Frederick Frahm writes:
In the late spring of 2016, I was visiting the UK for a series of concerts and events that were part of the Firehead Editions Summer Festival. I was most fortunate to be hosted by Robin and Alison Walker for the first part of my stay. They offered me the comforts of home and friendship, great food as always, they helped me cope with an awful bout of jetlag (it does not get easier as you get older…), and best of all were gracious to include me on various road-trips to lovely and meaningful and non tourist-y places. I enjoyed that so very much as the English countryside around Cambridge and the seaside around Suffolk were places I had yet to see.
On one of those road-trips, which would eventually get me to a rehearsal in Kent, where the splendid Cantate Choir was working on my Turtle Songs and the motet ‘Who is Wise Among You?‘, Robin planned for a detour of sorts on way down to the venue. During the day, I would get to see a proper castle in Tonbridge, have some curious but tasty Chinese food, and on the way back to the car discover an Aston Martin Cygnet parked along the road. But earlier on, the truly remarkable part of that day was something I’ll never forget.
Robin let me know he had a surprise for me all worked out and that we needed to stop by a place in the country to see it. When we arrived, there was a church (a rather old one), and Oast house or two (don’t see those in the states), a splendid grassy meadow, and an ancient churchyard with many head-stones from ages past. “Fair enough”, I thought, finding the environs to be quite charming. And, being a church musician, I had of course seen many churches. This one was especially quaint and I figured, knowing Robin, that there must be a splendid instrument inside that he might play for me.
So we entered the church. Now, as it turns out, All Saints Tudeley has been around for a long time. It’s a 13th century place and undoubtedly it has a certain palpable ‘vibe’. Alas, I knew absolutely nothing about it until I was standing inside. Robin managed to keep my attention while telling me that he would run upstairs to play the little Pulham organ. So, I watched him scurry away to the stairwell and eventually discovered the organ facade suspended like a Ruckpositiv above the floor. After a little bit of clunking up stairs and the sound of a few stops being pulled, Robin began to play one of my New Mexico Sketches, particularly the one about the Rio Grande River at Dawn. “Lovely”, I thought. I’d heard him play this piece many times, but thought it sweet of him to play it again.
Then it dawned on me that I might see the church while the music continued… amid jetlag things tend to dawn on you suddenly rather than present themselves as a scrolling part of an inner monologue. Turning around, the first blasphemous words I uttered in this 13th century gem of a church were: “Holy smokes, is that a Chagall?”. Yes, it was… and they were everywhere, a dozen of them. There was music still being played from above, (my music, I knew) but that faded into the background. I was having a real time encounter with singular art. This little nave, aglow with a dreamy chiaroscuro light filtered through color and gesture and symbol and striation, was adorned by the work of a great master. Each of these stunning pieces had their own story to tell (scriptural-emotional-theological), and I felt immediately that there wouldn’t be time for me to fully comprehend their radiant mysteries on that day.
Later, I was able to learn more about the space, the commissioning of those windows, the manner of church politics and finances which can impede such a project, and I came to understand a bit more of how significant this moment would be for me. My spirit thrives in the midst of abstract art and this space turned to be a nourishment without compare. As a response, I composed ‘Tudeley Windows‘. My intent was to make a piece that could capture the subtle color that permeates the little church, the intimacy of the windows, and to consider the circumstances of the commission: the Chagall windows were placed in memory of a young girl born to a great family, Sarah Venetia d’Avigdor-Goldsmid. Tragically in 1963 she perished at sea, off the coast of Sussex, at age 21.
The 12 brief passages of music that make up Tudeley Windows are fragmentary like shards of glass. The brief, laconic melodies suggest a breath half taken, and the accompaniments filled with contrast of pungency and sparity and joy and mourning serve to interpret Chagall’s overlying strands of color and line and image and symbol. This is a poignant, meditative chamber piece, and in keeping with the desire for an expressive yet subtle tonal color, the music is scored for piano and clarinet.
The music, full score and clarinet part, is now available through Firehead Editions.