A Titanic adventure in Cornwall

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Jeremy Pound enjoys the premiere of James Burton’s Convergence of the Twain at the St Endellion Easter Festival

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And so to the village of St Endellion, Cornwall, for the Easter Festival. This is the part of the world where the roads are narrow and hedge-lined, where buzzards glide, tractors trundle, sheep abound and cows look remarkably content – presumably no-one has told them what goes into a pasty.

A surprising place for the world premiere of a large-scale choral and orchestral work about the sinking of the Titanic? In fact, an entirely apt one.

Despite its remoteness – or, more probably, because of it – St Endellion’s musical credentials have been established for many decades now, thanks to the two fine festivals that take place in its 15th-century church at Easter and in summer. And in that same church’s graveyard can be found the memorial to one Frank Crouch, who lost his life on that night of 15 April 1912, when ship and iceberg made their disastrous acquaintance. An ideal reason, then, to commission Easter Festival director James Burton to compose a new piece to mark the occasion’s centenary.

As we explore in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine, the Titanic’s fate has intrigued composers as a subject matter almost from the moment the ship went down – Nielsen started things off with his Paraphrase on Nearer My God to Thee in 1912 itself, and others have since followed. It’s not hard to see why. The vastness of iceberg and ship, the darkness of the night and the sea, the dramatic moment of impact, the desperation and tragedy: all sorts of ideas to work with there.

For his work, Burton turned to Thomas Hardy’s The Convergence of the Twain, an acerbic poem written just two weeks after the disaster that reflects on the vanity of both the Titanic itself and of many of those who were on board. ‘Jewels in joy designed,’ writes Hardy, ‘To ravish the sensuous mind Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.’ You get the picture.

Intentionally or not, Burton’s 20-minute piece, which shares its title with Hardy’s poem, pays intriguing little nods to maritime works of the past. It is scored, for instance, for similar forces – baritone solo, chorus and orchestra – to Delius’s Sea Drift, while the brutal orchestral crashes towards the close bear a resemblance to those at the end of ‘Storm’ in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. The choral writing, meanwhile, has echoes of Vaughan Williams, though suggesting a comparison with VW’s Sea Symphony might be pressing the point a touches far. There are glimpses of, say, Howells, too.

Thrown into the mix, meanwhile, are quotes of the Gregorian chant for the Requiem mass (if you are familiar with the beginning of Duruflé’s Requiem, you’ll know the phrase in question). These are never sung, but instead played by the orchestra – particularly effectively so towards the end, when just a fragment of the chant is heard in the horns: a final, forceful, deeply disturbing lament.

And the work overall? The audience loved it, and so did I. Melodious without ever sounding hackneyed or twee, powerful without ever going over the top, and imaginative both in its harmonic language and in its deployment of both orchestra and chorus, it proved a compelling listen. And conducted by Burton himself (shown in rehearsal, above), it was given a notable launch by baritone David Stout and the St Endellion Festival chorus and orchestra.

Now comes the important bit – getting The Convergence of The Twain performed elsewhere. One of the most depressing aspects of a life in music journalism is hearing a new work that one would like to get to know better, but as often as not having to accept that such an opportunity may never happen. The Convergence of The Twain is undoubtedly a piece that deserves to buck that trend. This is one Titanic-related work that I would be deeply sorry to see sink without trace. Pun intended.

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine