The War in Heaven

The War in Heaven is a large-scale cantata for 2 solo voices (soprano and male alto), half chorus (BBC Singers), full chorus and orchestra. There are two different texts: one for the chorus and one for the soloists. The choral text is the opening section of the Old English (approximately 7th century) paraphrase of the first books of the Bible usually called Genesis A. I came across this when I set Caedmon's Creation Hymn - in 7th century Northumbrian, as part of the Cadman Requiem, written for the Hilliard Ensemble in 1989 and at least parts of Genesis A are probably also by Caedmon. What interested me about this vernacular poetry was that the opening lines of the Bible as we know it occur from line 113 onwards of Genesis A. I use lines 12 to 112 (plus one phrase from line 1) i.e. those lines that precede the Bible proper, a section usually referred to as "The War in Heaven" which deals with the Fall of the rebellious angels.

The solo voices sing, in 20th century English, a setting of a monologue that the American writer Sam Shepard wrote for Joe Chaikin. I had been very moved by the two performances of this piece that Joe Chaikin gave in the Leicester Haymarket's Studio Theatre in 1987, directed by my friend Simon Usher, during the period that I too worked there. This also deals with a fallen angel, but in a very different way, and it was the coincidence of its title, The War in Heaven, that gave me the idea of putting the two pieces together.

Apart from the opening and one unaccompanied section for chorus and half-chorus, the choir sings simultaneously with the solo voices and almost always in the original Anglo-Saxon of Genesis A, but occasionally they have a few words in contemporary English. Equally, on one occasion, the solo voices sing a short phrase in Anglo-Saxon.

The two solo voices are used in a variety of ways. Sometimes they have separate solo sections, sometimes they singing together in duets, sometimes they sing alternating lines or individual phrases, and in one part, sing alternative verses - rather like newsreaders on American television - in the only purely narrative part of the cantata where they describe the ultimately fruitless search for a "great man's" soul after his death. I chose these two solo voices (soprano and male alto) and specifically Sarah Leonard and David James because, on the one hand, I had worked with them several times in the past (both as individuals and within the context of the Hilliard Ensemble) and on the other hand because I wanted above all singers capable of singing with great purity.

They each have voices of extraordinary beauty and power, and, as musicians, they are committed to music from all periods : from Early Music to music of our own day.

The orchestra is large though not enormous. The three percussionists, who play mostly tuned percussion instruments, are intended to be placed in a wide stereo perspective across the width of the orchestra (left, centre and right) and there are some instruments which are found in more than one location (there are Tam-Tams to the left and in the centre, marimbas on the right and the left, bells and glockenspiel at each side, and snare drums and suspended cymbals in each location).

The texts fall into a number of sections, dealing with different aspects of the narrative or emotional situation. However, the music is continuous and is not divided into separate movements, sections being delineated either by a change of atmosphere or by being collaged on top of each other. In spite of the apparently apocalyptic tone of the title, and the implications of the Anglo-Saxon text, the piece is not a religious one but focuses rather on the reflective humanism and ironies of the American text. The Ćangelic fall' that is closest in character perhaps to this work is that found in Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire, and especially in the part played by Peter Falk, to whom this piece is dedicated.

Gavin Bryars.