Ahead of this weekend’s performance, Kirstie Newton chatted to Russell Pacoe about his alternative, but respectful, take on Christ’s childhood which premieres at Truro Cathedral.
In early 2014, Truro composer Russell Pascoe spoke to Cornwall Today about his forthcoming Secular Requiem, which combined music with texts compiled (and written) by Professor Anthony Pinching. The piece was performed in Truro Cathedral to a packed house and to great acclaim. It was the beginning of a lasting professional collaboration and personal friendship, the fruits of which can be heard again this month when A Different Child premieres at the cathedral, uniting the St Mary’s Singers with professional soloists and around 200 children from a variety of Cornwall choirs.
The two men were introduced by a stroke of fortune. “I’d been asked by the Three Spires Singers to sponsor the Secular Requiem concert financially, and thought I should meet Russell first and find out exactly what I’d be signing up for,” says Tony, a clinical immunologist who has worked in the field of AIDS and chronic diseases, and at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry at the Royal Cornwall Hospital. “We had a fascinating conversation about many things, including music, and the texts he had in mind for this piece. As it happened, I’d been reading a lot of poetry about death at the time, and started filling his inbox with helpful suggestions – Donne, Stevenson, Tagore. In the end, partly out of despair I think, he said, ‘You do the words, I’ll do the music.’”
It was a meeting of minds. “I’d always wanted a collaborator – thank God I met Tony,” says Russell. “You can’t thank God for a secular requiem,” points out Tony, who describes himself as “a practising agnostic”, while Russell claims to be “an atheist fascinated by religion”.
Next, Tony had hoped to complete a song cycle he had already begun. However, he worked simultaneously on the libretto for a different child. “Russell begged me to send it to him, so I did so on Christmas Eve, on condition he didn’t open it until the song cycle was finished.” Like a child with a gift-wrapped present, Russell could not wait, and the song cycle was placed on the backburner for a year. “I’m a softie,” sighs Tony.
A Different Child is a much bigger work, and its subject matter – Christ’s childhood – is equally challenging. Content has been drawn not from the canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – but from the Apocryphal Infancy Gospels of Thomas and James. First written down in the second century, these were widely known before the Reformation, when the Church decided for various reasons to focus on the four we use today.
Russell is an aficionado of the work of medieval painters. “I’d longed for years to write a cantata about Jesus’s childhood, based on material that I knew about as an art lover, but which didn’t make it into the canonical gospels,” he explains.
Online, he shows me Giotto’s Nativity, a 14th century fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy; it depicts the Virgin in the cave with two midwives, who doubted the Virgin birth but do not appear in the canonical gospels; and the ox and the ass, which Russell describes as “an apocryphal embellishment,” adding caustically: “They look good on Christmas cards,” he says caustically. Some accounts have Jesus born in a cave rather than a stable: “I find it harder at Christmas services now,” says Tony. “I want to ask, ‘Are you sure?”
Some stories portray Jesus as, to steal a phrase from the Pythons, “a very naughty boy”. A painting from the 1920s by Max Ernst depicts the Virgin Mary with the boy Jesus over her knee, about to be spanked. Other subjects covered include Mary’s childhood, and how she came to be betrothed to the widower Joseph.
Discovering these previously unknown gospels was “revelatory and fascinating” for Tony. “I very quickly became of a view that it didn’t matter whether the stories were true or not,” he says. “These are the stories people told during the short time that Jesus was around, which tell us about the impact he had as a person, and paint a much richer picture.”
It was important to find a way to present the tales that wasn’t in opposition to the official canon, hence a contralto acting as an interlinking “mother figure”. Tony explains: “She understands how children tell tales, and how they are affected by what is said. Her message is that these things might not have happened, but it is how people felt when faced with someone different at that time, when the Church itself was going through its own childhood. In that sense, she echoes the early female leaders.”
Their partnership brings to mind, for me at least, that of Sirs Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, whose own work on the subject – Jesus Christ Superstar – comes to the Hall For Cornwall from October 27 to 31. Russell and Tony take the comparison better than I expect: “I perfomed that at Richard Lander,” Russell admits. “Like us, I think they felt the need to inject some drama into the story.” And A Different Child does float across genres: “Russell doesn’t get jazz, but one tale about a compassionate robber came out as a blues number, which was absolutely right,” says Tony. “I felt filthy afterwards, though,” adds Russell, wryly.
Their next work is already in progress – with a working title of Remembrance, it will be performed at Truro cathedral in 2018, to coincide with the centenary of the end of the Great War, and to reflect on all wars past and present.
“It’s a good working relationship,” says Tony. “There’s a lot of toing and froing – Russell might say something is unsettable, or too poetic and imposes itself on the music. He tends to work between 11pm and 3am, when most civilised people are in bed, so we have an understanding that if he sends me a message during that time, I won’t reply straight away. He does ring me during the day, saying, ‘I need more drama, or two more stanzas, NOW”. Russell adds: “Tony’s great to work with, because he will do it.”
A Different Child will be performed at Truro Cathedral on Saturday, October 17. Jesus Christ Superstar comes to the Hall For Cornwall from October 27 to 31. To book tickets for either production, visit www.hallforcornwall.co.uk