Philip Hammond on Writing the Titanic Requiem

Composer Philip Hammond on devising his 'Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic', and seeing it performed in St Anne's Cathedral

If anyone ever asks you to write a requiem, think very carefully about it. It is not as easy as you may think.

Granted, all the words are standard – mostly compiled several centuries ago in mediaeval Latin, so there’s no difficulty with a libretto – and yes, there is a degree of built-in theatricality about the whole show, as anyone who has heard Verdi’s operatic masterpiece will understand.

But if you are linking the new requiem to a particular occasion, then you need to take into account a host of other factors. Especially in Northern Ireland – and especially if that occasion happens to be the exact 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

It was three years ago that Dick MacKenzie and Anne Doherty of the Belfast Titanic Company invited me to join their small group to try and find a way of commemorating the tragedy. The requiem would have to be monumental, with a grandeur to reflect the achievement of the era and with a solemnity to encompass the immensity of the loss of life.

Philip Hammond

 

I tend to think in pictures and sounds when I am composing – I hear images and I visualise music. After several months of just letting ideas float around my head, I began work on the actual composition in Portland, Oregon, where I usually spend the summer with my best friend, Ketzel Levine. Luckily, she is used to my compositional eccentricities and has coped with them for over a quarter of a century.

I used to come down in the morning with the latest musical idea that appeared in the middle of the night, then play through these snatches of colour or threads of melody and insist that she listen and give an opinion. I asked at my own peril.

One afternoon in August 2010, her 93 year old mom, Roz, drove across town for a visit and, never one to turn down an audience, I played her what turned out to be the opening bars of the requiem. One year melted into another and suddenly it was time to get serious about the shape of the piece.

I knew I wanted to use several choirs in the empty spaces of St Anne’s Cathedral – the venue whose size I had decided upon was the most appropriate. I had also imagined that St Peter’s Cathedral on the Falls Road would be the perfect spiritual match for a second performance.

But that one would be different – that performance would be part of a living requiem mass, contrasting the drama of a staged version and the reverence of a liturgical setting.

During a visit to a conductor friend in Germany, Gunther Bauer Shenck, we were discussing the accompaniment to the choral forces. I had thought of a cappella singing but he suggested to me that this would be unwise – pitching would become a problem over such a long period of time. So what about using brass? The point was well taken.

The foundations were now in place. But how would I personalise the Titanic aspect of the work?

I did not want to write a requiem for a ship – that would be ill-conceived. It was the people who lost their lives in that awful night a century ago who were crowding through my imagination, drifting restlessly in the dark abyss of time and memory. These lost souls had to be the focus of this music, this commemoration, this search for light.

I decided to compose a series of 'meditations' in music, which would reflect the stories of the passengers and crew of the ship.

By choosing a piano trio, I could at the same time pay tangential tribute to the ship’s musicians, all eight of whom died on duty. To match these musical meditations, I invited novelist Glenn Patterson to write five literary meditations. In concert, these meditations would be interpolated between each of the six choral pillars of the requiem.

By early spring of 2011, and still a year ahead of the deadline, I had a clear structure in my head. That was when Ketzel’s mother decided that it was her time to pass on. I flew to Portland to be with her and the family, my second family.

In the moment of her death, Rabbi Ariel Stone spoke a Hebrew prayer invoking the four archangels to carry Roz’s soul to wherever souls go. It was one of the most moving moments of my life. Some hours before I had asked Roz to accept the dedication of the requiem; she’d agreed.

Summer 2011 was a crucial juncture in the composition of the requiem. I write best when I am away from home, in peace and quiet…and heat! Noirin McKinney, my dear friend and ex-colleague, invited me to Croatia to the island of Kortula.

Her husband, the poet Chris Agee, made arrangements for me at the local arts centre so I could use the piano, and in tandem with computer and the keyboard I carried from Ireland, I set about the daunting task of putting all the music that was in my head down on paper.

Performers in St Anne's Cathedral

 

Kortula was the perfect environment – ancient, unspoilt, unhurried, timeless. A routine was soon in place and the music flowed. I visited the spot where Noirin and Chris, with their son Jake, had set up a little memorial to their daughter Miriam, high on a hill overlooking the undulating coastline of the island far below.

Again, I felt very moved by that experience. I wrote to Ketzel and asked if I could share the dedication of the Requiem with the Agee family. She agreed. It seemed to me that the sudden death of this very young girl and the long life of a wonderfully elderly lady encompassed the range of ages that had perished as a result of the sinking of the Titanic.

By the time I left for home at the end of July 2011, much of the requiem was on paper and I knew that one more short journey would allow me the space to finish the work, now living in my head for two years. I telephoned my good friend Tom Collins.

He’d moved to Scotland earlier in the year and he had an idea that another mutual friend, Professor Gerry McCormac, now the Principal of Stirling University, might be able to find me a small corner of his campus. Again with computer and keyboard, I headed in my car for Scotland, finding the university had a wonderful arts centre with a fine piano and a marvellously accommodating staff.

