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Simon Bainbridge

Publisher: Novello & Co

Ad Ora Incerta - Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi (1994)
commissioned by the BBC
Work Notes
Winner of the 1997 Grawemeyer Prize for music composition
Text Writer
Primo Levi
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
35 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
mezzo soprano, bassoon

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Programme Note
Simon Bainbridge Ad Ora Incerta - Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi (1994)
My love for Primo Levi's writing began after reading his deeply moving account of survival in "If this is a man" - a chronicle of his life in the Buna concentration camp.

Some years later on a trip to New York, an American composer friend suggested I read the collection of poems dating from 1943 and concluding with those written near the time of his death in the mid 1980s. I was drawn to the terrifying imagery in his poem Buna particularly the opening lines:

Torn feet and cursed earth
The long line in the grey morning.

This brought back my own bleak memories of visiting Auschwitz on a cold grey day some years ago. I decided to compose the setting for Buna first and it turned out to be a large sixteen minute slow movement.

In selecting the other three texts that make up the cycle, my concern was in creating an overall form for the four movements, whereby the duration and proportion of each song make up a coherent overall shape.

Here is a brief resumé of the cycle, which is written for mezzo soprano, solo bassoon and orchestra:

1) Il canto del corvo 8 minutes
2) Il tramonto di Fossoli 4 minutes
3) Lunedì 4 minutes
4) Buna 16 minutes

The first and last movements are lengthy symphonic developments and require full tutti resources from the orchestra. The two inner movements, in contrast, develop the relationship between mezzo-soprano and solo bassoon.

In Il tramonto di Fossoli they are matched in continuous two part note-for-note counterpoint against a distant cantus. In Lunedì the voice intones the text as a background to a florid melodic counterpoint from the solo bassoon.

Simon Bainbridge

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  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra, Nash Ensemble
    Susan Bickley, mezzo soprano; Kim Walker, bassoon
    Martyn Brabbins
"...the final and most important work, the song cycle Ad Ora Incerta. In his setting of four poems by Primo Levi meditating on the holocaust, Simon Bainbridge creates a soundscape painfully evocative of bleakeness and desolation. His symbiotic partnering of mezzo soprano with a bassoon soloist was mesmerising:Susan Bibkley delivered the words with the detachment that is Bainbridge's equivalent of Levi's distilled objectivity, the only means for him to fulfill his intensely felt obligation as a survivor to bear witness to the almost unutterable truth of the death camps. Against this, bassoonist Dorian Cooke's threnody gave voice to the anguish of heart and spirit. Throughout the evening, Jac van Steen's authoritative conducting was an inspiration to the BBC NOW, but his realisation of the symphonic scale of Bainbridge's conception was masterly. A harrowing but profoundly affecting performance. "
Rian Evans, The Guardian,26/01/2004
"Simon Bainbridge's Ad Ora Incerta, plumbed a depth of tragedy and mourning with the subtlest musical means. When I first heard these settings of Primo Levi's poetic meditations on Auschwitz, they seemed incidently sophisticated as if these unspeakable scenes were being represented in gold thread on spun silk. But on this occasion I was able to pass through that sumptuous surface to something archetypal and utterly stark. Much of the credit for this must go to the performers, particularly the soprano Susan Bickley, whose bleached-out impassive tone was the perfect counterfoil to the music's fevered intensity."
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph,26/01/2004
"The Four Primo Levi Settings are scored for a chamber ensemble and sound equally intense, equally haunting…Required listening if ever there was."
Stephen Pettitt, BBC Music Magazine,01/12/1999
"These two sets of songs are some of the most ambitious and daring British works of recent times"
Matthew Rye, The Telgraph,16/10/1999
…a full half-hour of music, though seemingly more compact, and surely his finest achievement to date. The last song, “Buna”, had a symphonic breadth and trajectory that was a major compositional tour de force in itself. As the focus of three preceding shorter movements, it gave the piece a rock-like consistency, though spun from the pristine, whirling textures Bainbridge has made his own.
Nicholas Williams, The Independent,01/03/1995
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