a feature of the whole movement which moves with the text and has some extremely passionate outburst from the choir. It ends quietly with the constant questioning.

The second movement (‘Scherzo: Dies Irae’) picks up the repetitive note figure from the first movement but turns it into a helter-skelter, fast-moving, syncopated music which asks with that nervous expectation how the dead soldiers would judge our contemporary society. This is the movement which carries within in the ‘scena’ of the three ‘riddles’ Euan poses asking us to name three young men who died as a result of more modern social conflicts and facing us with the terrible question as to whether we can name all the holocaust names.  The movement ends with a quietly serene chorale-like music.

The third movement (‘Recordare’) is the slow movement of the symphony which begins with the solo baritone unaccompanied, coming out of that chorale. He i=s nervous and fearful of the battle about to erupt and into which he has to throw himself. A semi-chorus sings the Bach harmonised chorale ‘When in the hour of utmost need’ in German while the main choir sings against it in the agonies of their broken lives about to be sacrificed. The chorale has the effect of both a ’normality’ and a prayer in the midst of total chaos. It is also, of course, in German whilst the choir sings in English and therefore heightens further that sense of the actual conflict between these two nations. It returns at the end with a degree of resolution.

The fourth movement (‘Libera me’) starts powerfully and is a depiction of the heat of battle in a city which is in the process of being destroyed. The music pulsates with energy and a solo piano part acts percussively almost like a machine gun pelting out its stream of death. Again, rather like the previous movement, there is a ‘chorale’ set up in the middle of the mayhem. It came to me to use Tallis’ wonderful tune which Vaughan Williams used in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Euan’s words ‘In the cathedral the ghost tear congregation begins to howl that never to be mended hymn.’ It just came to me that Tallis’ tune sung by the semi-chorus and surrounded in a halo of horns in the orchestra, would fit perfectly. It also uses a section of Euan’s previously discarded text for his original 4th movement. Gradually the noise subsides and the soldier cries out to be freed from this death and destruction. Towards the end there is a big section, richly scored, honouring the dead, and the work ends with the statement ‘it is enough’ but the exhortation ‘it is not yet enough’. The music ends inconclusively as we feel that sense of unfinished remembering which will go on until the end of time.

Q: Do you have any personal connection to WWI or the military?

No, I have not real personal connection. My two grandfathers served in their own ways. My maternal grandfather was gassed but did not die, although he died younger than he should have done. My father was in the army and then transferred to the airforce and flew Spitfires doing aerial reconnaissance. Quite a dangerous job as their planes could have no armoury as the photographic equipment was heavy and the planes small. At the end of the war he was aide de camp to a General and had the remarkable privilege (if it can be thought of like that) of going into Hilter’s bunker with the General immediately following the end of WW2.

* Unfinished Remembering receives its premiere on Saturday 13 September 2014 at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with Paul Spicer conducting Birmingham Bach Choir, Orchestra of the Swan, (Soprano) Johane Ansell and (Baritone)William Dazeley. For more details, see: http://www.birmingham.bachchoir.com

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