Music of Resistance

A concert to celebrate the choir’s fifteenth birthday




Shostakovich: Ten settings of revolutionary poets, Op. 88
James MacMillan: Cantos Sagrados
Poulenc: Figure humaine



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It is not perhaps an exaggeration to say that the history of the last century was characterised by tyranny, particularly in Russia, Europe and Latin America, and the corresponding call to resistance. In tonight’s concert we present an array of poets and composers who were particularly responsive to the need to give artistic expression to such resistance.

Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the century was a hotbed of revolutionary fervour, and the abortive nature of the 1905 revolution did nothing to quench the outpouring of poems supporting the uprising, some admittedly of questionable artistic value. By contrast much of the poetry of the French Resistance movement came from the pens of well-known writers such as Paul Eluard, and his friend Poulenc, himself living under the indignity of the Nazi occupation, tried to play an equally direct role in bolstering the morale of the Resistance through his compositions.

By the 1950s, the Tsars had long been replaced by Stalin’s equally repressive regime, at the hands of which Shostakovich suffered direct and personal abuse. His reaction was at times to compose abstract music (such as the string quartets) into which he could pour his innermost feelings at the same time as trying not to offend his ‘artistic’ masters. But he also composed semi-official music, in an attempt to keep a semblance of kowtowing to authority, at the same time casting his true feelings in coded references to the contemporary political situation.

In more recent times, the Chilean Ariel Dorfman is one of many great Latin American writers who have given a voice to the repressed peoples of their continent. And James Macmillan – Scotland’s leading composer of the younger generation – although not personally labouring under an oppressive regime, has found a particular affinity with the Latin American experience, through his strong Catholic faith. Certainly there is little in the sentiments of Dorfman’s poetry that would not have found an echo in Russian hearts some 80 years before.

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75): Six settings from Ten Poems, Op. 88 (to words by revolutionary poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries)

The end of the Second World War was followed, in the USSR, by the tightening of ideological controls and artistic repression. In a decree dated 10 February 1948 a number of prominent composers, including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, were accused of representing ‘most strikingly the formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies in music’, namely the ‘cult of atonality, dissonance and discord … infatuation with confused, neurotic combinations which transform music into cacophony’. The accused composers at least nominally recanted, each in his own way. Shostakovich admitted that he had tried to eradicate the ‘pernicious elements’ in his music, but the ‘reconstruction’ was not complete: ‘Certain negative characteristics in my musical style prevented me from making the turn … I again deviated in the direction of formalism and began to speak a language incomprehensible to the people … I know that the party is right … I am deeply grateful for the criticism contained in the resolution’. Like most of the composer’s public pronouncements, one sees the hand of officialdom in their composition, not his own personal feelings.

Nonetheless, the decree of 1948 dealt a stunning blow to the creative life of Soviet music. For the next five years composers displayed great caution so as not to offend the party hierarchy. In practical terms, Shostakovich began to use two musical idioms: one more simplified and accessible to comply with the guidelines of the decree, the other more complex and abstract to satisfy his own artistic standards.

Choral music was almost a requirement every composer had to fulfil in order to remain faithful to ‘Soviet Realism’. In 1950 a small book was published in Leningrad: Anthology of Revolutionary Poets of the End of the Last Century and the Beginning of This One. Shostakovich credited the genesis of his Ten Poems to the intensive study of revolutionary poetry he made while writing the music for revolutionary films. However, while he described the underlying theme as the 1905 revolution – he reused some of the material in his 11th Symphony ‘1905’ – some of his contemporaries had no trouble divining a current relevance in the texts in the similarly repressive 1950s.

The Ten Poems was Shostakovich’s first concert work for unaccompanied choir, and echoes can be heard of Musorgsky and Borodin (composers who particularly influenced him) as well as Rachmaninov’s choral writing. The work was awarded the Stalin Prize (Category 2) in 1952: however we have chosen to present just six of the poems, omitting those that go furthest in appeasing the dictator’s taste for the demagogic style.

James Macmillan (b.1959): Cantos Sagrados (Poems by Ariel Dorfman (trans. Edie Grossman) and Ana Maria Mendoza (trans. Gilbert Markus) with Latin sacred texts)

‘In writing this work I wanted to compose something which was both timeless and contemporary, both sacred and secular. The title (‘sacred songs’) is therefore slightly misleading as the three poems are concerned with political repression in Latin America and are deliberately coupled with traditional religious texts to emphasise a deeper solidarity with the poor of that subcontinent.

It was my interest in liberation theology which made me combine the poems of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina with the texts of the Latin mass in Busqueda (an earlier music-theatre work) and has now led me to attempt a similar synthesis of ideas in Cantos Sagrados.

The voices in Ariel Dorfman’s poems belong to those who suffer a particular type of political repression: the ‘disappearance’ of political prisoners. Ana Maria Mendoza’s poem about the Virgin of Guadalupe tackles the same problem by asking a more fundamental cultural and historical question.’ (James Macmillan, Glasgow, 1990)

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963): Figure humaine (Poems by Paul Eluard)

Paul Eluard (1895-1952) was one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, but after the Spanish Civil War he abandoned Surrealism in favour of political militancy. His later work reflects the deepening of his attitudes – the rejection of tyranny and the search for happiness. In 1942 he joined the Communist Party, and his poems dealing with the sufferings and brotherhood of man were circulated clandestinely during the Second World War, serving to strengthen the morale of the Resistance.