Eventually October arrived, and the composition was complete with musical meditations. I had discovered that writing a requiem was indeed not something to be taken on lightly.

It was harder than I could ever have imagined and it took years of work just to get it to the stage that would lead to the drudgery of writing parts, assembling vocal scores with piano reduction, copying the computer manuscripts of 32 staves, working out performance details, meeting with choirs and conductors and all the other myriad arrangements that had yet to be put in place.

But I had also discovered the power and potential of having a network of friends, who were always willing to be there, to be of practical help, to be fully supportive. This was a humbling and yet empowering experience and one that I would not have missed.

So how do you stage a requiem of this magnitude? Well, again, it starts with friends. If my dedications had been personal, the individual components were also based around people I knew and respected as musicians and as friends, old and new.

The Belfast Philharmonic Society under the guidance of the new chorus master Stephen Doughty closely followed by the chamber choir Cappella Caeciliana whose director, Donal McCrisken, was a past student of mine, were at the heart of the matter. I had always envisaged large forces. With a little expansion of Cappella, I could count already on 150 singers.

I approached Nigel McClintock and the boys of the Schola Cantorum at St Peter’s Cathedral, and by a fortunate coincidence was in contact with Michael McGlynn and Anuna, the famous national choir of Ireland. That was it – my choral cohort was complete and coming up to about 200 people in all.

At Gunther’s suggestion of brass accompaniment, I invited Michael Alcorn and the Belfast-based band Downshire Brass to be part of this rapidly growing army. This meant that only the piano trio and soloist had to be engaged. That took little time to decide upon – none could be better than the Fidelio Trio, for whom I had been asked, coincidentally, to write a work by Moving on Music for an upcoming BBC Radio Three concert, and whose violinist, Darragh Morgan, I had known since he was just a talented teenager.

As for a soloist I set my sights on Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek – now one of the world-renowned and American based Anonymous 4 – but years before that, and in another life almost, one of my Harmony and Counterpart students at Queen’s University. Glenn Patterson agreed to read his own meditations.

Everything was set by Christmas 2011 and there were just two other parts of this massive jigsaw to be positioned. I wanted people who attended the performance to be able to take away with them something more than just a memory, and so Darragh and the Fidelio agreed to record in London the five musical meditations.

At Christmas lunch in my house, Chris Agee, poet and editor of Irish Pages and father of Miriam, agreed to produce a very special programme for the event. We set about defining the content for that: I had little realised just what an amount of work had to go into such a publication. It was an eye-opener to watch Chris focus on an intricate web of literary detail that resulted in something that will become a collector’s piece.

Performance of the Requiem in St Anne's Cathedral

 

Rehearsals began in January for all concerned and I distributed – by post, hand, email and mp3 file – parts and scores. I had several meetings with all three conductors – yes, three conductors, because the spatial setting of the St Anne’s performance could not be covered by just one person. The distances between the choral groups was also going to be a challenge, but modern technology helped to get around that – we would use close circuit television and monitors for the two ends of the building.

Interest in the Titanic centenary was picking up pace during the first three months of the year, and with my colleagues in the Belfast Titanic Company and Happening Events Company, we began to field all the extra-musical considerations.

These included getting together funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland first and foremost, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the PRS for Music Foundation, Ulster Garden Villages, and sponsorship from Harland and Wolff and PowerNI. This was an essential because box office alone would not come anywhere near covering the large costs involved in a staging of this size and these proportions.

There was also the publicity element to be handled and luckily, between my own contacts through a lifetime in the arts world here and Happening’s wide spectrum of experience, we were able to reach fairly well around the globe. This would account in some way for the amazing fact that a contemporary piece of music managed to sell out before the night!

There was to be an audience of over 900 people and a small army of wonderful volunteers to help guide everyone through the dynamics of such a large 'congregation'. Through producer Richard Yarr, BBC Radio Ulster and RTE Lyric FM would broadcast live from the event.

And so to the night itself. April 14, 2012.

I can only give my own perspective on this performance and the subsequent liturgical setting in St Peter’s Cathedral the next morning. I was full of emotion on Sunday morning, bathed with the light and colour of the mass and the building – but more detached on Saturday night in St Anne’s because, behind the scenes, I was involved in 'operations' and all too aware that there was so much to be choreographed even during the performance.

In many ways, I saw and heard everything in retrospect through the comments, conversations and criticisms of others. Nothing was ever going to be perfect, but I have no problem with that. But what makes me particularly happy, for want of a better description, is that people who attended and people who took part in this monumental enterprise, all had in mind the lost souls of the Titanic and, through them, maybe laid to rest the souls of others in their own lives.

This was an astounding revelation for me. I am truly humbled by the personal responses of those to whom I have talked. This almost has nothing to do with me or my music. It may sound clichéd, but I think we all tapped into 'the collective unconscious' in an experience that will be uniquely meaningful to the individual and goes way beyond reality.

I think it touches on the realms of the spirit and I can only be grateful to have been given the opportunity to have a part in that evanescent moment.

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