CONCRETE - a motet about London (2007)
'Concrete' is what Judith Weir's music always is, in the sense that it offers sharply delineated ideas that lodge in the mind and the memory. But the title here refers, rather surprisingly, to the prosaic and unloved building material that's become synonymous with the worst aspects of the urban landscape. This isn't a sign that Weir has finally signed up to the zeitgeist and become an edgy, urban composer. As always, it's history and memory she's interested in. The real subject here is the way a city grows, decays, is rebuilt, burnt down and reborn. The city is London, specifically the area around the Barbican. Weir chose this area for her 'motet about London' partly because it was commissioned for the BBC January Composer Weekend, but also because the Barbican and its neighbouring areas are a microcosm of London's history. The Thames ran nearby in the days before it was confined within the Embankment. In the pre-Christian era it had Greek-inspired temples and a Roman wall, then later a whole clutch of Medieval churches. Periodically there were fires, after which rebuilding would begin again, fuelled by the conviction that what rose from the ruins would be better than what existed before. But the old didn't vanish without trace; it was memorialised in poetry and prose, and its fragments were physically incorporated in the new buildings - most notably in St Paul's Cathedral, which contains a brick from the old cathedral bearing the carved word 'Resurgam' – 'I shall rise again'.
Concrete as a building material is a metaphor for this mingling of old and new, as it's made by mixing pre-existing material, ground up small, with cement, sand and water. Weir's motet follows the same method. She takes fragments of texts from poets, antiquaries, diarists, and even the planning document for the Barbican Centre we're now sitting in, and binds them into something solid and durable. Running through all five movements are fragments of John Evelyn's description of the Great Fire of London, which contains in concentrated form the theme of the whole piece.
The first movement begins with a recitation of an ancient Celtic and British river goddesses, marked 'wild and keening', under which the narrator begins Evelyn's account of the Great Fire. A change of pace brings us to a 9th-century watchman's song (in Latin). Fragments of a Mithraic liturgy (in Greek) bring an exotic note into the narrative.
In the second movement the tone lightens for a survey of London's churches taken from an 18th-century source, with a brief description of the saints and martyrs associated with them. A vigorous orchestral interlude leads to the third movement, which has 'vox pops' from 19th-century Londoners culled from Mayhew's" famous book London Labour and the London Poor. (Note that the first voice says 'I am not a Londoner' - is this Weir's sly reference to the fact that London has always embraced immigrants, including herself?)
The fourth movement is the most sombre. Here John Evelyn's narration tells how he clambers over the smoking ruins of London the morning after the fire, while the chorus intones Shakespeare's brooding Sonnet 55. In the final movement the pace quickens, and we hear fragmentary words from an original 1950s prospectus for the redevelopment of the Barbican. Meanwhile John Evelyn's narration comes to a hopeful end with his 'plot for a new city', and the chorus finally comes to rest on that word 'Resurgam' - I shall rise again.
Preview the score: