2020-02-22 Matthew Larkin

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Posted on 2020-02-22
By Laura Hawley

Matthew Larkin – composer

INSIDE: Q & A with composer Matthew Larkin about his Songs of love and loss

On Sunday March 1st at 3:00, Da Camera will present INSIDE, a concert exploring our inner worlds.

The idea to explore the concept of ‘inside’ came to me about a year ago during an in-depth study of Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir. In my research, I was intrigued to learn that Martin wrote this work between 1922 and 1926, seemingly without any external motivation or commission, and then the work sat in his study untouched for about forty years. According to Martin, who believed spirituality and religious experience to be deeply private, this was a matter between himself and God, and the work was not premiered until 1962. 

The mysterious context around this masterwork gave me pause to reflect on the various private aspects of our lives – the worlds we keep inside – and how these worlds are expressed in art and in music.  It occurred to me that indeed I know many composers who have engaged deeply with very personal, meaningful events, passions, creeds, and paradigms from their own lives; giving voice to these things either overtly or quite privately through the music they have composed. I also contemplated the role of the listener in a concert concept like this, as each listener brings their own unique map of life experiences and inner-worlds, and will relate to each piece of music very differently. Indeed, each person in the room will have their own unique inner connection points to each musical moment, with a spectrum of emotions and engagement levels.  With this idea, we begin our presentation of INSIDE now, getting to know some of the composers whose works will be featured on the program. 

Ottawa-based composer, conductor, performer and founding artistic director of the superb Caelis Academy Ensemble, Matthew Larkin – whose Songs of love and loss will receive its Alberta premiere as one of the main works in our program – shares some reflections on this beautiful four-movement work in the following Q & A with me. 

  1. Can you tell us about the title of this four movement suite, Songs of love and loss?
    My summation of experiences I have had, in terms of how in my life love has always been accompanied by loss of someone, or something, or by a longing for something long ago, whether real or imagined. As I explored some of the literature on the subject (poetry, particularly), I learned that my insights are not at all unique to me.
  2. How would you describe each movement? How do the four movements relate to one another?
    The Garden of Love is meant to represent a door opening into the experience of what I wrote above. My setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem is intended to be stylistically liturgical, in the sense that having first opened the door, we enter, formally, into the process of grieving the loss of something (or someone) we love. And then, Jane Schoolcraft gets right to the heart of the matter, with her poignant, straight-to-the-heart account of intense personal loss, expressed in the context of reconciliation with the fates that allowed this loss to happen in the first place. This spirit of personal reconciliation is then expressed somewhat impressionistically in the final movement, almost as though our emotions and experiences are carried away on waves of grace.
  3. How did you choose the texts for this work?
    Just by reading about the personal experiences of the poets, really. I allowed their art to guide mine, as it were.
  4. What were the circumstances around the writing of this work? Did you write all four movements at once, or did some come later? Who did you write it for? Where did you compose it?
    During my time as Music Director of the Ottawa Choral Society (2005-12), they were very indulgent of my work as a composer, and very generously offered me several commissions. This was the first, and it was performed alongside another multi-movement work by Larysa Kuzmenko in my first performance with the choir. Originally, the songs were scored for piano trio (to match the instrumentation of the Kuzmenko), but I didn’t think it necessary to retain that arrangement. The review of the concert in the local newspaper was interesting, to say the least.
  5. Da Camera will be performing the original version of the work, thanks to your permission to do so, however, it has evolved substantially. How has this work changed over the years and how did these changes come about?
    The second and third movements have remained intact since I wrote them, but I later replaced the first one with a setting of Christina Rossetti’s “Remember” (which was itself a revision of an earlier setting). The last movement has not changed musically, but I have replaced from time to time the original poem with an excerpt from the Peter Grimes libretto, which I thought explored a similar sentiment with a slightly more encouraging tone.
  6. Our concert is called INSIDE and explores the idea of one’s ‘internal-world.’ Can you share with us something about how each movement relates to your own inner world?
    I would rather answer that in a “writ-large” sort of way, instead of by movement, because each of the movements are intently dependent on the other for the whole story to be told. When I reflect on my own life and experiences, I inevitably focus on the things that I have lost: my childhood, my youth, my employment, and in many ways, my purpose. And I deeply grieve the loss of these things. Not all of this was true – or at least, not true in the same way – at the time I wrote the songs, but in retrospect, I would say they were pretty prophetic.
  7. I’ve programmed the Kyrie from Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir as a prelude to your Songs of love and loss, and as an epilogue we will sing Mellnäs’ Såsom spegelbilden, a setting of Proverbs 27:19 (As in water face answereth to face, So the heart of man to man.) which then also makes the transition to the Credo (Martin). What are your thoughts about framing Songs of love and loss in this way?
    I wish I could hear the performance, because I really feel like a neophyte in terms of my relationship with the Martin. I’ve conducted it a couple of times, but in neither instance did I feel as though I was really teaching it. And, it has followed for me that if I’m not teaching, I’m not learning either. I suspect that if I were to hear your placement of the works and the threads you will create, I would absorb so much more of what the music has to offer. I’ve never heard the Mellnas, and so I would be experiencing something new.
  8. This piece was originally written in 2005. Has your relationship with it changed in any way since then?
    As I alluded earlier, I’ve gone deeper into the feelings I had in the first place. I couldn’t have predicted the things I would face, or how I would feel about those things, but somehow, I knew my journey would take me to darker places. And here I am.
  9. What are you writing currently?
    My next project is going to be a setting of Duncan Campbell Scott’s “Rapids at Night”, which will be scored for chorus, piano, and strings. It’s for an Earth Day concert in Ottawa, hosted by Seventeen Voyces Chamber Choir.