Cheryl Frances-Hoad Photography by Mat Smith Photography
Ahead of an appraisal of her new piece on this site, here is an interview with composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad about The Beginning of the World, a commission for the BBC Proms – to be performed in the company of the music of Thomas Tallis. Cheryl talked with Arcana about rubbing shoulders with one of the greats of English music – and the thrill of writing for the BBC Proms:
When did the BBC approach you with this commission?
Actually it was the Cardinall’s Musick who approached me, in March of last year (my piece isn’t an official BBC commission, although it is a Prom Premiere. Originally my new work was supposed to be premiered in Leeds, but the timings didn’t work out, so, it was decided that it would be premiered at the Proms instead. Leeds is a wonderful city, but in this case I’m glad the original premiere date didn’t work out! 🙂
Was there a particular brief?
Yes, the Cardinall’s Musick wanted a piece for eight voices (double SATB choir) (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) that was a homage to Tallis, and about 7 minutes long (I ended up writing a piece that’s closer to 9 minutes). They suggested some words (I eventually selected my own) but were otherwise completely free about how I should approach the commission.
In the Proms guide the working title for your new work was ‘Homage to Tallis’. At what point did it become ‘From the Beginning of the World’?
At the time we had to list the piece in the Proms brochure, I still had absolutely no idea what the piece was going to be called (or, I think, what text I was going to use – I only finished the piece on the 20th June!)
I got a bit stuck when I began to think about this piece – Tallis is such a wonderful composer but I found a lots of the texts he set, well, a bit boring (mostly because a large amount were in Latin). I wanted to find an exciting text that was somehow relevant to Tallis and contemporary times, but for about a month I was utterly stuck.
I plodded through a two foot high pile of books about Tallis but got nowhere. But, little by little (and at this stage with quite a lot of help from Google) I started connecting things – Tallis lived in Greenwich towards the end of his life, which lead me on to reading about the refinements of timekeeping and the calender during his lifetime, which then lead on to discovering that there was a major astrological event that happened whilst he was alive…which came to symbolize (to me) the massive changes that occurred during Tallis’s lifetime (including for instance the Reformation)…which lead to discovering Tycho Brahe’s (A Danish astronomer) ‘Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’….
Where does the text come from?
Tycho Brahe‘s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577. I spent several weeks in libraries attempting to find a suitable text. Whether Tallis knew about the comet is unknown of course, but this seismic event, to me, seemed emblematic of all the great changes that occurred during his lifetime, in areas such as religion, the calendar, and time-keeping (finding out that Tallis lived out his last days in Greenwich was an extra bonus).
The text also seems to speak to contemporary times: whilst Brahe may have thought the comet’s birth would cause the sun to ‘bring unnatural heat’, nowadays we know that its ‘venom [will be] spewed over the lands’ due to mankind’s continued pillaging of the earth’s natural resources, a fact which our political ‘pseudo-prophets’ seem to deem less important than saving us from a false austerity.
The full text of From the Beginning of the World
Then it comes to pass that something new is born in the heavens
Contrary to the custom of nature
And all mankind holds it to be a great wonder.
Videte Miraculum (Behold the miracle)
A miracle of the heavens.
From the beginning of the world
From the uppermost sphere of the fixed stars
This new birth reveals itself
A comet with a very long tail.
Something new can be generated in the heavens.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto (Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost)
But what do such unnatural births mean?
Creator caeli et terrae! (Creator of Heaven and Earth),
Respice humilitatem nostram (Be mindful of our lowliness)
Peccavi (Have mercy)
Great mortality among mankind.
Mighty and destructive wind storms
Poisonings of the air
Great harm by fire.
Great mortality among mankind.
The sun will bring unnatural heat
The sun will bring harmful, unnatural heat
It will spew its venom over the lands
Great mortality among mankind
Those who deal with political regimes
Will be much stifled
(Creator caeli et terrae)
Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets
(Respice humilitatem nostram)
Will be punished, punished.
Great wars and bloodsheddings.
Miserere Nostri (Have mercy on us)
However, there are actually no reliable grounds
For predicting the end of the world from this comet.
It thus behooves us to use well our short life here on earth,
So that we may praise him for all eternity.
Our short life here on earth…
The music itself is very influenced by Tallis, and canons and imitation abound. During my time as a ‘cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, I performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis many times, and so From the Beginning of the World, which also uses Tallis’s Third Mode Melody from the English Hymnal, is really a homage to both composers.
How would you describe the piece?
At this point of interview I haven’t heard the piece yet (I have to wait until Saturday 18th to hear it for the first time!) But, I hope it is a tremendously dramatic piece, perhaps a bit melodramatic! (also see paragraph above this question…)
Is it daunting knowing the work will be performed around such a well-loved work as Spem in alium, or does that become an inspiration as it is a homage to Tallis himself?
It was inspiring when I was composing, but now it’s daunting. It’s silly, I’ve written far bigger pieces than the one that’s to be premiered on the 20th, but I have to say I’m getting incredibly nervous for this premiere! I really hope I haven’t gone and written a dud! However! I’ve consciously both based this piece closely on Tallis, AND tried to do some things that are very different in style – so, at the very least, my piece will stand out hopefully!
How does it feel to be writing a piece for the Proms?
Does it help that the concert is available on the iPlayer afterwards, for people to get a chance to properly get to know the piece?
Absolutely! And this year, all the Proms are also downloadable which is wonderful! Particularly as my piece is being performed at lunchtime, I imagine many people won’t be able to listen live, so it’s so wonderful to be able to nag people to listen to it on iPlayer for 30 days after the premiere!
The BBC are actively encouraging new music with programs like ‘Five Under 35’ – do you feel the corporation is stronger than ever in its support for current composers at the Proms?
I’m not really sure to be honest – I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have been chosen as one of the Five under 35 (as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations) and feature in the Proms – but I’m not sure how connected the two are.
You can listen to the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s FromThe Beginning of the World as part of the first Proms Chamber Music concert of the season, given by the Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood, by clicking here
You will shortly be able to hear Cheryl’s thoughts on how it went – and an Arcana appraisal – on the site in the next few days.
For more information on Cheryl you can visit her website – and as a taster here is a recent YouTube post of her Mazurka for violin and piano: