I’m in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary, for the recording of the first album of pieces written in memory of my beloved Yodit. Paul Mann – who has been here for a week already, recording music by Henry Cotter Nixon, also for Toccata Classics – is conducting the Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra in eleven new works for string orchestra by Brahms (arr. Ragnar Söderlind), Brett Dean, Steve Elcock, Andrew Ford, Robin Holloway, Jon Lord (arr. Paul Mann), Mihkel Kerem, Maddalena Casulana (arr. Colin Matthews), John Pickard, Poul Ruders and Ragnar Söderlind. They will constitute the first release in the project Music For My Love.
Day 1: 15 June
Since the Orchestra doesn’t have a recording venue of its own (using the concert hall would add considerably to the cost), the sessions are taking place in the Synagogue on Pásti Utca (Street), in the Jewish district just by the town centre. Inside the yard, on the other side from the synagogue building itself, is a wall recording the names of all 6,000 of the Jewish citizens of Debrecen who were murdered during the Second World War. An overhang in front has slots cut into it in different positions so that, as the sun crosses the sky, strips of light pick out individual names.
The first session begins with one of the most immediately moving of all of these pieces, Colin Matthews’ transcription of Maddalena Casulana’s Di vostro diparti, published in a collection of madrigals in 1583, the probable year Casulana’s own death (she was the first woman to have any music published). The text is highly appropriate:
Il vostro dipartir, donna, mi diede noiosa vita
E con si dubbia spene di voi, caro mio bene
Ch’alti si n’pera di ciò fia cagione
Le vostr’alme virtut’ al mondo sole
E rio timor mi spinge ond’ i miei lumi
Sembran d’amare lacrime duo fiumi
Your departure, lady, leaves my life insipid
And my hope for you is so unsure, my dearest,
That I aspire to nothing less
Than your soul, the only virtue in the world.
And fear brings tears repeatedly to my eyes
As if they were two streams of bitter tears.(Translation by Colin Matthews)
And that’s how I reacted, sitting in the wings, being put through the wringer by the power of the music – something that will happen again and again in the coming week, I imagine. Colin presents the madrigal in a relative straightforward manner before unleashing the full power of the symphonic strings – and the effect is deeply moving. For me, of course, it puts Yodit at the very centre of my thought, and I wonder for a moment whether she might have found this entire project something of an exaggeration. It wasn’t meant to be on anything like this scale, of course: it grew naturally from the desire that she should be remembered in music. And she was thrilled by Steve Elcock’s Song for Yodit, written as a consolation for her in her illness. So I hope she would have understood the entire undertaking as a declaration of love – and it is a terrible irony that this declaration is possible only after her death. It’s a declaration that I should, of course, have made more often during her lifetime. A few months ago I wrote a poem which put it in a nutshell:
We learned how we should really love quite late in our love’s life.
We long lived arm in arm, it’s true,
But loosely, like clematis –
Until the knowledge that our love was lost
Pulled our lives tight,
Into a single twine.
Indeed, it’s during the initial play-through of Di vostro dipartir that the enormity of what I have undertaken really hits me – with the experience of the first of these pieces as living music, I can at last see why everyone else remarks on the ambition of the project. Because I’ve been on the inside of it all the time, while the project grew incrementally, it hadn’t really struck me that to commission and record 100 new pieces of music (and also publish most of them) is indeed a bit over-the-top. There are currently 97 composers ‘signed up’, so to speak. I was intending to take it to 99 and then write the last piece myself. But since there are still some composer friends I still haven’t got around to asking for a piece (I’ll feel guilty if I don’t), I guess that 100 will end up being a symbolic number rather than a literal figure. This might sound rather grandiose, but given that the impulse underlying the entire undertaking is to remember a lost love, it might, when it’s finished, be seen as a kind of Taj Mahal in music, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. Anyway, it’s not for me to judge.
The second piece to be recorded on this first day is Robin Holloway’s Music for Yodit – a simple title which undersells the quality of the music, which, like the title, understated and moving – a warm elegy, animated in its central section with the ghost of an English dance. By now I am indeed beginning to appreciate the enormity of this project: these first two works already are major additions to the string-orchestra repertoire. An audience halfway round the world and two hundred years in the future will open their programmes for that evening’s concert – and remember Yodit. And far sooner than that, our son Alex will attend a concert (who knows, he may even be conducting it) and know that this music was written for his mum. He has lost her physical presence, but he can take some pride in this echo of her life.
Last up on this first day is Andrew Ford’s Sleep, two minutes of static, rather ritualist music with high lines for the violins that suggest bright light. Andy is British-born but has lived in Australia for many years. Sleep brings back memories of a conversation with another Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, who told me that his music attempted to capture something of the special intensity of the light of the outback. This thought has just come to me when Paul tells the orchestra that Sleep is Coplandesque, and so I know I am on the right lines.
This is going to be some week.