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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

Gaudete (2008)
Commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Proms and first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner in the Royal Albert Hall on 10 August 2008.
Text Writer
Ted Hughes
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
28 Minutes

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Programme Note
Stuart MacRae Gaudete (2008)
Ted Hughes’s visionary book Gaudete is something of an enigma. Part film scenario, part novel, part poetry collection, it passes through a series of different states and modes of expression, from the hallucinatory prose-poem of the Prologue, through the interconnected narrative poems of the text’s main body, to the Epilogue, which consists of a short prose introduction followed by forty-five short poems – some of the most abstract and dense in Hughes’s entire oeuvre. Despite the relative directness of the narrative section’s style and form, the Epilogue poems – and indeed the book as a whole – do not yield their meanings easily; one might even describe them as abstruse. Their power lies in the ability to communicate, through sudden and powerful images that confront the reader with shocking clarity, the most profound, surprising and elemental propositions: the paradox of man’s synonymy with, and separateness from, nature; the Pantheistic equivalence of nature and God; the necessary violent acts of birth and death, their distinctions blurred into a single, continuous cosmic event.

The poems repeatedly allude to religious rituals, violent events, symbolic animals, and to the quintessential objects of life and nature: blood, sun, sea, mountains, fire, earth, wind, voice, trees.

The language of Gaudete has been criticised for being too heavily loaded, too full of imagery. But Hughes understood that in order to convey the spirit of something ancient, something that could not be understood in everyday human terms, a modernist, complex and sometimes fractured language was appropriate. And why not an archaic style? Because truth is discovered in the unfamiliar. Furthermore, the difficulty of some of the language – with its sudden juxtapositions and gnomic statements and questions – identify whatever truths are discovered as being outside time: universal rather than rooted in some forgotten past or foreign country. The rich, complex imagery of the Gaudete poems gives rise to the feeling that some secret knowledge – albeit a deeply human one – is being passed on. It asks to be decoded, examined from different angles, pulled apart and re-understood.

In a sense, these are the functions of my musical settings from Gaudete. Before beginning work on the piece, I spent several months periodically re-reading and studying the book, finally selecting eight texts, all but one of which are taken from the Epilogue (“Distance blues beyond distance” is extracted from the narrative text, and strikes me as a sort of rupture in the story, hinting at the greater abstraction of the Epilogue). I do not feel it is necessary to outline here the plot of the book – selections from the Epilogue are often published without any explanation of their relationship to the main text of Gaudete – and do not wish to prejudice unduly the listener’s own interpretation of either music or text by reading too much into my selection and ordering of the poems. Suffice it to say that I considered several possible configurations before the musical and poetic flow dictated the current form, and I have not ruled out the possibility that this sequence may be added to at some point in the future. It should also be borne in mind that at the time of writing I have not yet heard the piece (except in my imagination!) and am reluctant to make claims for the effects of my choices until I have had them confirmed! One thing I can say, however, is that I cannot imagine the final text “I said goodbye to earth” being anything other than a closing statement: it is by far the longest text setting and its ‘otherness’ from the rest of the piece should be palpable to the listener.

To outline the piece briefly: there are three long sections or movements, each of which is divided into three or four subsections. The first section begins with a wordless evocation of elements of the prose section of Hughes’s Epilogue, and continues with complete settings of “What will you make of half a man” and “Your tree – your oak” often employing a reduced-size orchestra. In the second section “When the still-soft eyelid sank again” gives rise to an orchestral interlude interposed with the fragments of text “Distance blues beyond distance” and “I saw my keeper/Sitting in the sun”. The third section begins with contrasted settings of “Collision with the earth has finally come” and “The dead man lies, marching here and there”. The latter tumbles into incomprehensibility leading to a short but monolithic (and very loud) meditation on death, which constitutes a tribute to the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, before finally arriving at the song “I said goodbye to earth”.

I would like to express my gratitude to the publisher and copyright holders of the texts for permitting me to set them.

© Stuart MacRae, 2008

Score preview:

  • 10 AUG 2008
    Gaudete World Premiere
    BBC Proms 2008
    Royal Albert Hall, London
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Susanna Andersson soprano; Edward Gardner, conductor

The power of MacRae’s orchestral writing is Gaudete’s real strength, not only in its raw, menacing threats, but also in its delicacy. Listen to the earth stirring in piano cluster-chords, solo violin, muted horns and trumpets, a suddenly-erupting frenetic jig breaking out until a molto adagio section where the soprano, as in the opening, floats in again so lightly and ‘Distance blues beyond distance’. …this is the best of MacRae to date.
Robert Stein, Tempo (Vol 63 Issue 247),01/01/2009
Sunday's star premiere - with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - was Stuart MacRae's Gaudete, a substantial half-hour setting of extracts from Ted Hughes's magnum opus. MacRae, with his uncompromising language, preoccupation with elemental nature and dark, craggy writing, appears to be a true soulmate. In setting eight texts in three long sections, MacRae has thrillingly given Hughes's work a new incarnation. Blood, granite, oak and bone were imprinted anew on the imagination through the heightened experience of music. Susanna Andersson was the soloist: her stratospheric soprano started with a cry almost indistinguishable from the clatter and hushed screams of the orchestra. The jagged, syllabic wordsetting deep-hewed the verse from the constantly quivering, reverberating orchestral air. Through passages of sunblinding and numb valediction, Gaudete ran its course. I can't wait to hear it again.
Hilary Finch, The Times (London),12/08/2008
Less a song-cycle than a scena for soprano and orchestra, in “Gaudete” (2008) MacRae sets extracts (primarily from the ‘Epilogue’) from one of Ted Hughes's most densely allusive collections: one that appears to revolve around the relationship of Man to God and to Nature, though that relationship is a necessarily oblique one. MacRae has fashioned them into a 28-minute work in several sections: how these unfold and how they coalesce is likely as much to do with the emphasis of the performance as with the intention of the composer; though this is not to deny the work's underlying conviction, or that the final three stanzas constitute an epilogue of uncommon subtlety and evocative beauty. This a work, moreover, that makes exceptional demands on the singer's stamina and there can be no doubt that Susanna Andersson's contribution went a long way to making the performance a success. The frequent passages of coloratura were given with impressive accuracy, while her projection of the words afforded more clarity than might have been expected – though the textural and harmonic spacing suggested that the composer had considered this problem at some length. The outcome was a powerful rendering of a work whose ambition requires, and deserves, further hearings. It certainly reaffirmed MacRae among the most distinctive composers of his generation.
Richard Whitehouse, Classical Source,12/08/2008
Stuart MacRae's Gaudete matched intangible poetry by Ted Hughes with a fearsome solo part for the soprano Susanna Andersson and a fevered, coruscating score of uncompromising density.
Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph,11/08/2008
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