The sounds of the century

Two of the largest new works commissioned for this year's Proms address the burden of the last century's history: Robin Holloway's symphony charts its course; Jonathan Harvey's cantata laments its victims
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The Independent Culture

Among the usual batch of commissions for this year's Proms, two stand out - the Proms Millennium Commissions, big works both: a symphony, and not just any symphony, from Robin Holloway (born 1943), and a cantata, Mothers Shall Not Cry, from Jonathan Harvey (born 1939).

Among the usual batch of commissions for this year's Proms, two stand out - the Proms Millennium Commissions, big works both: a symphony, and not just any symphony, from Robin Holloway (born 1943), and a cantata, Mothers Shall Not Cry, from Jonathan Harvey (born 1939).

Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Proms, hankered after something explicitly ambitious, something which used the fulcrum of the millennium to look both back and forward. His aim was: "To make a special splash in terms of commitment to the new, so as well as the usual commissions, I went to two people who I felt were ideal for the sort of big-scale statement I wanted the Proms to make this year."

It is the differences between the two composers that make the choice inspired: Holloway the radical conservative, Harvey the lyrical modernist, personal friends with a good deal of mutual respect, and each with just enough suspicion of the other's means to promise informative tensions across the four-day gap between the performances. (Holloway's symphony is premiered tomorrow evening, and Mothers Shall Not Cry is premiered on Wednesday.)

Holloway took only two or three days to accept Kenyon's commission for a piece "about" the 20th century, then realised he didn't know how he could respond to it. He didn't want to write music that was explicitly politically engaged - he regards works with a "message", like Britten's War Requiem or, indeed, Harvey's cantata, as exerting emotional blackmail. And yet, against his better judgement, he found himself writing a work which offers some degree of moral evaluation.

Even then, he didn't initially realise he was composing a symphony. He has expressed several of his big structures in a series of Concertos for Orchestra - scores of cornucopian orchestral richness (Nos 2 and 3 have been recorded by that stalwart new-music label, NMC).

Did this work begin life as Concerto for Orchestra No 4? "No," he answers. "A symphony is a completely different creature. It's a different kind of material, doing a different thing - a texture of development, organic, unfolding in form."

That form turned out to be a three-movement structure which attempts to parallel in music the main articulations of the century. Holloway accepted that he couldn't do sonic justice to the concentrated injustice of the two World Wars, and so decided to use them as the silent joints between his movements.

The first movement then became plush, late-Romantic, fulsomely rich, pausing in a brief epilogue before being swallowed by the silence that represents the First World War; and the third, post-1945, splits the orchestra in two opposing factions before a long, unison line of melody pulls together the thematic contours of the work to form what Holloway calls "a rainbow of hope".

It is the central scherzo which is likely to leave tomorrow night's listeners in a state of stunned disbelief. It begins jauntily enough but gradually builds up into a nightmarish welter of sound: the 58 separate strands of orchestral texture on its densest pages defeated this score-reading eye.

Holloway seems almost surprised by what he has achieved. "It's not meant to be literally pictorial, but that is nonetheless a kind of evocation of the period 1919 to 1939. It's the scherzo from hell; it's the scherzo to hell. It begins in pure momentum, and gradually, from the highest, emptiest kind of orchestration, I thought of it as gradually filling out the total chromatic space, from top to bottom of the orchestra, all in whirling motion, going absolutely nowhere - from complete nothingness to a complete, dense blackness."

The point of departure for Jonathan Harvey's cantata, written for soprano and tenor soloists, females choruses, orchestra and electronics, was an acknowledgement of "the 200 million people who died this century as a result of totalitarianism". The chorus thus begins by singing the names of individuals killed in politicised violence: Meta Schoeneberg-Weinberg, a mother killed in Auschwitz; Choekyi Wangmo, a nun beaten to death in Tibet; Mukadjze Mukhaxheri, who died in Kosovo last year; Brenda Logue, killed by the Omagh bomb.

Harvey had been contemplating an opera on the life of the Virgin Mary for years, and a lot of the material found its way into Mothers Shall Not Cry. The texts, he explains, draw on "the theme of the divine mother, the divine feminine, from all over the world, in Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. And a lot of the texts are by women, so it continues the theme of the mother-archetype".

Harvey, brought up a Christian and now also a practising Buddhist, admits that Mothers Shall Not Cry has a strong ritual element. To that he brings one of the central concerns of his music: sheer beauty of sound. And in the new cantata, his inventive textures will be enhanced with electronics. From two eight-track tape-recorders, women's voices join the chorus in calling the names of the dead.

The score also calls on something called an Orville which, Harvey explains, is "a sophisticated live treatment box, with two independent machines. It can treat the sound simply by elaborative reverberation, then by delays and by harmonisation - by shifting the pitches, so whatever comes in gets played back in transpositions, often in many streams at the same time. So if the mike takes a note from the trumpet into the box, a chorus of trumpets can result. And it's distributed round quadraphonic space - it's a four-track output. We'll have four speakers relatively low down and four up in the galleries, using either or both of those quadraphonic circuits."

At last year's Proms, Giles Swayne's Havoc used speakers to send a bolt of sound fizzing round the inside wall of the Albert Hall, wall-of-death style; does Harvey attempt a similar geographical liberty? "It's difficult to move sounds in the Albert Hall because it's so vast, so in general I've avoided that kind of race-track stuff. Nevertheless, separate, staccato points around the Hall work quite well, so I do use the complete space."

Harvey seems unaware that Mothers Shall Not Cry might be making a political statement: "I've never written anything overtly political, though I suppose the use of living names touches a live nerve - their mothers might even be in the audience."

So this work is not a political statement? "That's a hard question to answer, because I wouldn't know where to draw the border between politics, society and psychology. It's a work about people, about what I took to be a millennium challenge, which is 'Where are we now, and where are we beginning to look towards?'.

"That's the only point in having a millennium, to focus on some questions like that. Is it something new that is slowly beginning to happen? I suppose that's a political issue as much as a social and religious one."

And it's the duty of the composer to respond it? "Absolutely, if he can."

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