Maroochydore. A quiet coastal town in the Sunshine Coast region of Queensland and a vacation destination for me and my parents. I am pleased to announce that my childhood memories of Maroochydore remain relevant today: there are still plenty of palm trees and plenty of beach towels!
And now from Maroochydore comes the latest Australian musical expression on COVID-19, commissioned as part of an exciting multinational project.
You might expect a composer’s house to be cluttered and sprawling, but Brenton Broadstock’s is meticulously tidy. It has become clear to me over the past 18 months that this composer strives for precision in all things. Although I haven’t visited him since June of last year, our frequent correspondence has demonstrated his knowledge, wisdom and humor. Now in person I see he looks very healthy. This makes me happy, because this man is my mentor and friend – as he is to many others.
Broadstock is one of Australia’s national treasures. Boasting an impressive catalog of seven symphonies, four concertos, four string quartets, a chamber opera based on Fahrenheit 451 and many other orchestral, chamber and solo works, his music has been performed across the world and published on over 50 commercial albums. He has received numerous Australian accolades, including the Paul Lowin Song Cycle Award, the Albert H Maggs Composition Award and the Don Banks Music Award. As a music professor and composition director at the University of Melbourne for nearly three decades, he oversaw enduring curriculum reforms and taught many of Australia’s most distinguished compositional voices, including Katy Abbott, Mary Finsterer, Stuart Greenbaum and Matthew Hindson. In 2014, Broadstock was invested as a Member of the Order of Australia for – needless to say – important service to music.
COVID has sparked a plethora of artistic responses, and Broadstock has not shied away from writing about the pandemic. In the corner of his living room, a desk is stacked with manuscripts. Curious, I move to investigate.
“This is my eighth,” Broadstock announces. “I gave him the working title Eye of the storm. This is my symphonic response to the pandemic. Things are going well.”
“This is your second article on COVID,” I said, trying to hide my excitement. I can’t believe I have a draft of a new Broadstock Symphony!
“Let’s talk about the first one,” he said with a smile.
Pandemic. It’s a gripping track, and one that fits the 15 minutes of Broadstock perfectly. tour de force for chamber choir and string quartet. Pandemic is the sixth and last movement of Shadow and hope, a COVID-themed cantata designed by Philipp Amelung and commissioned by the Municipality of Icking, Germany. Shadow and hope is built from the music of composers from six continents – Randall Svane from the United States, Markus Höring from Germany, Harry Crowl from Brazil, Antoine Sima from Gabon in Central Africa and Lokyin Tang from Hong Kong, with Broadstock representing the Australia. It’s the first time he’s done something like this.
But Broadstock isn’t easily intimidated, and Pandemic was born after six months of composition. “When Philipp first invited me to the premiere,” he recalls, “COVID didn’t allow me to travel to Bavaria. But I just got an exemption from the Home Office. So, I stay or I dare?
Shadow and hope is scheduled to premiere on November 14, 2021 at St Benedikt Ebenhausen’s Church, Schäftlarn, with Amelung conducting both the Theodor Schüz Ensemble and the Berlin-Tokyo Quartet.
According to Amelung, Shadow and hope is partly inspired by an earlier collaborative work, the 1995 Requiem of reconciliation, which was commissioned by Helmuth Rilling to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. Requiem of reconciliation includes the work of 14 composers, including Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki and Judith Weir. In performance, it is longer than Mahler’s Third Symphony.
To further enrich Shadow and hope, Amelung gave each of the six composers of the cantata the same six-note motif, the Crown reason, which they were allowed to interpret as they saw fit. “It’s a nifty way to keep things together in a large-scale job like this,” says Broadstock. “The motif is unifying, both musically and, in a way, narratively. “
Storytelling is an important structural element of Pandemic. For the choir, Broadstock adapted the text of three poems: The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue by WH Auden, Influenza by Winston Churchill, and What cancer can’t do by Robert L. Lynn.
