At the Edge of the World
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
It's New Year's Day 2022, and I’ve just reached the final double bar line in what is possibly my longest and most complex piece to date; there’s still a lot of editing and improving to do, but I have made some notes on the project while it is still so fresh in my mind. Anyone aware of my fascination for all things medieval will find few surprises here! This project has given me lots of opportunities to delve deeper into the past, to explore the lives of those who were here before us, and to forge a connection between our present and that of the distant past.
In 2012 I composed ‘Apocalypse’ for choir (based on the medieval ‘Prick of Conscience’ stained glass window at All Saints Church in York, which depicts the last fifteen days of the world) and it has received several successful performances – I still think it is amongst my best pieces. This projected new work was an attempt to compose something to stand alongside that piece for a CD recording and, hopefully, concert performances.
Looking for inspiration I returned to All Saints, and remembered the story of Emma Raughton, an ‘anchoress’ who lived in isolation in the church – a sort of female hermit – who occupied two small rooms in the church, completely isolated, following mass through small architectural ‘squints’ which remain visible today. The role of the anchoress was to live a holy, devotional life and to pray - particularly on behalf of her wealthy patrons. She was fed by the goodwill of local people and could only communicate with the outside world via the two squints. Historical texts (The Beauchamp Pageant, an illustrated biography of Richard Beauchamp [1382–1439] and the Rous Roll c.1483) indicate that whilst at All Saints, Raughton received seven visitations from the Virgin Mary, who accurately predicted (amongst her other prophecies) of the impending death of Henry V, of the coronation of Henry VI, and that Richard Beauchamp would have the rule of the young king until he reached the age of 16.
The text for my new piece come from three primary sources: firstly, I have drawn extensively upon the Ancrene Wisse, a ‘guide for anchoresses’ dating from the thirteenth century, which (from a male perspective) outlines the responsibilities and duties of the anchoress. In some ways this sets the tone of the whole piece, since it is weighty with authority, at time oppressive and almost claustrophobic. (It’s also quite practical, and often humorous to the modern reader: Anchoresses should keep no pets except a cat, and may not wear underwear made from hedgehog skins…). In my new piece these words are spoken and sung almost exclusively by men.
Secondly, I have used the complete Latin text of Magnificat (the oldest of the Marian prayers) in a musical setting of my own which had been composed and recorded in advance of the composition of the new piece. This serves to contextualise Emma’s experience in the church: it’s part of a Vespers taking place in the background while she goes about her prayers. In my new work then, this functions as a ‘piece-within-a-piece’ and it interrupts the continuity of Emma’s story just as the sounds from the service may have interrupted her private devotions. Magnificat is sung by the whole ensemble: sometimes it remains in the background, providing an atmospheric accompaniment, but elsewhere it moves into the foreground. (I composed two versions of the Magnificat, one in English, which will be heard as a separate track on the CD, and another in Latin which is woven into the fabric of my new piece).
Thirdly, and most significantly, I asked poet and novelist Abi Curtis to write a new text, to provide words for Emma Raughton herself, to permit her to tell her own story, including a description of her visits from the Virgin Mary. (Abi Curtis and I previously collaborated on ‘Music of a Thousand Breaths’ based on the medieval wall paintings at Pickering Parish Church, and on both occasions she shared my fascination for the dark subject matter and provided magical, insightful poetic texts for me to work with). The first line of Abi’s poetry has provided my with the title of the piece: ‘At the Edge of the World’, signifying Emma’s isolation from the people, places and things that surround her. Emma is represented by a soprano soloist, and also by a chorus of female voices.
There are other sources too: I was delighted to find a copy of the York Processional: a service book from the fourteenth century which may have been used at All Saints during the time of Emma’s incarceration there, but which was banned by the Reformation (when virtually all copies were destroyed). This discovery allowed me to include authentic fragments of plainchant and liturgical text in my work.
It has taken around six months to compose the score, but several months of speculation, planning and gestation prior to that. With so many different texts, sources and ideas in play, the problem of the work’s structure was a significant one, which I eventually resolved by dividing the piece into sixty fragments and making cards to represent each one; I then arranged and rearranged these until I was broadly happy with the sequence of events, then I transferred that sequence (which included overlaps and interruptions) onto the grid of a spreadsheet. Even then, there were frequent minor changes as I worked.
I had already composed the English setting of Magnificat, and, since this had already been committed to tape (in the summer of 2021, when Apocalypse was recorded), I tried not to make significant changes when preparing the Latin version. However, knowing that Emma’s music would be sung by female voices I adjusted the balance of my Latin setting of Magnificat so that more of the musical material could be borne by male voices.
At this stage I had not yet received Abi Curtis’ text, so the second part to be composed was the setting of words selected from Ancrene Wisse. This is divided into eight sections corresponding to the eight ‘rules’ outlined by the anonymous author. I had shared this text with Abi, and she was prepared to create words for Emma Raughton which fell into eight parts, to balance the ‘male’ text of the Ancrene Wisse. When Abi’s words arrived I then had to weave together all of the different strands, using her new text to link together the existing fragments. I likened the task to digging a tunnel from two directions, always hoping that the two will eventually meet in the middle (except I didn’t have two sides, I had sixty!).
Although there’s now a final barline, it isn’t quite finished. I will now work through it, bar by bar, to see where improvements, economies and refinements can be made, but hopefully that won’t take too long. I have printed out the draft score (because I find it easier to spot errors on a printed page than on a monitor) and will spend the coming weeks working with pen and paper, and then build up the final score. The plan is to record this in the next six months, publish the score, and then eagerly await the arrival of the recording.