A Day in the City, A Letter of Rights

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta

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.

Listening List

The Trinity Wall Street Program of January 4, 2016, may be found in its entirety here. (A Letter of Rights begins at 38:00.)

On Spotify: Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach | An Irish Colloquy

On YouTube: Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych

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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.

10 thoughts on “A Day in the City, A Letter of Rights

  1. shoreacres

    When I heard Avi Stein refer to the “wonderful collage of music” you were about to hear, I wondered if the thought of a collage based on ars subtilior or “A Letter of Rights” had occurred to you. Both would lend themselves to such a project. Think what you could do with the “chunking” of musical history.

    I did appreciate your link to “The Taruskin Challenge.” Once I’d read that post (and been intrigued by the reference to “the myth of linear creative evolution,” I bookmarked the site for some return visits.

    I’ve listened to the whole program, and to the first portion twice. I confess I wasn’t able to understand much of “A Letter of Rights” apart from those first three words you gave to us, but I did think the music was enjoyable. I’ll listen again.

    This post was especially interesting since a copy of the Magna Carta was here in Houston prior to being returned to England for the 800th Anniversary. You can read a bit about that here. The experience of seeing it probably connects me to “A Letter of Rights” in a way that otherwise might not have happened.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: You are such an attentive reader and listener. I entirely missed Stein’s “collage” reference, and I was right there at the concert–though I will, in a small defense, say that the overall “incoming” sensory impressions were coming awfully thick and fast. Hard to take it all in. That “Taruskin challenge” site does look interesting, doesn’t it? I love the subheading, too: “Two grad students blog their way through the most monumental musicological work in generations.” I have two volumes from that work (Richard Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music), and it is indeed monumental. I have toyed off and on with getting the whole thing, but the wiser part of my head has so far prevailed.

      I can well imagine that having seen a copy of Magna Carter “in the flesh” . . . or should I say “in the parchment” . . . would make a special kind of connection to what’s on offer in this post. For me, in a way, the converse is true, for should I ever have a chance to see a copy of Magna Carta, “Parchment, not vellum,” and all that follows in Goodman’s libretto as set by O’Regan’s music will be part of the experience, too. I thought Goodman’s choice to begin before the words are set down to the making of the parchment was a masterstroke that embodies, right from the start, a central trope within the libretto, that “texts are acts.” I hope the piece, with libretto, will become more widely available at some point.

      1. shoreacres

        Now, I’m even more interested. “Texts as acts” is a proposition which resonates. I’ll spare you my free associating, but if the libretto does become available, I’d love to see it.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          shoreacres: I somehow thought (or at least hoped) you might respond to that–it certainly resonated with me. I’ll keep my eye out for the libretto and alert you if I see that it’s become available. I’d love to know what you think.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    It must have been grand to be in attendance, much as I enjoyed playing the video you’ve linked to. Loved the TENET part of the program especially. I see that The St Matthew Passion is scheduled for March–one of my favorite pieces of music.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Indeed it was. It’s wonderful that Trinity makes these videos available, but you’re right, there is nothing like being there “live.” I’d noted the St. Matthew Passion, too, and have it on my calendar in hopes I can go.

  3. David N

    On the evidence of Triptych, Tarik O’Regan’s music seems a bit beige, but clearly rewarding enough to perform – good to see the young players and singers. Would love to see the text of Alice’s latest, though.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I do hope you get a chance to see that libretto. All that we both love about her earlier libretti is, to my mind, present in full force in this one as well. I hope upon hope that we will hear more from her. With regard to the music, what I was most attentive to and particularly appreciated in A Letter of Rights was O’Regan’s skilled, sensitive handling of the text. There doesn’t seem to be very much available on YouTube, but I did quite enjoy Acallam na Senórach | An Irish Colloquy (only on Spotify).

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