'My work on Corpus began with exploring mystical, religious and metaphysical writings on the universal topic of the human body and spirit in its various states of life, death, oblivion and afterlife. While compiling a libretto for this work I was interested in finding several texts, written in different languages and dating from different eras in history, that dealt with this subject matter and which I felt could be complementary when set musically, despite any linguistic, poetic or stylistic differences.

In the single movement of 'Corpus', two poems, separated chronologically by some 800 years, are juxtaposed and superimposed: 'Corpse' by British author and poet Michael Symmons Roberts and the 'Dies Irae Hymn'. In addition to these texts very brief biblical excerpts are included at various points in the piece. Underscoring the introduction of the work is the Aramaic phrase Talitha Koum (Mark 5:41), which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ Near the middle of the piece, excerpts in Hebrew from Psalms 27 and 121 are inserted between lines of the ninth verse of the Dies Irae.

Michael Symmons Roberts’ Corpse (2004) is written from the first person point of view of a spirit looking down upon its own dead body ‘splayed on the road’s crown’ and analyzing it in the clinical and detached manner of a coroner. Visual faculties are heightened and physical details are presented in sharp relief. There is no hint to the gender or age of the dead body and the spirit no longer remembers whether he or she died for any glorious or patriotic cause or from a pointless and tragic road accident. It doesn’t seem to matter. The poem ends on an enigmatic note with the ghostly narrator hearing a voice nearby quietly beckoning while green storm clouds are gathering in the sky.

The first half of Corpse is set in the introduction. It is assigned to a soloist who speaks the text in a detached monotone while distinct voices in the two choirs whisper echoes. Toward the end of the piece the second half of Corpse is given to four soloists who sing the text on a monotone over an undulating choral setting of the latter verses of the Dies Irae. The text of the Dies Irae, attributed to Thomas of Celano, a disciple of Francis of Assisi, is a 13th century hymn consisting of nineteen stanzas written in trochaic metre. It is a fascinating and rigorously structured poem that meditates upon and describes the Day of Judgment, when the last trumpet sounds and Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. The tone is both reverential and full of extraordinarily vivid and terrifying medieval religious imagery. In the last two stanzas the hymn closes with a prayer for mercy and eternal rest.

The setting of the Dies Irae text is divided between the two choirs in various ways over the course of the composition. They sing at times contrapuntally while in different tempi, and at other times antiphonally or homophonically. The music of the percussion quartet is ever-present and is an integral part of the composition. I have placed particular emphasis on the use of skins and metals to convey certain aspects of the Dies Irae text. In addition, other ‘un-pitched’ instruments are used in specific places for their particular instrumental color.

Toward the end of the work the settings of both Corpus and Dies Irae are concluded at the same time. Following this there is a brief postlude in which the music is of an entirely different character than what came before, incorporating references to Middle Eastern folk melodies and rhythms that are offset by soft undulating choral textures. It is as if we are in a new musical and spiritual place, represented by the mage of the sea, an all-embracing body. The text for this closing section is Ecclesiastes 1:7 in Hebrew: All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place where the rivers come from, there they return to flow again.'

Paul Frehner

j vimeo.com/45646342

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