For some years, I had wanted to write a work about mourning and lamentation. Therefore, when I found the right text after a long search, many of the musical ideas and sonorities for this piece had been in my mind for a long time. The text I have used is simple folk poetry from Salento, situated in the southernmost part of Italy. The poems (originally sung to traditional tunes) are in a language called Grico, which is basically Greek influenced by Italian, and is still spoken in seven villages. The region was colonised by the Greeks since ancient times, and as in Greece, it has an elaborate tradition of ritualised mourning. As in so many parts of the world, it is left for the women to weep and lament and for the men to do the more formal valedictory praising of the dead.
Women expert in the art of lamentation and keening, often led by a chief mourner or ‘Prefica’ would be summoned once a death occurred. Known as professional mourners in many different cultures, they often carried out these duties for no payment, and although outwardly they sang for one particular funeral, it is clear that they also wept and lamented to express their own losses and grief. I have some childhood memories of this kind of thing, and was excited to find that this tradition, although greatly diminished, still exists, even in parts of Europe.
These simple and passionate poems not only name grief but articulate it directly through their simple imagery. Using the time-honoured rituals of group mourning, they clearly help to lead the bereaved through the various stages of grief to some kind of acceptance or reconciliation. LAMENTS uses these stages as a kind of dramatic plan. The first movement sets three related stanzas with fragmented music and extremes of dynamic and activity. The second movement sets a single poem and is a lament sung by the soloist alone, with the chorus reappearing in the last stanza. The last movement begins with a ‘magical’ incantation for the chorus, a kind of transformation which leads into the lighter mood of the last poem. As in the second song, the soloist is accompanied by the chorus in the last stanza; a solo clarinet takes over from the soloist to bring the piece to its close.
LAMENTS was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and was completed in June 1998. The work lasts approximately 22 minutes. It is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Julie.