Roderic Dunnett visits Estonia to witness the world première of a remarkable musical work by the English composer Gregory Rose.
TALLINN, the capital of Estonia, is one of the most beautifully preserved old towns in Europe. Despite being occupied by the Nazis, and half-razed by Russian bombardment, it is an oasis of artistic endeavour.
Its opera, ballet, choral tradition, historic palaces, and museums must rank among the best in Europe — and best-kept. Peter the Great built a Queen Anne-like summer palace for his consort in the leafy suburb of Kadriorg.
So, Tallinn had cultural capital, even before it received its honorific title as European Capital of Culture 2011, alongside Turku, the former capital of neighbouring Finland.
Ranked among its finest art treasures is the collection of religious paintings, housed in the Niguliste, or St Nicholas’s, one of the Old Town’s many imposing and beautiful ecclesiastical buildings. Now decommissioned — and all but rebuilt from scratch under the Soviets, whose 1944 onslaught destroyed it — it is used as a concert hall.
Amid the welter of musical endeavour (the British composers James MacMillan and Roxanna Panufnik were among those featured in “Tallinn 2011 — European Capital of Culture”, and several British ensembles have also participated), arguably the best was saved up until near the end.
Late last month, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) — founded by Tõnu Kaljuste, and recognised as one of the best professional choirs in the world — gave the world première in the Niguliste of Surmatants (Dance of Death) by Gregory Rose: a sacred work of great dramatic intensity.
SURMATANTS is the title of a magnificent artwork in the Niguliste — a polyptych, by the north-German painter Bernt Notke (c.1435-1508/9). A contemporary of Cranach and Grünewald, Notke was admired — and imitated — by Holbein. The painting depicts a skeletal death-figure (in effect, seven death-figures; originally, there were more), taunting and chillingly claiming the souls of those in authority, from royalty to ecclesiastics and the Pope himself.
Several sections of the painting are lost: burghers and aldermen were not, it seems, exempt. And, in the last scene of the original, Death even dares approach a child — only to hold back at the last moment. Thus, to the artist’s eye, infancy remained, mercifully, untouched.
The brilliance of Rose’s music lies in the way it fuses the approachable with the ultra-modern and challen-ging. The middle son of the great Oxford choir-trainer Dr Bernard Rose, Gregory was, like his father, a boy chorister at Salisbury Cathedral. Rose senior was one of the most famous treble soloists in England, and HMV’s far younger reserve for Master Ernest Lough’s celebrated 1927 recording of the solo in Mendelssohn’s anthem “Hear my prayer”.
Steeped in the English choral tradition (Rose also sang in his father’s choir at Magdalen College, Oxford), he then studied in Vienna with a pupil of Schoenberg, founded the choir Singcircle, and made one of Hyperion’s best-selling recordings: Stimmung, by Stockhausen.
So, one might have expected some avant-garde fireworks here, too. Yet, amid a substantial secular output, Rose has also composed anthems and evening services — not least for St Paul’s Cathedral, where his son was a chorister — and a clutch of Masses.
THESE, perhaps were a training for Surmatants; for, as if to offset the gory goings-on on an upper stage, as skull-disporting Death (the splendid baritone Rainer Vilu, of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) claims his noble victims, one by one, the choir, in a moving and riveting performance amid sinister downturned lights, sings the entire text of the Missa pro defunctis, or requiem mass.
These two elements are beautifully contrasted and imaginitively interspersed: none of this meticulously plotted, 28-section score (the number seven plays an important part, Rose points out) felt gratuituous or irrelevant. The two strands, death-ditties and requiem, mesh together brilliantly.
But there are yet other contrasting features. Rose has introduced a dance element, albeit an audial one. Surmatants, as its Estonian title suggests (tants means “dance”), is a work that initially suggested to Rose some balletic content. For various practical reasons, these Tallinn performances focused on simple costuming rather than elaborate attire, and the characters’ stylised gestures, to a degree, mirrored those in the painting, lending the work the feel of a medieval mystery play.
An element of back-projection, again using the richly clad Notke originals, was also mooted, but no action was taken. Yet all this was arguably for the better: the formalised approach allowed Rose’s score and the actor-singers’ individual anguish to speak even more eloquently.
He includes seven orchestral dances: five, vibrant in character and orchestration; two, sombre yet expressive, enraptured and almost other-worldly. These last feature a summoning drumbeat, and an electrifying violin solo (with, I thought, the searing and slightly lugubrious timbres of a viola) which form a processional and recessional (an idea found in Britten’s Church Parables).
All were played by a prodigiously gifted chamber ensemble: a 14-player group brought together for the occasion, and conducted by the composer. The team’s make-up recalls similar groupings deployed by Stravinsky, the Hungarian modernist György Ligeti, or Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s group the Fires of London — all freely acknowledged as strong influences on Rose’s new work.
