When the BBC commissioned this work for the Last Night of the Proms 2018, I was given quite a detailed brief. First, the work should be for the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), and the two choirs should be quite independent of each other. Secondly, the words should acknowledge the centenary of the end of World War I, but look optimistically to the future. For the centenary I chose In the Underworld by World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg, written in 1914. Originally about unrequited love, it can read, if you do not know its context, as a prophetic look at the next four years, with the sense that the women left at home cannot begin to comprehend the horrors their men face in the trenches. The BBC Singers represent Rosenberg and their music is based on a beautiful Ashkenazi-Jewish prayer mode – also known as the ‘Ukrainian Gypsy’ mode. While I was reading The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (written in 1923), I came across these lines, which seem to answer and assuage the fears expressed in Rosenberg’s poem. The BBC Symphony Chorus take on the role of Gibran, singing in a beautiful, melismatic, Maronite Syriac chant, into which faith Gibran was born in Lebanon. Later in his life, he became very interested in Islam, particularly Sufism; therefore the whole piece is in the form of a Sufi Zikr, with Sufi devotional rhythms in the percussion, starting quiet and low, but slowly becoming higher, faster and louder. The two choirs start separately, but merge into a ‘conversation,’ sometimes overlapping, and ending on a positive note: Rosenberg’s Creature of light and happiness over Gibran’s We shall build a tower in the sky.
Quite by accident, all three Abrahamic faiths are represented in this piece – but as Kahlil Gibran famously said: ‘You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith – the Spirit.'