Interview, Ablaze with Light - The Choral Music of William Petter
British composer William Petter, who died last year at the tragically young age of 34, left behind a considerable body of deeply spiritual music, reflecting his lifelong immersion in the European choral tradition.
As he neared the end of his life, some of his fellow singers conceived of the idea of recording these works for posterity, and William himself became involved in the project. This album, featuring two Masses he composed for St Magnus the Martyr in London as well as smaller choral works for a variety of forces, is the result.
I spoke to conductor Peter Foggitt about this disc and the significance of Petter's music.
Elements of this disc seem to recall many of the great composers of religious music – there are moments reminiscent of Bairstow, Duruflé, even Messiaen. Do you think there were any composers who exerted a particularly strong influence on William’s style?
Absolutely. William’s music quite happily and flexibly inhabits various strands of church music tradition: the simple grandeur of the Edwardians – Bairstow, Elgar, and so on – is in evidence, particularly in his setting of the Our Father, and in the hymn-anthem Come down, O love divine; though the strongest influence, to my mind, is from the French side. William’s love of Gregorian chant, and the various ways in which (particularly) Duruflé weaves the fabric of his music around it, are almost always in evidence. There are other influences, too: the vigorous, 7/8 of The Good Shepherd has risen recalls Rachmaninov’s choral music, whilst also putting one in mind of more contemporary influences. This is the way, of course, with any music that locates itself in a tradition: there are many voices of the past on which, as a composer, you can draw, but it’s how you corral their influences that defines your particular style.
The choir of St Magnus the Martyr, for which most of this music was written, tends to use single voices rather than a massed choral sound; do you think these pieces translate well to the larger choir used on this disc?
To quote Eeyore: better, in places. There is, of course, a quality peculiar to single-voice singing that can’t be replicated in any other setting. However, the person who observed that it takes a full opera chorus to sing a true pianissimo was never more clearly proven right than in The Lord’s Prayer, where the warmth of the choral sound doesn’t in any way detract from the intimacy of it. And, of course, it’s a great deal easier to sing the long lines of the Amen with a little help from six or seven friends.
While obviously some of Petter’s music is technically ambitious, would you say there are works on this disc within the capabilities of the average church choir to perform?
Definitely. One of the most frequently-commented-on characteristics of William’s music is that it contains no unwarranted complexity. There are tricky corners, on occasion (I wouldn’t recommend the St Magnus Mass Kyrie for an ordinary Sunday morning at an ordinary parish church), but the anthems and Our Father in particular lend themselves to short rehearsal periods. There’s also a set of responses (for Matins and Evensong), not recorded on this disc, that are incredibly well written: they were broadcast on BBC Choral Evensong in May of this year, and deserve to take their place alongside Rose, Leighton and the other fine modern sets of responses.
Do you have a particular favourite work or movement on the disc?
Both of the settings of the Agnus Dei are, for quite different reasons, remarkable. The F sharp major ending (Liszt’s key of heaven – six sublime sharps!) of the St Magnus Mass is a vision of Paradise; the plainsong of the Vigil Mass is urgent – in a way, more human, determined, bloody-minded. Manley Hopkins, recalling the story of Jacob, puts it well: "That night, that year/Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God".