Solemn Tones

A wonderful thing about radio is the way that even when you’re pre-occupied with other tasks, it can creep up on you unawares. You can be barely paying attention at all, when something slowly treads upon your consciousness.

This recently happened to me when Radio 3 was playing in the background. I probably hadn’t registered the soft piano chords, but when unison female voices came in over the top, and the piano part added a complementary line, I began to be drawn in.

What was so fascinating about it? There was something unusual in this blend of sound. You expect a choir, accompanied by piano, to break into harmonies at some point – but the vocal line remained united. Neither did the piano part assert itself much. It plodded on, a few passing notes here and there, quietly bolstering the unspooling melody with rich harmonies.

That’s another funny thing about discovering music on the radio in this way – the state of rapt ignorance, of having to guess at what you’re listening to before the announcer comes back on. But there was a clue here. Because there’s one tradition where we expect to hear the sparse sound of unison singing, and that’s plainchant.

As it turns out, I was listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s arrangement of the Salve Regina chant, in the Solemn Tone. It was composed for the 80th birthday of Dame Raphael, a Benedictine nun who she knew from visiting her former abbey on retreats.

Panufnik says that she arranged the Salve Regina in a ‘very unplainsongy way’. But I think this is only partly true. It seems to me that she very shrewdly worked with the meditative qualities of this singing tradition.

Other composers might have toiled harder with this chant – transforming it into variations, using polyphony or other technical tricks – for a less compelling result. But Panufnik shows the power of finding the right slant on a theme, of subtly repositioning it so that it’s left fascinatingly poised.

Listen to those first simple piano chords. Before the voices begin, for all you’d know it could be the start of an Adele ballad. But Panufnik does not make this a solo setting – she retains the plainchant’s unison evenness, which subsumes the individual into the group.

When the choir does join in, the piano finds beautifully expressive harmonic contexts for their wandering line. Like a heartbeat, it brings warmth and immediacy to this ancient, austere tradition. And suddenly – miraculously – it seems that plainchant isn’t million miles away from the soulful outpourings of the singer-songwriter.

This setting treads a fine line between our musical associations: of the medieval and modern, the sacred and secular, the collective and subjective. At the same time, the dark hues of the piano complement the silvery women’s voices – they coexist peacefully, a yin and yang.

It all sounds so natural. Is this the music of a solemn retreat, or an impassioned entreaty? For a few uncanny minutes, both speak as one.

Salve Regina is available from Signum Records. Purchase the score from Edition Peters.

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