Stephen Montague’s ‘Wilful Chants’ is a setting of primitive ululations, spells of sorcery, and Latin phrases wrapped in a shroud of synthetic liturgical cloth.
It’s a sceptical, socio-political, free-word-association rant: a wolf in ecclesiastical sheep’s clothing. Don’t take my word for this: I’m quoting verbatim from Montague’s programme-note. This piece, he added from the platform, was his revenge for the religion forced down his throat as a child.
Now if a chap can review his own composition so efficiently – every word was accurate – what’s the point of a critic? To react, and to evaluate. As the BBC Symphony Chorus plus London Brass delivered it, this work was by turns funny and very impressive, with unexpected moments of almost Verdian grandeur: ambitious choirs will doubtless queue up to perform it. But the odd thing is this: you could attach different words to it, and it could stand as a work of conventional devotion. Montague may be 67, but he might still mellow and want to make a peace-offering to the God he’s so joyfully maligned. He should therefore keep this score for re-use.
Thanks to intelligent planning, two other works in this programme – both inhabiting the same sound-world – pointed up the infantility of Montague’s scatter-gun approach to religion. Daniel-Lesur’s ‘Le cantique des cantiques’ – ‘Song of Songs’, or the Song of Solomon – dealt sweetly with a text which, with its dignified ideal of a love at once human and divine, has had a profounder effect on Sufism than it has on Christianity. But if that was a minor piece, Poulenc’s ‘Figure humaine’, which preceded it, is one of the twentieth century’s key choral works. And the way these versatile singers performed it, under Stephen Jackson’s direction, brought out the religious impulse underlying the political one.
Poulenc, who had rediscovered his Catholic faith on the eve of the Second World War, decided to set a poem sequence by Paul Eluard as a paean to liberty during the Nazi Occupation; he gave the honour of premiering it to the BBC Chorus, in recognition of the BBC’s support during France’s darkest days. The sweet-sour harmonies and kaleidoscopic musical impressionism – sometimes ragingly wild, sometimes of butterfly-wing delicacy – created some unforgettable effects.