MICHAEL NYMAN (b.1944): Symphony No. 11 "Hillsborough Memorial".
Catalogue Number: 12Q009
Label: Michael Nyman Records
Description: Although not internally structured according to symphonic tradition, this work is truly symphonic in scale and its four-movement outline, and more importantly, in its ambitious scope and expansive treatment of big, momentous ideas. Nyman's style is distinctive and instantly recognizable - the clever chord changes, the aggressive, up-front sound of the Michael Nyman Band, the precise, unyielding mechanistic rhythms, the subversive use of found material from the Baroque and before. There has been a perceptible shift in a more lyrical direction in recent operatic and film scores, but nonetheless this piece, while recognisably from the same pen - in parts very much so - represents a significant change both in intent and execution. The two Liverpool-related soccer tragedies that provided the impetus for composition, and the sense of his own entanglement in them, seems to have shocked Nyman out of his comfort zone, producing something rather different from what we might expect; a work born of, and designed to evoke, a deep, almost overwhelming, emotional response. The symphony had a complex genesis, and an extended gestation to reach its current form. In 1985, Nyman, a devoted soccer fanatic, was writing a piece for the Michael Nyman Band for performance in France when he heard about the Heysel Stadium disaster, in which 39 fans were killed. The work he was writing took on a different aspect and became an hour-long 'Memorial'. Having failed to get the piece performed in Liverpool (there may have been some controversy due to the fact that although Liverpool fans were involved, they were not the ones who died), the composer somewhat reluctantly dismantled the piece, and one movement, based in the manner of the 'Draftsman's Contract' music on a motif by Purcell (the 'Cold Song' from 'King Arthur'), took on a new life, confusingly titled 'Memorial'; in this form it was incorporated into Peter Greenaway's film "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover". Four years later, Nyman was working on recording a piece derived from another section of the original Memorial when the news broke of the disaster in Hillsborough, which caused the death of 96 Liverpool fans. The tragedy was compounded by allegations of a cover-up, improper actions by the police and public officials, and the unfair treatment of the families of the victims. Feeling a connection to the event, even a sense of responsibility, in 1996 he adapted another section of the original work as the accompaniment to a newly composed vocal line consisting of the names of the victims; this was performed as Hillsborough Memorial. Then, when he was commisioned to write a new work for this year's Liverpool Biennial, he seized the opportunity to expand the piece, and add it to the canon of symphonies on which he had already embarked. The composer's mounting frustration and anger at the circumstances surrounding the event, and the treatment afforded the victims' families, undoubtedly contributed to the emotional intensity of the work in its final form. The symphony begins with a surging, determined rhythm, over which the soloist intones the names of the ninety-six victims of the Hillsborough tragedy, in a soaring line that gathers intensity as the movement's inexorable momentum carries it forward. As the second movement starts it could almost be the slow movement of a conventional romantic symphony; an elegaic chorale-like melody with something Brucknerian about it. An insistent rhythmic pulse soon reveals that this is not what it is, but the somber, elevated mood remains. The third movement is the longest and in some ways the most impressive part of the symphony. It is based on subdivisions of the number ninety-six; deeply symbolic, of course, when you know about it but not readily apparent otherwise. It begins with a rather Wagnerian funereal figure, which develops into a slow processional over an arpeggiated ostinato figure. Gradually the tempo increases and the texture becomes denser as the music accumulates momentum, like a rising tide of anger. Suddenly the oppressive atmosphere is swept away, the texture clears and the appearance of the chorus transforms the mood like the sun breaking through the darkest of stormclouds. Without trying to second guess the feelings of the bereaved families - many of whom were present at a private performance, the public premiere, or private replayings of the recording - one can only imagine that this felt like a cathartic moment, at which, in the composer's words "[having] been, for a lot of cultural reasons, treated like scum and not given their voice, you might say they're getting their voices back now. But it's 25 years too late." The last movement is basically an orchestral transcription of the Purcell-based movement from the original 'Memorial' that latterly took on that name. This is less elegiac than the rest of the piece, with the kind of thrusting propulsiveness of familiar Nyman territory, here lent an added solemnity and emotional heft by the massiveness of the orchestral and choral textures.