PERHAPS the most intriguing ingredient of Dance of Death is the texts. Rose first conducted in Tallinn almost two decades ago, just a year after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. On one of many subsequent visits, Rose was bowled over by the Niguliste.
“I just loved it from the moment I saw it,” he said. “I loved the spaciousness of it. It has a tangible atmosphere, and quite a large, or spacious, acoustic.” The latter was particularly evident during the three performances of Surmatants.
The new work originally came about in this way: “When I was conducting the chamber choir in 2006,” Rose said, “I was invited by Tõnu Kaljuste, then their director, to a rehearsal they were doing of music by Arvo Pärt next day in the Niguliste.
“I went early, and, although I’d seen Notke’s painting several times before, I found myself absorbed by the words on them. So I asked Tarmo Saaret, the director of the Niguliste art museum: ‘Have you got copies of the words?’ Tarmo said ‘Yes, we’ve got them in many languages: which do you want?’ I requested German, Estonian, and English. As soon as I read those medieval scripts through, I thought they were brilliant, and highly dramatic. They evoke Death addressing in sequence, and then seizing or claiming, various characters in positions of authority.
“I took the texts back to my hotel; and next morning I spoke to Anneli Unt, the former General Director of the EPCC, and told her I was so amazed by these ominous words depicted in the painting, that I’d like one day to write some sort of cantata, based on them — to which Anneli replied: ‘Yes, and we’ll be the first to perform it!’”
IN NOTKE’s collective portrait, not just the grotesque figures, but a scroll of words sprawls horizontally across the painting. The writing is in Gothic script; the text is written in medieval German. “It probably dates back further”, Rose said, “to medieval France, where the idea of the Danse de Mort took hold around 1400 at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris.
“Whether Bernt Notke was religious himself I can’t say — I would be speculating. The painting could be religious, or maybe not. But in both the text and the individual painted tableaux, Death is quite strong. He’s clearly saying ‘I am more important than you mere mortals, who last for but a day.’
“So, whether at the end you get a Christian rather than a humanist message, I’m equally unsure. However, by introducing the requiem, I try to give it that — I put it in to endow the musical, or music-theatre, work with a Christian feeling, to suggest that there are ways to subsume death. The requiem enables the work to end with calm, even optimism. ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is a way of calming a very hyperactive Death down by the end.
“Extraordinarily, one night I actually dreamed this Dance of Death: I visualised a whole music-theatre piece based on Notke’s Surmatants painting, complete with the individual characters, with dance and masks, etc. It was extraordinarily vivid, and I know that it gave massive impetus to my deciding to compose the work.
“I love the way Death says things like: ‘Well, Mr Pope, you’re the highest now, but even you must follow me: Her pawes du byst hogest nu Dantse wy voer ik vñ du;’ or chides the Emperor’s ‘haughtiness’, and berates the King with ignoring the lowly poor.
“Yet, in the musical work, the dramatic way he claims people’s souls, pushing them down the steps after addressing and berating them, is rather ghoulish and quite sinister. You can actually sense their terror. Compare the Empress, sung here by the splendid Kaia Urb: ‘I know that Death means me! I have never before known terror so great!’
“They’re all pretty frightened — cowardly, even: who wouldn’t be? But the intention of my approach, incorporating the requiem mass, is to work towards a kind of reconciliation — to lay to rest, with a feeling of hope, all those who have died.”
CERTAINLY, “In paradisum deducant te Angeli,” (“When angels lead you into paradise”) or “Et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem” (“And with Lazarus once poor may you have eternal rest”), and the exquisite Pie Jesu (“Dona eis requiem sempiternam”: “Grant them eternal rest”), which Rose places last, are among the most beautifully reassuring texts in the whole Christian canon.
It must be daunting to tread in the footsteps of Duruflé, Fauré, Mozart, Victoria, Verdi, and others. But Rose, who enjoys wide acclaim as a teacher (at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich), and as a conductor (Europe-wide, and especially in the former Communist countries), has never been afraid to confront a challenge.
The fact that Surmatants is seen in Tallinn, by the EPCC performers and audiences alike, as one of this choir’s most significant achievements to date, is a measure of the quality, depth, and sense of the numinous with which Rose — a committed Christian since his chorister days — has endowed this immensely satisfying 70-minute piece.
The most famous composer to come from Estonia, Arvo Pärt, was there to greet and hug Rose at the première — as high an accolade as one could hope for. Rose has evoked from Notke’s Dance of Death story an absorbing musical masterpiece — one that illuminates the country’s national icon rather than detracts from it.
The EPCC has tentative plans to take Dance of Death on tour to a number of cities and festivals around Europe. By the time it is revived in Estonia, a high-level dance element (conceivably from Thomas Edur’s Estonian National Ballet) could have been introduced. The fact that such serious discussions are under way is a fitting measure of the strength and cogency of Rose’s — and this breathtaking choir’s — remarkable achievement.