We are grateful to Jane Handley for these notes of the talk given by Geoffrey Weaver on Tuesday 31st January

PSALMUS HUNGARICUS   Zoltán Kodály  1882 - 1967

Kodály had a strong sense of pride in his country.  Together with Bela Bartok he had travelled throughout Hungary collecting folk songs and possessed a strong sense of national identity with his homeland.

Psalmus Hungaricus was written in 1923 on the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest and was a passionate protest against the dismemberment of Hungary following WW1 when Hungary lost both Slovakia and Transylvania.  The piece expresses his anger at this event. The text is a sixteenth century free translation of Psalm 55 by the poet Michael Veg.

There are 3 main themes which all emerge in the first 18 pages.  The main theme appears on page 3, “When as King David sore was afflicted” this theme is repeated throughout the work on pages 7 and 32. It is folksong like in character, it is the key theme which unifies the work, the repeated rhythm appears again on page 23 where it is altered to express Kodály’s anger.

The sighing, lamenting figure of the second theme appears on pages 11 and 14 in both orchestra and voice and in the tenor solo, page 9

The third theme, that of longing, is in the orchestra in the opening passage and again on page 17 where we hear the sighing effect within the orchestration.

The first section is very turbulent. The middle section is much calmer with Psalm 46 “So in Jehovah I will put my trust” appearing firstly in the orchestra and then taken up by the choir.

This is followed by a section reflecting violence, suffering and uncertainty in the music.

In the final section the music changes from warmth at “as for the righteous” to another angular outburst “those that are mighty” before the music subsides and the opening theme is recalled.

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A CHILD OF OUR TIME   Michael Tippett   1905 – 1998

The depression of the 1920s and the rise of Nazism in the 30s gave Tippett a profound social and political awareness. He joined the Communist party for a time but left when he failed to convert his local branch to Trotskyism.

He wanted to use his art to express solidarity with the oppressed and in 1938 he heard the story of a Polish student, Herschel Grynsban, living in Paris, who had heard from his father of the persecution of his family and of the Jews in general by the Nazis back home in Poland. Grynsban’s response was to go out and kill a Nazi diplomat in Paris.

This resulted in the savage outbreak of violence against the Jews across Europe which began on “Kristallnacht”

Tippett resolved to write a work of protest. He asked his friend T S Eliot to write the libretto, but Eliot suggested Tippett write his own libretto, partly because Tippett already had a good idea of the shape of the work and partly because Eliot feared that his libretto might overwhelm the music!

Tippett wrote his own libretto taking as his model the Bach Passions and to some extent Handel’s “Messiah” using the baroque device of recitative and, in place of chorales, negro spirituals. Another influence was the film “Green Pastures” where “de Lawd looks down from heaven”. That film may also have prompted him in his decision to use spirituals.

The negro spirituals are the emotional heart of the piece, they come out of great tribulation, the negro slaves are forced to the knees to cry out.

Part 1

This deals with oppression in the world. All is confusion as the people sing “We are lost” the music is almost atonal. In chorus 5 the music has a ‘slithery’ effect - people cannot get a grip on life. The tenor sings of the plight of the poor, the soprano soloist in anguish sings “How shall I feed my children?” a lament that is tragically relevant to our times for mothers in the Horn of Africa. The section ends with the comfort of the spiritual “Steal away to Jesus”

Part 2

In No. 9 we are introduced to “the man” the child of our time, Grynsban. But before the assassination there is the persecution which led Grynsban to despair and violence. In No. 11 there are hints of some of the “Crucify” choruses in the St Matthew Passion and, in chorus 13, a clear reference to ethnic cleansing.  The boy is driven to shoot a representative of the oppressors. Chorus 19 is very violent and angular “break them in pieces on the wheel”. This is followed by No. 21 A Spiritual of Anger: “Let my people go”, the archetypal song of protest ending with the powerful “Go down Moses”

Part 3

Reflects on how release and liberation might come p.78 “the jewel of great price lies in the icy waters”. p.87 “winter cold means inner warmth”. The secret is hidden and people are impatient p.88. The message seems to be that wholeness and peace will come, but as Eliot says “the meaning is in the waiting”. In the final ensemble No. 29, the soloists sing of longing for wholeness and the hope that is there in the moving waters and “it is Spring” a contrast with the winter of the opening. After the choir the soloists embark on an ecstatic section and “Deep river” brings a measure of the wholeness and peace which are the hope and goal of all humanity.

Based on notes taken at the talk on 31st January together with original material supplied by Geoffrey Weaver.

Any errors are those of the scribe.

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