On Francis Pott’s Balulalow…

January 6th, 2017

www.phillipcooke.comI try to write something on a festive theme every Christmas with varying degrees of success, usually spending a little time looking at some classic Christmas choral repertoire that continues to inspire and enthuse me – Howells, Warlock, Joubert – the usual stuff. I ventured a little further off the beaten track last year to discuss Harrison Birtwistle’s The Gleam, which is probably one of the most creepy Christmas offerings you are likely to encounter, so I was left wondering where to go this year? Maybe this would be the year that I would write a blog post on Slade, Wizzard or Band Aid? Maybe…or maybe not…

One of the few joys of social media is occasionally ‘dropping in’ to listen to videos, YouTube or Sound Cloud links that people (or organisations) post – often I’ll have a cursory listen, just to see what other composers are up to, or what other choirs and ensembles are performing. I’m not going to lie to you, I have an immensely short attention span, I’ve probably made a decision on a piece in 20 seconds, so rarely do pieces hold my attention for their full span. But recently a video from the vocal ensemble Voces8 filtered through my social media and I decided to have a listen. And I listened to all of it. All three minutes. It was Balulow by the composer Francis Pott, and it was a wonderful three minutes.

For those of you who don’t know Francis Pott and his music, he is Professor of Composition at the London College of Music having taught for several years at St Hilda’s College, Oxford University. He is one the country’s leading composers, particularly of choral and organ music, with his work being broadcast, recorded and performed across the world. Although a contemporary composer, his work is undoubtedly rooted in a keen awareness and appreciation of tradition and history, with the contrapuntal composers of the sixteenth-century never too far away. Balulalow is just a small, but perfectly formed fragment of a much larger corpus that includes the epic organ work Christus (coming in at over two hours in performance) and the dramatic oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing (disarmingly referred to as ‘CLUNK’ by the composer) amongst many other works both secular and sacred.

However, it was Balulalow that really caught my attention, primarily because of the stunning recording that I stumbled across on social media (that I have embedded below). One of the good things about being a composer of choral music in 2016 is the proliferation of new, professional-standard choirs that are springing up across the country every month (mainly in London and Oxbridge if I’m honest, but no doubt in other places as well…) all seemingly interested in performing new and nearly-new pieces in all their concerts. For all the bad news about being a creative artist, maybe there have been worse times to be a choral composer? Anyhow, back to Balulalow

What I love about this piece is that it captures the essence of a certain type of Christmas music, not the ceremonial pomp of well-known carols, or the forced jollity of Carols for Choirs or the monotonous drone of festive pop songs…but something much more fragile, something that gets to the very heart of Christmas with reverence, awe and mystery. It is almost like a direct link with our past (both musical and spiritual) – our Medieval forefathers are not too far away and neither are the musical ghosts of Warlock’s Bethlehem Down and Howells’s Here is the little door. The piece starts quietly and gently and gains momentum and contrapuntal complexity as it progresses (though not anywhere near the polyphonic dexterity of some of his larger works!) though it never loses its fragility and tenderness, right through to the beautiful cadence that brings the piece to a warm conclusion. It is melancholy without being sombre, reflective without being introverted and never strays too far from the emotional and harmonic stability of the opening tonality.

So there you go, its only three minutes, find the time and have a listen – a brief moment of repose in a no doubt busy day. And of course, have a very merry Christmas as well.


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