The Birth of Speech

‘Is this music for quiet reflection?’ The question with which Roger Bolton introduced a segment on new music for Advent on Radio 4’s Feedbackprogramme was surely a little disingenuous. The immediate answer was an excerpt from my new Advent anthem, The Birth of Speech, which seemed to be saying a fairly emphatic 'No!’ What followed balanced complaints – ‘downright ugly’, ‘screechy’, ‘discordant’ – against the voices of those who had enjoyed the mix of old and new in the recently broadcast Advent Carol Servicefrom St John’s College, Cambridge.
As the Order of Service for the St John’s Carol Service puts it, the season is one of ‘growing anticipation, both of the first coming of Christ and of that day when the prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, is finally and fully answered’. The season is tense, both joyfully and fearfully so.  Anyone who has shared in the excitement of pregnancy and the arrival of a child could testify to the range of emotions entailed in the anticipation of new life. ‘Quiet reflection’ is certainly needed, but so is the energetic embrace of change and new challenges.
The celebration of Advent focuses our thoughts on the relationship of birth to death, prophecy to fulfilment, Creation to Apocalypse, and sin to redemption. If Christmas is an answer, Advent is a question, and the poem by Hartley Coleridge that I chose to set for my new piece is entirely built from questions about sound. It begins by asking, ‘What was’t awaken’d first the ear / Of that sole man who was all human kind?’ and goes on to wonder whether it was sounds of wind or water, beast or bird, that were the first to be heard by a human being. Its final question asks if, instead of external things, it might have been ‘his own voice’ that awoke him with its sound. The ‘sole man’ is Adam, first created human, but, especially since he remains unnamed in Coleridge’s poem, he stands for everyone to have been born since, including Jesus Christ.
In my setting the trebles spend most of the time waiting to be ‘born into song’ in the final question. I wanted the congregation to share in that experience, wondering expectantly when – or if – the boys’ voices would be heard. In this way and through a musical language, essentially tonal in approach, albeit mixing sweet consonances with some astringent dissonances, my aim was to highlight the drama of Coleridge’s exploration of the mysteries of consciousness, perception and life itself.

It was, of course, just one small contribution to a ninety-minute sequence of readings and music, which encompassed the austere beauty of plainsong, the grandeur of Advent hymns, the purity of Palestrina and the sumptuous sensuality of Herbert Howells. It is a testimony to the talents of the young musicians of St John’s College, Cambridge, to the vision of its Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, and to the vitality of the College as a religious and educational institution that new commissions form such a significant and unapologetic part of the choir’s repertoire. The service opened with a raptly ecstatic setting of the Latin antiphon, O Oriens, by Cecilia MacDowell and also included Judith Bingham’s eloquent fusion of Wordsworth and 16th-century words by Lancelot Andrewes, The Clouded Heaven. Both offer plentiful scope for ‘quiet reflection’ as they draw the ear and eye to contemplation of the stars which illuminate the night sky as Christ lights the way for those who ‘dwell in darkness’.  Quietness need not imply a cosy retreat from reality, nor, I hope, should reflectiveness preclude the (sometimes noisier) examination of life and death in all its raw and restless beauty.