British composer John Powell’s oratorio, A Prussian Requiem, will be premiered on 6 March 2016 at The Royal Festival Hall, London, in a concert commemorating the First World War.  

Powell is the mastermind behind the music to a wide range of movies, from his sweeping symphonic score for How To Train Your Dragon, which received a 2010 Academy Award nomination, to his minimalist approach to the Bourne series, which has set a noticeable trend in the thriller genre.

The composer has taken a sabbatical from his scoring work in order to return to writing for the concert hall – a profession he intended to pursue after graduating from Trinity College of Music, London, before discovering the difficulty of making a living from composing exclusively in this area.

As Powell has recently explained, “it’s time for me to try and find my voice in a purely musical sense, rather than my voice in the context of a film, to see if I can create something that would be unique.”  Having, in his own words, “cranked out 50-odd films,” he believes that it becomes difficult not to repeat oneself as a film composer — and he views the composing of A Prussian Requiem as “an opportunity to free myself from so many of the habits I’ve fallen into.” In an interview in 2014, Powell remarked: “All I can do is follow the fetishes of my taste.  So it may not be radically unusual or different, but it will hopefully have a voice.”

Following almost two decades in Hollywood, where he has become used to having a film storyline to guide his compositional narrative, Powell has found inspiration for his Requiem in a pivotal moment in history.

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The piece focuses on the evening before the start of World War I in 1914, as Helmuth von Moltke, who had been Commander in Chief of the German army since 1906, insisted that the full-scale conflict should go ahead, even though the Kaiser still had the option of negotiating with France and/or Russia.  As Powell has explained, “The piece itself is a story driven by a man who took a moment in history and stood between the chance of peace and the chance of war.  His own pride made us go to World War I and basically destroyed the 20th century.  Everything bad that is still happening, you can trace to this one moment in history at the end of July in 1914.”

Powell has called his composition A Prussian Requiem because Prussia, from where von Moltke came, was part of Germany and was wiped off the map at the end of the First World War. As he reminds us:

It had such a political hold over Germany the Allies decided this is where all the problems were coming from, so they got rid of it as a place and it became just Germany. Prussia was a country until 1918, so we call it ‘The Prussian Requiem’. It’s a requiem for the 20th century, for the people that died and I’ve wanted to write about it for a long time.

The 45-minute piece is structured like a requiem, but, being an atheist, Powell did not use any of the words of the Requiem Mass.  A secular libretto by Michael Petry led to the piece being turned down by the initially proposed performance venue, Westminster Cathedral in London, for being “insufficiently religious.”

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The oratorio has already been recorded at Watford Colosseum, along with another of Powell’s concert works for gospel choir and orchestra, written in collaboration with Gavin Greenaway. Together, these will form an album due to be released early in 2016.

Tickets for the London concert, which will also include Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, are available now from the Philharmonia Orchestra’s website as well as on SouthbankCentre.co.uk.

Posted by Lawrence Whitehead

Composer and producer, based in Cardiff, UK.

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