In June 2019 Frances Wilson reviewed Pietà, a new choral work by Richard Blackford for The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Drawing on the theme of maternal grief and loss, Blackford took as his starting point the Stabat Mater. It is a hymn to Mary, and portrays her suffering as Jesus Christ’s mother at his crucifixion. In his exploration of maternal grief, Blackford decided to add Anna Akhmatova’s cycle of poems, Requiem, to the libretto. Written in 1938 when her son Lev was arrested by Stalin’s secret police, they are a record of the anguish she felt when she believed that she had lost him for good.
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova 1914 by Nathan Altman. State Russian Museum
At Pietà’s world premiere, at the Lighthouse, Poole, the musicians and solo singing artists performed to a packed house and received a standing ovation.
In anticipation of Pietà’s London premiere at Cadogan Hall on the 19th October, Karine Hetherington of artmuselondon.com interviewed the composer, Richard Blackford.
When did you first start working on Pietà? And what were the creative stages of the work?
In 2017. It was following a visit to Rome where I saw the famous Michelangelo statue in St Peter’s. What struck me was how moving and sad the story of Pietà was, of Mary cradling her crucified son. I wondered how something so sad, could be also so beautiful and so inspiring in so many ways.
I decided to set the Stabat Mater text, although I was aware it had been set over 200 times. At the same time I was moved by stories about mothers losing their children in the Syrian war. I couldn’t quite finalise my approach to it until I found some poems by Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet. She wrote a series of poems called Requiem when her son was taken away by the KGB. In them she used very strong Stabat Mater imagery.
How do you work and how long did it take to complete Pietà?
I immerse myself in one work at a time. I block out everything and work very long hours. Getting into it is the hardest thing but once the first of the movements was written for Pietà, I had a handle on the musical language.
It took five months in all to write. It would have taken longer if I had had a full orchestra. This was written for string orchestra and soprano saxophone.
How did it come to you? Generally composing do you start with words or music?
In this case it was the words first. I wasn’t sure where Anna Akhmatova’s poems would come in or how many poems I would set. Two of them are in fact set back to back in one huge mezzo aria. The other poem I found extraordinary was when Akhmatova wrote “A chorus of angels sang/In that momentous hour”. I thought, the music I write for this mustn’t be saccharine. These are no Hollywood angels! I wanted a tumultuous cry of avenging angels. I wanted it to be more about the mother’s rage. I decided that my setting of the Stabat Mater which is normally slow and meditative, was going to be dramatic. As well as grief, it was going to be about rage and finally acceptance. It would be about earning a place in paradise, not just being granted redemption for no particular reason. I think it gives the music an edge.
Do you play different instruments? How are you able to write for other instruments?
Well I’m a pianist – not a very good one. I used to play percussion, the viola for a few years. But I’ve been a professional conductor all my life and so as a composer and conductor it’s just part of the job to know how to score for every instrument. I’ve always tried to write for instruments and voices, music that is good to play and good to sing. If it’s well written for them – to me – that’s part of the job.
Do you need absolute quiet to work in?
I really do. I’m lucky enough to have a studio in my house in Oxfordshire. I work eight or nine hour days with perhaps a walk around the village in between. When my wife comes home from work she asks me to play back what I’ve written. Sometimes she’ll just nod. Sometimes she’ll say: “I’ve got a real sense of where that’s going”. Her opinion as a listener is very important to me although she is not classically trained. It’s nice because it can be a very lonely path being a composer.
When you are composing, do you stop listening to other music?
That’s a good question. I don’t deliberately stop listening to other music. Perhaps a better way to answer your question is to say that before I start a piece, I do a lot of research. In other words when I was writing the Stabat Mater, I did listen to a dozen Stabat Maters, including contemporary settings as well, in order to have an insight into how other composers have treated the same text. Research is something I learned through doing my PhD in music. Research is not only necessary but is also very pleasurable.
Is composing a necessity for you? Do you have breaks when you are not composing?
It is a necessity. Whether it’s composing or being creative in another way, it’s the only thing I really know how to do. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I start to get cranky if I’m not composing or researching.
Pietà premiered at the Lighthouse, Poole in June this year. What was it like hearing it being performed for the first time?
I knew musically how it would sound as it’s my job to know that. What is impossible to anticipate is particularly how the soloists will interpret your work. I wasn’t prepared for the power of Jennifer Johnston’s interpretation of Anna Akhmatova’s poems [Her mezzo-soprano part will be sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers at the Cadogan Hall] . I hate the expression but they “blew me away”! I wasn’t prepared for how sweet and moving the children’s chorus was because the Stabat Mater is a bleak, dark piece and yet I try to bring elements of light into it. The children’s chorus is like finding water in the desert.
Are you sensitive to different music venues? Pietà will be performed at the Cadogan Hall this month.
In some ways the sound may be more powerful at Cadogan Hall because it’s smaller. In the Cadogan Hall you will be able to hear the words more clearly. My feeling about performance is that once we’ve recorded it, and we have recorded it with Nimbus records, then I let it go. Then if another conductor wants to take it faster or slower, I don’t mind at all because the work has a life of its own then. At least the recording is how I intended it.
Any mad projects in the pipeline?
Very odd that you should ask that! I’m working on a very large orchestral commission about madness. I’m writing a piece for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales about British artist, Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter who was schizophrenic. He murdered his father and was confined to Bethlehem hospital in the mid 19th century. The governor of the asylum saw that he was a hugely talented artist and gave him paints and canvases. For forty years he produced extraordinary paintings. He has works in Tate Britain. The piece is about the thin line between creativity and madness and also how art can redeem someone.
Composer Richard Blackford received an Ivor Novello Award for choral music for Pietà in 2020.