The 10-minute work for strings was first performed by Martyn Brabbins and Sinfonia 21 in 1997. It was inspired by a dramatic black-and-white photograph by Michael Serota of the Jewish cemetery in Prague, which he had never seen in person: a chaos of beautifully carved old tombstones almost tumbling over each other in semi-disorder. This is reflected in Past Hymns’ polyphonic tangles and cross rhythms: lively contrapuntal dances seize into dense textural clusters, before energetically breaking out again. Photographs of the Czech capital also inspired Anderson’s recent Symphony No.2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ (2019).
Past Hymns references Jewish musical traditions, both sacred and secular. Anderson in turn draws in the music of other persecuted religious minorities, including African American spirituals and the hymns of Quaker and Shaker communities; in this vein Anderson sees the piece as “music of resistance and protest”. Anderson later revisited these hymn-singing traditions in Four American Choruses on Gospel Texts (2003) for unaccompanied mixed voices. In April 2022 Anderson was finally able to visit the Jewish cemetery for the first time. He describes the experience as “a staggering, disturbing experience: both intensely beautiful and utterly terrifying.”
Wigglesworth conducted Past Hymns at Snape Maltings in 2021, continuing his relationship with Anderson’s music. In 2012 he premiered The Discovery of Heaven with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded the following year with the same forces, complementing Vladimir Jurowski’s renditions of Fantasias and The Crazed Moon on the same disc.
In 2017 Wigglesworth also joined Remix Ensemble to give the Portuguese premiere of Alhambra Fantasy (2000), Anderson’s celebration of the art and architecture of Granada for ensemble.
Later this year, Edward Gardner (another champion of Anderson’s orchestral music) opens his final season as Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic with the Norwegian premiere of the Constantin Brancusi-inspired Eden (2005) on 7 September.