“The text is everyone’s pandemic journey,” he explains. “We are confused and anxious even now; it is Auden. We have seen how COVID has crossed the world indiscriminately; it is the Churchill. But we’ve also seen some incredible displays of human strength, like in March 2020. It’s the Lynn. I wanted to Shadow and hope to end thus: with hope. The Lynn allowed me to do this. Also, before you ask, my use of the Auden is not meant to pay homage to Bernstein.
What exactly happened in March 2020? Broadstock is passionate about Italy and is fluent in the language, so it is moving to hear him describe how Italians walked up to their balconies singing at the start of COVID. There was, in fact, a precedent for such behavior. In 1567, the plague swept through Milan and when the authorities canceled Christian services throughout the city, the Milanese sang hymns from their windows.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he says, when I share this with Broadstock. “We all know the power of music in times of crisis. “
It’s a good transition to the actual notes on the page. “How would you describe Pandemic? “I ask.” To me the music sounds lush. “
“Lush!” exclaims Broadstock. ” What lush mean? Lush it looks like someone has drunk too much!
For Broadstock, the public’s interpretation is supreme, and I cannot say that I disagree. He doesn’t want to assign superfluous descriptors to his music; instead, he would much prefer people to make up their minds just by listening. All he will concede is that Pandemic the music travels with the text.
When composing, Broadstock doesn’t think about the key. He views pitch as a fluid entity, driven primarily by smooth vocal driving and intelligent texture change. I have known this from my time as a mentee during my participation in the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers’ program of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He then vividly imprinted on me a doctrine of organic composition, and I can see that Pandemic now adheres to this doctrine.
When I ask for more on the Crown motive, says Broadstock, “I enjoyed working with it. This is not a disagreeable motive. The pitch is fluid, as I say. It is only by compositional transformation that the Crown the motif actually becomes music.
Reflecting on the pandemic, Broadstock says, “COVID has certainly made me more insular. As far as the composition is concerned, my production has decreased. I am demoralised. I am frustrated with the way the pandemic has been handled around the world and saddened to see what has happened and what is happening to my friends and colleagues. “
Even though her output has declined, Broadstock’s songwriting process remains as cohesive and rewarding as ever. Through his works composed during COVID, he cannot identify any alteration in his style or aesthetic. When I read Pandemic, I hear in my mind traces of his Fourth Symphony, Born from the tears of the good angel, as well as his a capella lamentation, I had a dream.
That said, Broadstock firmly believes that there is nothing wrong with a composer adjusting his musical language over time. “It’s funny that we praise the ones who are consistent,” he says. “But what about Penderecki or even Richard Meale?” I think we should praise their music for its stylistic variety.
I’m postulating to Broadstock that a lot of artwork will be written about COVID, and he agrees. What is it that makes its musical offering unique?
“It’s a combination of things. The text, the instrumentation – the project itself. The prescribed Crown pattern certainly does not diminish the authenticity of the work, as I interpreted it as I would with any of my own materials. Pandemic is a new work of art; that’s why it’s important, and that’s why it should question.”
“Would you say Pandemic is biographical? I ask.
Broadstock pauses before declaring, “All of my music is biographical. Isn’t all music biographical? It’s one of his cheeky but educational rhetorical questions, and I quickly realize he’s right. “Even though a piece of music has no program or conscious extramusical inspiration, it is inherently indicative of the composer’s psyche. We used to talk about stylistic variety. Well, even though Stravinsky wrote in many different styles depending on where he was physically and emotionally in his life, his catalog is underpinned by musical imprints. Sometimes they’re stained, sure, but they’re still there.
My last question ends our conversation philosophically. I ask Broadstock if he thinks of Pandemic like a sacred or profane work.
“Secular. It’s not sacred. At least, it’s not for me.
“Spiritual, maybe? ” I suggest.
“Oh yes.” He leans back in his chair and smiles. “Spiritual. Absolutely.”
Brenton Broadstock Pandemic creations as the sixth and last movement of the multinational collaborative cantata Shadow and hope November 14 at St Benedikt Ebenhausen, Schäftlarn. Philipp Amelung conducts the Theodor Schüz Berlin-Tokyo Ensemble and Quartet.