Francis Poulenc, too, remained in occupied France during the War and demonstrated his ‘resistance’ by his own artistic means, among other things dedicating his Violin Sonata to Lorca (who had been murdered during the Spanish Civil War). Poulenc was greatly influenced by Eluard’s Resistance poems, and in the summer of 1943 set eight of them to form this cantata, by any measure a masterpiece of its genre. He later recounted its genesis in an interview:

‘I had the idea of composing a clandestine work which could be prepared and printed in secret and then performed in the long-awaited day of liberation. With great enthusiasm … I composed the work for unaccompanied choir because I wanted this act of faith to be performed without instrumental aid, by the sole means of the human voice … My friend and publisher Paul Rouart agreed to print the cantata in secret, and this way we were able to send the music to London where, before the end of the war, in January 1945, it was broadcast.’

The cantata opens with a poem that opposes a dark night of the soul and of France to the hope of a spring that might banish the ‘monsters’. Against this gravity, the second number opens as a scherzo, setting a poem about young girls leaping, on a ‘great joyous day’ from death, corruption, and degradation. The third poem concerns death in the heart and shame in the mind, and Poulenc’s setting initially creates a sense of oppression, even of suffocation; but the final words of the poem are echoed high in the first sopranos, to emphasise that only human beings themselves may confront darkness with hope. This is linked to the next poem about the seed nurtured patiently in the earth, where it ‘prepares for vengeance a bed where I might be born’.

The fifth poem is both angry and appalled, and Poulenc’s setting is marked ‘very fast and violent’, exacerbated by antiphony between the choirs. They come together only twice, when we are told that ‘the wise men are ridiculous’. The lovely sixth poem describes how the paw-marks of an animal in the snow presage ‘the imprints of life’, although the melodic lines grow tortuous as they seek ‘a track of life’ through death itself. The penultimate poem is the longest so far, and tells how death is the god of love, and ‘the victors in a kiss swooned on their victims’. In the final radiant section, the music describes how children are no longer afraid, and stupidity, madness, and baseness give way to brotherly men who no longer strive against one another and against life.

A long pause is asked for before the setting of the final poem, ‘Liberté’ – the clarion-call of the French Resistance. Starting from his own desk, the poet gradually embraces the wider world, in his descriptions of the multitude of places upon which to write ‘your name’. However it is only in the final ecstatic bars that we learn that ‘through the power of a word I begin my life again. I am born to know you, and name you LIBERTY.’

(Programme notes by Sam Laughton. Russian translations by Tom Pedrick.)

  • “An entrancing aural kaleidoscope,...
    which beguiles with its ravishing combination of the ethereal and the profound" (Radio 3 broadcaster, Jeremy Summerly)

    "The singing is among the finest you’ll hear from a chamber choir" (Radio WRST, University of Wisconsin)

    "A very enterprising selection...the choir make a light, fresh sound and sing with enthusiasm and commitment...the music is well performed and well recorded"

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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

    Highly attractive...hugely enjoyable" (Time Out)

    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

    The Elysian Singers perform this often difficult work with clarity, precision and emotional punch (American Record Guide)

    Exquisitely sung with full-bodied, lively tone ***** (Classic CD)

    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    I travel back from London with the St Matthew Passion filling my head, after the moving performance from the Elysian Singers and Royal Orchestral Society under Sam Laughton at St James’s Piccadilly (The Spectator, April 2019)

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

    The classy Elysian Singers (Howard Goodall on Twitter, November 2013)

    That superb choir (John Woolrich, Radio 3)

    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

    A persuasive ensemble, excellently attuned to this repertory (The York Press)

    “The Elysian Singers came up trumps…luminously soft and uniform” (David Ardatti review)

  • Feedback

    Heard you sing last Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wow! (especially the Kodaly). Thanks, come again soon (S&MG, Dublin)

    I was moved, not just by the music, but also by the creativity of humankind, continually sharing new ways of contemplating life, and by the discipline of ordinary people who work hard and unpaid to interpret this beauty and emotion to others (York blog)

    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

    Your CD of Sir Granville Bantock’s music arrived today – what treasures it contains. As someone who has enjoyed singing in choirs for many years, I found this recording very special. Congratulations to all concerned!! (BL, Hobart, Tasmania)

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying the new album. The choir sounds fabulous throughout. Congratulations! Please pass along my gratitude to your excellent singers (JL, USA)

    The closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience for a very long time… (DF, Streatham, after hearing the choir perform James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross)

    You made such a lovely sound this morning. Ave regina coelorum was exquisite – quite the loveliest thing I’ve heard for a long time (J P-B, Salisbury, 2011)

    We cannot thank you enough for the beautiful singing, which totally exceeded our expectations. We feel very privileged. I particularly loved the descant – it was a moment I will always remember (N&T wedding, April 2013)

    The Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing…For the duration of [Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light], I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. (JB, London blog, Feb 2014)

    Beautiful, uplifting music and an eclectic repertoire. A very enjoyable evening (Audience Club reviewer, Feb 2019).