BennettA recent Wigmore Hall concert (27 June, 2014) featured the four male voices of New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied. The programme included Richard Rodney Bennett’s, A Colloquy with God, which he composed specifically for the group in 2012, just before his death on Christmas Eve that year. The text, by Thomas Browne, begins “The night is come, like to the day; Depart not thou great God away”. It is a meditation on sleep and death, and it’s been set to music before by composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Vaughan Williams, W H Harris and Gordon Crosse. The 1961 Harris setting, in particular, has a particularly intense and expressive ending:

These are my drowsy days; in vain
I do not wake to sleep again:
O come that hour, when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bennett, who effortlessly straddled musical styles from Boulez to popular film music and cabaret, though as he grew older he distanced himself from his early, more radical musical language. All credit to New York Polyphony for championing this piece to the extent of commissioning a video to help promote it, which is freely available. (The recording is also available on their 2013 CD Times go by Turns). Their performance is excellent, but for me the new layer of meaning added by the filmed narrative is entirely irrelevant and superfluous. For Bennett’s musical language in this piece is paired down to the most minimal of materials. It’s largely homophonic (like a partsong rather than a madrigal), and the melodies and sequential passage are almost subliminal, sunken in as they are within the overall textures of four equal voices.

The opening material in F minor is used for the first two verses and the last, though the rhythmic emphasis and harmonies change each time. The range of pitches is kept very tight, but in the first and third verses the music rises towards a very Purcell-like dissonance, reaching a high D flat (on the second syllable of “eclipse” and, at the end, on the middle words of the phrase “never sleep again”). The middle section builds up to its greatest intensity on the words “Sleep is a death, O make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die.” What little polyphony there was is abandoned in this passage for a rising sequence of very close chromatic block harmony. When the opening material returns (marked “tutti poco portamento”) the music slides lazily across the bar lines for the words “these are my drowsy days,” resolving into an F major chord at the very last second, providing perhaps just a glimmer of hope on “wake forever”.

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