Nick Propert is a cellist whose orchestra is performing the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten…..
The moment is nearly upon him. Even though he is cocooned in the centre of the orchestra it is still possible to look across to the baritone. The singer is rising to his feet, steadily, not hurried; his score held out at arm’s length as, if were it not for the grip of his hands, it might float up into the air.
“Be slowly lifted up” he sings. In front of Nick the instruments of the chamber orchestra start to inject menace into the music. Line by line the singer builds the tension, his vocal line punctuated by stabbing blows on the timpani. Nick has been waiting for this moment; a moment he has known about for years, a moment that he knows can send palpable shivers down the length of his spine.
“May God curse thee” sings the baritone “and cast thee from our soul!” that last word a fortissimo, prolonged top G and at that moment the whole orchestra, trumpets, lower brass, wind and strings flood the Abbey church with a chord of such vastness that it fills every corner of the building, leaving no place to escape from the reverberation; and this is just a prelude to the entry of the whole chorus whose every member sings their loudest, “dies irae, dies illa”, orchestra and choir each seeming to outdo the other. Nick is using all the force that he can muster to stab at his cello strings with repeated staccato down bows, unable to hear what he is playing because of the overwhelming mass of sound.
In the past he has heard this moment through speakers, playing his original vinyl recording, a treasured purchase in its shining black box. Now he is immersed in it, sunk in the very bowels of the orchestra. On and on go the shouts of the chorus, seven beats in a bar; the voices and upper orchestra cut into by the cellos, double basses, bassoons and trombones. Nick counts in his head as if to the beat of a demented grandfather clock; “one-crash-three-crash-five-crash crash” over and over again, seven beats in a bar. He keeps a view of the conductor in his peripheral vision, watching for the down beat that can anchor him in place. That is the good thing about this conductor, you can always rely on a good down beat, however complicated the rhythm.
The tension eases, the music quietens and moves into the Lacrimosa, the change in mood being imperceptible. Here is music of beauty and sadness floating down from high above him. A lone soprano, elevated on the rood screen, accompanied by the whole chorus is singing pianissimo. Nick leans forward on his cello for he is not playing in this section; the limpid sound washes over him. It is as if the composer knows what is needed at this point. Nick is glad of it.
Movement by movement the work marches on, sometimes majestic, sometimes poignant. At last they approach the climax at the end of the work. They have rehearsed this again and again. It is difficult; difficult technically and difficult rhythmically. Layers of sound are lain out on top of each other; when it seems as if no more can be held the voice of the soprano arcs over the whole cataclysm and in a moment the music collapses in on itself. The chorus are left, muttering “libera me” as they disappear.
At last Nick can relax. He sits still, welded to his seat. The tenor and the baritone embark on a long recitative, the point to which poet and composer have brought us, a point out of the battle, out of the destruction, out of the anguish. Nick cannot stop the tears coming now; the sadness, the loss flows out. He keeps as still as he can, hoping that nobody notices.
“Let us sleep now” sing the two soloists and then, from the farthest end of the church floats the sound of the boy’s chorus, chanting “in paradisum”. All fades and the members of the adult chorus, as if they were one single, silent voice, breathe the final chorale, “Requiescat in pace. Amen.”
There is silence. After an interval, whose length Nick cannot measure, the conductor lowers his baton. Bit by bit the applause starts, now it grows into a sea of another category of sound. Nick does not want it. He wants to be back in that silence. That kind of silence is new to him; not just the absence of sound but something positive, something unusual, deeply unusual. Something internal.
It is late before he arrives home. The journey is difficult, rain pouring in torrents down the windscreen of his car. The single wiper of his ancient Renault is no match for the flood; as well as that he is getting wet for there are more rust holes in the bodywork than most people would tolerate.
The rhythmical sweep of the single windscreen wiper echoes the night’s performance. He tries to fit the repetitive left, right to a 7/4 time signature. Only when he becomes more distracted than is safe does he give it up. He drives slowly. Eventually he meets the outskirts of his home town. In the pouring rain he can just make out the floodlit tower of All Saint’s Church, Victorian Gothic in its uglier manifestation………
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