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The music of Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, born in 1933 near Rybnik in Silesia, began to make its mark in Poland in the late 1950s, during the post-Stalin cultural thaw. After a visit to Paris in 1960, his earliest works, in the folk-influenced tradition of Bartok and Szymanowski, gave way to modernist techniques inspired by Webern and Boulez. Gorecki soon assumed a position at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde but gradually, during the '60s and '70s, he adopted a sparer approach towards material and musical technique, returning occasionally to the folk music of his beloved Tatra mountain region, and eventually developing the monumental symphonic style for which he is renowned today.
In the early 1980s, under political pressure and with the demands of a serious recurring illness, Gorecki attempted to retire from public life and devote his energies to choral and chamber music. Since the political emancipation of Poland, however, his compositions-particularly the Symphony No. 3 (1976), his choral masterpiece Beatus vir (1979), and the Harpsichord Concerto-have attracted increasing attention in the rest of the world. Though generally remaining close to his home in Katowice, he continues to win numerous international commissions; for instance, three string quartets for the Kronos Quartet. Totus tuus, composed for eight-voice choir in 1987 in honor of the third visit of Pope John Paul II to his native Poland, has been adapted by the King's Singers for six voices.
Veljo Tormis, born in 1930, studied at the Moscow Conservatory, was a member of the Estonian Composers' Union, and has taught composition and music theory at the Music Academy in Talin. He specializes in works for vocal ensemble that are characteristically of symphonic proportions and employ a wide range of tonal color. Frequently they incorporate Estonian and Finnish folk songs or poetry.
The story of The Bishop and the Pagan, drawn from musical documents and folklore, tells of the death of the British warrior and Christian missionary Bishop Henry at the hands of the Finnish peasant farmer Lalli near the town of Turku (Abo) in the winter of 1158. By a fortunate and unusual historical circumstance, the viewpoints of both sides have been preserved: a written Latin Gregorian chant "The Sequence of Saint Henry" documents the British Christian side, and numerous folk songs represent the event as seen by the Finnish pagan.
The long, eclectic, and powerfully influential career of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) began with The Firebird in 1910 and extended past the Requiem Canticles of 1967, during which time the composer enjoyed variously Russian, French, and United States citizenship.
Stravinsky was born into the Russian Orthodox faith but lapsed from the Church at the age of 18. In 1926, however, he experienced a spiritual reawakening while taking part in a pilgrimage from Venice to Padua for the 700th anniversary celebration of St. Anthony. He celebrated his reconversion with the Symphony of Psalms (1930) and three a cappella sacred choruses in Russian style with Slavonic texts, among them Otche nash' (Our Father, 1926) and Bogoroditse devo (Blessed Virgin, 1934). In 1949 the choruses were revised to accommodate their appropriate Latin texts (Pater noster and Ave Maria).
Geoffrey Poole, currently Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Manchester, was born in Suffolk in 1949. The Wymondham Chants, commissioned by the King's Singers and written in 1970, was the herald to a distinguished career of composition for vocal ensembles.
The site of the ruined medieval abbey of Wymondham in Norfolk was a favorite haunt and inspiration for Poole when he was a student at the University of East Anglia: the imaginative experience of reconstructing the missing abbey roof and carvings became a sort of model for the process of reconstructing the ideal musical structures that would once have belonged to his chosen medieval texts. The style is of course not authentically medieval; Poole's own techniques-drawn in part from his interest in Stravinsky and personal acquaintance with Benjamin Britten-temper and transform the basic material of the fifteenth-century English carol. Yet the music does refer directly to fifteenth-century images, particulary in the "Prayer: Mary modyr," which evokes the stylized triptych panels and wooden effigies of Christ on the cross, and in the "Epilogue: Blessed Jesu," which conjures up a processional of monks through Wymondham Abbey itself.
John Tavener (b. 1944) studied with Lennox Berkeley and David Lumsdaine at the Royal Academy of Music and attained early fame with the performance of his biblical cantata The Whale in 1968 and its recording in 1970.
Tavener was drawn to religious and mystical subjects even before his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy in 1977. Benjamin Britten noted of him, "He and many others of his generation are swinging far, far away now from what I call the academic avant-garde, who have rejected the past. He and many others adore the past and build on the past." In Tavener's music, techniques of formal thematic and harmonic development-the underlying armatures of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and twentieth-century structures-are abandoned in favor of more basic Byzantine and medieval devices: canons and inversions, palindromes and single-arch forms, static or repetitive patterns that reach for transcendental experience. Conversion, in his terms it would seem, involves departure and return through reflection, symmetry, and stillness.
The Funeral Ikos sets part of the Greek funeral sentences for the burial of priests (translated into English by Isabel Hapgood). The Lamb is a simple, direct, and increasingly popular framing of the famous text from Songs of Innocence by William Blake (1757-1827). Both works are based upon simple chant-like melody, make use at times of the strict melodic inversion of the melody as its own counterpoint, and end with a many-voiced homophonic declamation.
Music by the versatile and prolific Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936) was already being performed publicly in London while he was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, and even before he rounded out his study with two years in Paris under Pierre Boulez, he had produced a professional jazz score for film. Bennett has had equal success in a variety of styles and in works for a multiplicity of musical forces: symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber and solo instrumental music, songs, and choral pieces. Much of his musical vocabulary is derived from the twelve-tone practice introduced by Schoenberg, but by handling it with pragmatic flexibility he has managed to loosen its grip upon harmony and develop a richly expressive palette.
Sermons and Devotions, commissioned by and dedicated to the King's Singers in celebration of their 25th anniversary, sets passages from the writings of John Donne (1572-1631). For the sake of clarity in the declamation of these metaphysical meditations, Bennett deploys the voices sometimes homophoni-cally, sometimes antiphonally in no more than two groups, preserving the natural rhythm of emphatic speech.
-Lucy E. Cross
The six Englishmen known as The King's Singers enjoy the distinction of being one of the world's most sought-after and acclaimed vocal ensembles. The group's universal popularity stems from their unique ability to communicate the sheer enjoyment of singing a vast and eclectic repertoire, whether it is a 16th-century madrigal, the world premiere of a commissioned work, a sacred choral masterpiece, a Japanese folk song, or one of their trademark, close-harmony arrangements of a top-40 hit. Since their initial professional season in 1968, the ensemble, which was formed at King's College in Cambridge, has commissioned more than 200 new works from a host of prominent composers, including Richard Rodney Bennett, Luciano Berio, Peter Maxwell Davies, Gyorgy Ligeti, Krysztof Penderecki and Ned Rorem. During the 1995-96 season, The King's Singers return to South Africa after an absence of over 10 years; in the United States and Canada they will perform more than 35 concerts coast-to-coast, and in Europe they have engagements throughout Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and their native United Kingdom. The ensemble has released more than 60 recordings, including five recent albums on RCA Victor and RCA Victor Red Seal.