Commissioned by Cambridge University Music Society to celebrate their 150th anniversary with support from the Donald Wort CUMS Sesquicentenary Prize
3(=picc).3(III=ca.I+II=ca ad lib).3(II=Ebcl.III=bcl).3(III=cbsn) - 6.3(I=crt ad lib).3.1 - perc(6): timp/6tgl/2 sandpaper blocks/BD/2 ant.cym/mcas/glsp/tpl.bl/vibraslap/vib/tam-t/guiro/rototom - cel - pno - harp - strings
… but all shall be well
‘Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well’
These lines from the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets provided the inspiration for the title of Thomas Adès’s first large-scale orchestral score, a ‘consolation’ for orchestra. The lines are in turn from Julian of Norwich’s Consolations, in which she expressed her belief that sin was a natural, even necessary part of the human condition.
What Adès’s title suggests is that in the face of disaster or adversity, all might be well. Not in a Candidesque sort of way, in which everything is viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, but as in Eliot’s more considered and often hard-won optimism. The three dots at the beginning refer to the sin or adversity that precedes the need for all to be well.
Despite a title that seems to promise much in terms of narrative, … but all shall be well does not tell a story. In fact, according to the composer, it is the least programmatic of his works. It is composed to engage the audience and gradually to draw the listener into its own intimate world. As such it does not have any massive dramatic gestures but develops the line of a melody at a steady pace, and when the climax occurs (about two-thirds of the way through) it is the result of the musical processes running their natural course and, effectively, starting over again.
The piece is in three sections, each of them a broad panel that unfolds before the listener majestically. They function in a way similar to an exposition, development and recapitulation and Adès adapts Classical sonata form to his own highly original requirements. The threefold division permeates the structure further still. Each of the panels is in turn made up of three smaller sections which unfold three sets of perfect-fifth intervals through Adès’s own scale-system. The junctions in the structure come at the points of cadence, when the scales return to their starting-points.
As the piece progresses, the full orchestra gradually emerges from the unearthly tintinnabulations of the beginning. The instrumentation is loosely based on Britten’s War Requiem with the instruments divided into two groups: a concertino that sings the melodies, and a larger group which both echoes the melody and provides the harmony. The harmonies themselves are the result of carefully crafted lines of counterpoint which again follow Adès’s scale-system. Instrumental solos are coloured by little splashes from other instruments, recalling the Mahler of Kindertotenlieder, so that they do not appear quite themselves, but are tinged slightly and add to a mood of unease – as though viewing a reflection in a distorting mirror.
… but all shall be well is about shifting expectations. Familiar melodies, sounds and ideas are gradually brought in and out of focus, cadences are tantalisingly glimpsed and then snatched from view. As in much of Adès’s music, there are many allusions to other works – for example the chorale at the end is based on Liszt’s Romance oubliée. The sounds and textures often resemble those of the late-Romantics and the adventurers in expanding tonality of the Second Viennese School. Far from being about the past, however, Adès is emphatic in his message that ‘it is a piece about now, about our own fin-de-siècle’.
… but all shall be well is dedicated to the memory of Adès grandfather, Remy, who died shortly before it was completed. The piece was the result of a commission from the Cambridge University Music Society to celebrate its 150th anniversary and was first performed by the CUMS Orchestra under Stephen Cleobury at Ely Cathedral in March 1994.
© Matías Tarnopolsky