Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul performed at the BBC Proms/Royal Albert Hall (UK premiere)

BBC Prom 9: Strauss, Brahms & Broström at the Royal Albert Hall

Håkan Hardenberger & Jeroen Berwaerts – trumpet
BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Markus Stenz

Date: July 25, 2019
Location: Royal Albert Hall, London, UK.
Time: 19:30 pm

Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (2018)

I                     Shades and Echoes

II                   No Man’s Land/Antagonism

III                  Equilibrium/Dystopia – Remembrance

Nigredo brings together several elements already prominent in Tobias Broström’s composing life. The first is his fondness for the concerto as a genre: ‘It is simply much more fun to work with the concerto form, both for the collaboration with the musicians, but also because the soloist creates a “common thread’ in the orchestral texture. The solo part becomes a point of reference, it has the fundamental musical material and the orchestra can follow like a shadow or engage in a dialogue with the soloist’. That partiality for the concerto seems to favour the trumpet in particular, not least because of the support to Broström’s career of his landsman, Håkan Hardenberger, ever since The Lost Chord for trumpet and organ of 2006: other works in the Broström catalogue include Lucernaris, a concerto for trumpet, live electronics and orchestra (2009), Dream Variations for trumpet and percussion (2011) and Sputnik for piccolo trumpet and orchestra (2015). Nor is Nigredo his first double concerto – there’s also Samsara, for violin, marimba and orchestra (2011). And a fascination with light and colour runs through Broström’s orchestral music, as it does with this new piece.

                      Nigredo, written at the instigation of Hardenberger for himself and his colleague Jeroen Berwaerts, is a joint commission of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and BBC Radio 3/BBC National Orchestra of Wales; it was first performed, by Hardenberger and Berwaerts, in Malmö on 14 March this year; the conductor was John Storgårds. The work is scored for a large orchestra of triple woodwind, the usual brass complement of four horns, three trumpets, two tenor and a bass trombone and tuba, harp, piano, celesta and strings, and an array of percussion (for three players) that must make the stage manager’s eyes bulge: the first percussionist plays wind gong, glockenspiel, crotales, suspended cymbal, tubular bells, tuned gongs, waterphone, bass drum (gran cassa), dobaci (Chinese temple bells), ocean drum, four brake drums, ‘old fashioned door/alarm bell’ (that’s what the score says), bass drum (with a kick pedal), tam-tam, Player II has suspended cymbal, marimba, sandpaper blocks, ocean drum, waterphone, bass drum (gran cassa), crotales, windchimes, tam-tam, four high-pitched bongos, bass drum (kick), and the third percussionist has vibraphone, tuned kalimba (the African thumb piano), suspended cymbal, high-pitched piccolo snare drum, logdrum (with four tones), two toms, one floor tom, bass drum (kick) and bass drum (gran cassa).

                      Broström explains the title thus: ‘The manner in which I have composed the music and chosen the title of the work is linked to Jung’s definition of “nigredo”, which can be described as a moment of ultimate desperation, and this is a prerequisite for personal development’. In alchemy, ‘nigredo’ (blackness) is a process of decay or decomposition  – the first step, via ‘albedo’ (whiteness), ‘citrinitas’ (yellowness) and ‘rubedo’ (redness), to the philosopher’s stone; Jung stated that the ‘rediscovery of the principles of alchemy came to be an important part of my work as a pioneer of psychology’. The idea of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ – Broström’s subtitle – can be found both in a poem by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, which narrates the journey of the soul to mystical union with God, and which Jung amplified into a form that finds an echo in Boström’s music: the first nigredo is ‘an unconscious state of non-differentiation between self and object, consciousness and the unconscious’; in the second nigredo ‘individuation [is …] a subjectively experienced process brought about by the subject’s painful, growing awareness of his shadow aspects’, until ‘confrontation with the shadow produces at first a dead balance, a standstill that hampers moral decisions’; finally, ‘the ever deepening descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes illumination from above’. Broström’s Nigredo shadows this shadowing in music.

                      The work is cast in two large spans, the second of which is further subdivided, so that the work as a whole vaguely recalls the three-movement shape of a traditional concerto. In the first movement, ‘Shades and Echoes’, the two trumpets emerge from scintillating waves of orchestral colour, rippling like sunlight over water, with the second trumpet following the first like a shadow or an echo, their lines threaded together like platted hair. In the central section the solo parts and the restless orchestral texture broaden into longer lines before the rippling waves of light return. The second movement, ‘No Man’s Land/Antagonism’, follows without a break. Here the companionship of the two soloists is forgotten, with the first trumpet as protagonist, its part more vigorous than the long lines of the second. But eventually they coalesce, and the third movement, ‘Equilibrium/Dystopia’, swiftly sets out, as a boat taking to the sea. The two trumpets first gyrate like leaves in an eddy before joining the percussion in a dervish-like dance, which soon develops a fierce head of energy. The dance pauses, and the trumpets resume their dialogue over a carpet of (typically Nordic, one has to say) overlapping patterns in the woodwind, marked ‘Remembrance’ in the score; when the dance resumes in a final fling, the trumpets see it out with an exultant whoop.

Martin Anderson