Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Elisabeth Lutyens: A singular Choral Work

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Elisabeth Lutyens was commissioned by Coventry Cathedral Choir in 1965. Unfortunately there is no written or even anecdotal evidence that this work was ever actually performed there.

Lutyens did not have much time for organised religion. Her mother had been a Theosophist and this had a negative impact on the young Elisabeth. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that she did not turn her mind to writing music for the Anglican, or any other, Church. This Mag and Nunc Dim is her only excursion into the field of liturgical music.

This piece is a fine example of modern choral music- with an apparent simplicity being revealed in the virtuosic complexity of rhythms and mood: Of course this work is not easy – there are great demands on the singer, and as one reviewer noted, the “dangerously exposed soprano lines”.

The work does owe much to serialism, but it would be invidious to deconstruct the tone row. However there cannot be too many Evening Services created with the twelve-tone idiom. The setting is fundamentally for SATB with a number of ‘divisi’ chords in all four voices. In spite of the ‘melody’ being derived from the tone-row, it appears to be eminently singable. Certainly the recording of this works displays no problems of ‘hitting the wrong notes.’

Yet is it not a particularly difficult work for habitués of Coventry Cathedral to have come to terms with. The litany of artists who have contributed to that place of worship read like a litany of 20th century endeavour – Jacob Epstein, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Benjamin Britten and of course the architect himself – Sir Basil Spence. Whether one loves or loathes this cathedral, one has to accept that it has been inspirational across the board.

Listen to this work on NMC Recordings NMC - D124

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