Friday, June 20, 2008

The Vision of St. Augustine

More Tippett-blogging? Yes, I know. I'm sorry.

Ever since I started listening to Tippett's music, the one work I absolutely couldn't crack was The Vision of St. Augustine, and I've expressed a certain frustration with the work's apparent diffuseness and lack of musical coherence. But today I gave it one last try, following along in a miniature score, and for the first time the piece sounded like music. The formal structure of the score became visible, if only in the broadest of outlines, and I started to remember motives from the beginning of the piece and see how they are recalled and transformed later on. The texture of the piece is as thick as pea soup, and I will probably always find it a bit diffuse - but Tippett is too good an orchestrator for this to be a mere accident. Rather, the overwhelming business of the texture seems to symbolize Augustine's difficult journey of mystical experience, which few people will be able to follow.

I live for moments like that. I would throw a party to celebrate, but then I'd want to play Tippett for the guests and they'd all leave. So I'll just have to blog about it.

By the way, I think one of the main barriers to understanding the piece is the extreme difficulty of the music. The Colin Davis recording (with the LSO and soloist John Shirley-Quirk) is the only one I've ever heard and, as far as I can tell, the only one available, and the singers seem to be pushing the edges of their abilities. Certainly the soloist and choir members miss a lot of notes; as I follow the score, the singers are a semitone or a full tone away from the correct pitch on several occasions. I can't help but wonder if today's professional choirs could do a better job; a new recording could do a lot for the reception of a difficult piece like this one.

On the other hand, it's possible that this piece will always be on the edge of what's humanly possible. Even if I had a choir full of superhuman singers with perfect ears and inerrant pitch memory, I would think twice about programming the piece: the sopranos spend at least half their time above a high G! On my recording, it sounds physically painful, and I'd be worried about being mobbed by infuriated singers after every rehearsal.


shogart said...

If I recall correctly, I don't think I left the last party you played Tippett at...

And regarding sopranos: yes, they would definitely kill you.

Andrew W. said...

No need to apologize for blogging about Tippett!

Although I take it that you're not the biggest fan of opera, it was Midsummer Marriage that got me onto Tippett years ago. Not sure what people would have against him, to be honest.

Highly enjoyable blog, by the way.