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Symphony No.11: Hillsborough Memorial/Anglican Catherdral

Michael Nyman felt the pain of Liverpool over the treatment of its dead. On Saturday he added his own balm to the wounds

Written by . Published on July 7th 2014.

Symphony No.11: Hillsborough Memorial/Anglican Catherdral

THREE decades in the making, the music that would become Michael Nyman's 11th symphony was never meant to have anything to do with football, let alone Liverpool.

29 05 85. Nyman, Queens Park Rangers fan, writer of minimalist music and numerous film scores, was in the midst of a composition for a summer festival in France when he witnessed an ugly night for the beautiful game.

This was not a tearjerker – God knows, there have been enough of them – but that's not to say it lacked passion

As a result of what he saw on TV, and subsequently read of the dead of Heysel, the composition, "Central Electrique" became "Memorial" which he dedicated to the victims and performed only once, that summer, in Rouen.

15 04 89. Nyman had tried to have Memorial played a second time in Liverpool (at the Bluecoat when Jayne Casey was its artistic director), but met with too much resistence locally. Rather than let it go to waste, he gave it to film-maker Peter Greenaway for his film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (to Nyman's later embarrassment).

Now, one Saturday afternoon in April, as the football season headed towards conclusion, he went into a studio to make a recording of Memorial for the first time. During breaks, he wondered why there was no mention of the FA Cup semi-final score on his radio.

When he found out, his reaction was to blame himself. He recalls: “For some years I felt partially 'responsible' for the Hillsborough disaster; during the first working of this musical material, the Heysel tragedy occurred and on the very afternoon when I had taken the Heysel material 'out of the box' since the sole performance of Memorial in Yainville, the 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough.”

29 05 96. Eleven years to the day that Nyman attached himself to the emotional psyche of Liverpool, he began putting together – compositing, he prefers – a work he called Hillsborough Memorial, incorporating the names of the 96 victims. He performed it once only, with his band and soprano Sarah Leonard, in Liverpool.

05 07 14. All of which brought us, finally, to a sunny early summer afternoon at Liverpool Cathedral and Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial, commissioned for the opening weekend of the Liverpool Biennial.

The result "revisits" both Memorial and Hillsborough Memorial, with new material added in, and is the “culmination of Michael Nyman's thinking about two tragedies linked to Liverpool”, 29 years, five weeks, two days after it had started.

Nyman must have known the dangers of mentioning Heysel and Hillsborough on the same page of programme notes and you wonder what made him think he could get away, in this city, with putting on a piece of music that has associations with both.

Perhaps it is a tribute to the healing quality of music, perhaps to Nyman himself whose motives seem to be honest and well-meaning. And if they are political (he ends his programme notes by stating his “personal anger with the corruption of the Thatcher government and her duplicitous police force”) they are that rare thing: the politics of truth.

Nyman, and representatives of the victims' families attended a special performance and world premiere of Hillsborough Memorial by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, youth and training choirs, under the baton of Josef Vicent.

The opening movement is given over to the singing of the 96 names by celebrated mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, an emotional moment for their families who have been more used to their names being smeared over the years.

Numbers play a significant part in Nyman's work and the third movement uses, in his words, “numerical symbolism of '96'; there are a number of accumulative repetitions of a 4 bar phrase, made up of 3 chords; the numbers of bars of the entire piece consist of 96 times 3 divided by 4”.

Michael Nyman Hillsborough 
On paper, it sounds a little dry but, as any mathematician will tell you, numbers have beauty too.

“Have you brought your tissues?” one concert-goer asked her friends as they took their seats. This was not a tearjerker – God knows, there have been enough of them – but that's not to say it lacked passion.

The music moves along with force and feeling; the insistent, repetitive rhythms reflecting the unrelenting fight for justice. The contribution of the junior choristers lent a transcendent, even heavenly quality – a choir of angels, indeed.

And in the same spiritual setting where the world was told the truth of Hillsborough, was there just a sense, as Symphony No. 11 reached its mighty, exultant climax, of good, finally, overcoming evil?

Nyman has said he hopes his work will make "a small but significant contribution to the healing process”. Margaret Aspinall, torch bearer for the Hillsborough justice campaign, is said to have “loved it”.

At the end, she hugged him. It's only review he will ever need.

*A recording of the symphony will be played in Liverpool Cathedral at 15:06 on Wednesday 6 AugustMonday 25 August,Wednesday 3 September and Wednesday 17 September.

Gerry Corner on Twitter @GerryCorner

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Stan the manJuly 9th 2014.

Thanks Gerry, a very interesting read.

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