Friday, 29 June 2007

An Easter Recital

I know it's not Easter any more, but I'm on a roll and Christ is still risen! This was a very special (Good Friday) concert for me because it was the first time I've tried to work a theological narrative into the programme.

Ayo Bankole, Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun

Franz Schubert, Impromptu in C minor, D899, No. 1

Bankole, Sonata No. 2 in C, “ The Passion”

I ‘And they sought about for to kill Him’ (Allegretto molto)

II ‘And He was crucified’ (Largo-Presto-Largo)

III ‘The song of Mary’ (Allegro scherzissimo)

Schubert, Impromptu in A flat, D899, No. 4

Both Bankole (1935-1976) and Schubert (1797-1828) died young. The Nigerian and his wife were tragically killed when the composer was forty-one, and syphilis caught up with Schubert when he was only thirty-one. Nevertheless, both achieved an incredible amount in their respective musical worlds, though in dramatically different ways, and made significant contributions to the repertoires of the piano and the human voice. It seemed fitting to programme their music together at Easter, the traditional time for remembering and celebrating the defining events of history – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, another man who died in his thirties and yet achieved more than Schubert or Bankole ever could have.

Today’s concert loosely follows the historical and theological shape of the mission of the Son of God. Only one of the works was written with Easter in mind, but in this combination I find that their varying moods and characters resonate with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The opening Rhapsody is a set of variations on a haunting, beautiful theme from an African opera (possibly by Bankole himself – information about him is scarce). This theme has two essential elements – a group of mysterious chords that open and close the work, and a haunting melody that overlays these chords. Each of the episodes of the Rhapsody explores one or both of these elements, often heading off in surprising directions. Throughout, you find both virtuosity and tenderness, which serves in this concert to symbolise Jesus’ life of teaching, healing, compassion and challenge as he interacted with the ordinary people of Palestine two thousand years ago and began to establish the promised kingdom of God.

The Rhapsody was never published and only exists today because of a transcription made of a recording of Bankole improvising at the keyboard. The pianist Glen Inanga has done much to popularise Bankole’s piano music around the world, and he generously posted several rare scores to me.

Schubert’s C minor Impromptu is full of foreboding, just as the shadow of the cross is cast across more than half of the gospel narratives of Jesus’ life. As the time approached for his to be taken up to heaven Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) He deliberately went there even though he knew that confrontation with the Jewish religious authorities would lead to his death at the hands of the Roman rulers of Palestine. He went willingly to his death because he knew that by this sacrifice he would set his people free. This determination and resolution are recalled by the elaborated repetitions of the march-like main theme (almost the only theme) of the Impromptu. At times this work sounds angry, at times it is almost funereal, but it closes in quiet confidence. Schubert wrote the set of four Impromptus in 1827, but it did not find favour with a publisher until decades later. The public apparently wanted something ‘easier’, accorrding to the Paris firm of Schott, to whom Schubert in vain sent much of his serious late piano music.

While Schubert lived in relative obscurity but is now recognised as one of the ‘great’ European composers, Bankole was successful and popular in his professional life but is little known in Europe. A virtuoso on piano and organ, a prolific composer, teacher and broadcaster, he received much of his training in England (London and Cambridge) and devoted his career to bringing Nigerian music back to the Nigerian people and to the world at large. A large proportion of his music is explicitly religious in inspiration or purpose – either choral works for use in the worship at Lagos Cathedral or programmed instrumental music such as this “Passion” Sonata. The titles of the movements speak for themselves. The music is sinister, skittish, bathetic and, when it comes to painting the cruxifixion itself, brutal yet curiously noble.

Jesus did not stay dead, so it would not be appropriate to end on the sombre and understated note provided by Bankole’s “Passion” Sonata. The fourth of Schubert’s Impromptus enacts that transformation from apparent defeat and confusion to victory accomplished by Jesus’ resurrection. While the Impromptu opens in A flat minor, and has an even darker central section in C sharp minor, the climax of the work involves a transformation to a triumphant A flat major. With a spring in its step, the music ascends the keyboard and closes in a blaze of glory. As one of the first Christians put it, Death has been swallowed up in victory! (1 Corinthahians 15:54)