Everything begins with a sacrifice, the bloodshed behind the ink.
—Alice Goodman, A Letter of Rights
I’d forgotten, until recently, when a friend and I repaired to a local bookstore that actually carried CDs, the pleasure of perusing the bins and sharing finds. So it was, when I made my way down to New York City Monday, I determined, despite the bitter cold, to build in a stop at Academy Records on the way to my first concert of 2016. This time, unusually, I came prepared with a list in hand.
Of course the best is serendipity, yet to have a list provides a purpose and a path—for the volume of CDs on offer at Academy is grandly large. Not enough time, but I nonetheless came away with a trove that barely fit into my small backpack—one each of Bach, Berg, Busoni, Foulds, and Haydn—and headed to Trinity Wall Street for the concert that had, in the first instance, lured me out into the cold.
I’ve long read about and savored the thought of Trinity Wall Street’s much-praised music programs, yet I’ve never been in the right place at the right time. I couldn’t believe my good fortune in discovering that, if I got myself down to the city a day earlier than planned, I’d be able to hear the New York Premiere of A Letter of Rights, which the Salisbury Cathedral commissioned to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (“The Great Charter”).
The church was quite full when I entered, but I managed to find a place where the sightlines would serve. I thought to myself, in my secular way, how like a church to grant us as listeners no special favors in seating: hard, flat benches covered by cushions only in name. Nonetheless, I would have had to be insensate not to feel the exaltation of the church interior, those vaulted ceilings along which the music I was about to hear would rise . . . and rise.
The first half of the program consisted of “rarely heard music from the ars subtilior,” in a stylish, accomplished performance by the early music ensemble TENET. [Trinity program notes] Though some have called this 14th century art form by another, less felicitous, name, the standard translation is “more subtle art,” in which the advent of “new technologies of notation made it possible to create parallel time streams of music flowing together.” [Trinity program notes] The description put to mind certain developments in 20th century music, and indeed, in Guest Director Robert Mealy’s introduction to one piece, Elliot Carter’s name came up.
Throughout, I’d been attending carefully to my copy of the program so as not to crease it. I knew, even from an initial reading, that it contained a mother lode of precious text. We have not seen an Alice Goodman libretto since 1991, and I didn’t expect ever to have one in my hands again.
As described in the original program notes, A Letter of Rights is a cantata that
. . . explores the text of clauses 39 and 40 (a right to due legal process) in the Great Charter of 1215: Magna Carta. The musical structure is formed of eight sections separated by short instrumental interludes, and is framed by a prelude and postlude. It is palindromic, with ‘The wording’ (Section 5) at its axis.
But something comes before the text, before the pen curves through the air to form the first capital. That is the ground on which the letter is set: the parchment. Since the making of parchment requires the shedding of blood, this is where we begin.
“Parchment, not vellum.” From the libretto’s first three words, redolent with historical particularity, Goodman’s text radiates out from past to present. Fault lines that attend even the purest of human pursuits, the pursuit of justice, emerge from the homeliest details. This transformative procedure is worked, with subtle intelligence, in every line. O’Regan’s elegant music is in sensitive communion with the text and evinces consummate craft. He is judicious in his choice and use of forces (strings, light percussion, and choir); he never strains for effect. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street & NOVUS NY’s performance justified, with room to spare, every bit of praise that has been heaped upon their heads.
To Alice Goodman: Welcome back.
The Trinity Wall Street Program of January 4, 2016, may be found in its entirety here. (A Letter of Rights begins at 38:00.)
Credits: The source for the header quotation is the Trinity program notes for the January 4, 2016 program. The remainder of the quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. The source for the Magna Carta image may be found here.