Offa-torium - Rhapsody for Clarinet Choir
2011. Duration 7'30" approx.
First performance - January 2012, Benslow Music School, Hitchin
East London Clarient Choir, cond. Shea Lolin
E flat Clarinet
B flat Clarinets 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6
Alto Clarinets 1 & 2
Bass Clarients 1 & 2
Contra-alto Clarinet (Eb Contrabass) (ad lib.)*
Contrabass Clarient (Bb Contrabass)
*If available, both Contra-alto and Contrabass parts should be played. If a true contra-alto clarinet is not available the part is cross-cued in the Bb Contrabass and Bass Clarinet parts.
The story of King Offa of Mercia is subject to interpretation; although his reign took place in the eighth century, it was not until the 1230s that the St Albans monk Matthew Paris wrote about Offa and his life. Paris wrote in Latin which in turn increased the chances of differences in translations and the recording of information. Offa-torium is thus a piece that gives a general indication of certain events which occurred in the eighth century.
Offa became King of the Mercians in approximately 758 following several battles. He desired a religious house and palace to be built in the area of his victories; it is speculated that the religious house (a monastery) was built on the site of what is now St. Mary's Church in Hitchin and the palace was in Offley. This contrasts with Offa's quite hostile manner in battle (he is said to have beheaded a potential suitor to his daughter). His kinder nature meanwhile extended to enlarging the Abbey Church at St. Albans and building a shrine to Alban; local history books suggest that this demonstrates Offa seeking redemption from his deeds in conflict.
The musical content of this piece is best described as loosely programmatic. The work is a rhapsody - which seemed the ideal structure when one considers the somewhat vague nature of Offa's history - and is in four parts, played without a break. The music is entirely based on two melodies: one is an ancient plainchant melody from the Offertorium (offertory) of the Requiem Mass; the other is a composed modern melody reminiscent of plainchant to contrast with the original. The chords are built out of combinations of notes from these two melodies, themselves suggesting particular modes or scales. This creates a fairly 'soft' harmonic language which, combined with the homogenous nature of the clarinet choir, proved a very effective tool in helping to create a musical description of somewhat 'partially reported' events in Offa's life.
To provide a connection with Matthew Paris' writings about Offa, the movement titles are in Latin.
I. Offa Rex Fit (Offa becomes King)
Marked 'mysteriously', the music gradually evolves from a single note, very quietly and as if from a distance. The lower clarinets play the original Offertorium melody under a floating accompaniment of dovetailed sustained notes. This culminates in a thickly scored version of the original plainchant theme.
II. Palatium et Domus (The Palace & Religious House of Offa)
The faster second section is characterised by frequent time signature changes which deliberately shift the stronger beats in the melodies to different places in the bar, creating much syncopation. This movement focuses on the 'modern' plainchant melody, depicting the two buildings put up in celebration of Offa's victories in battle. The ensemble is often divided up into little groups which are treated antiphonically and contrapuntally, the musical material now being treated in a more fragmented manner. The climax comes when a single note, F sharp, is played in every available octave in the clarinet choir, the imposing palace and religious house having been completed. This then recedes into the next movement.
III. Redemptio Petit (Offa strives for redemption)
A subdued alto clarinet solo leads to a revisiting of the slow atmospheric and pious music from the opening, this time within a different tonal centre.
IV. Cantus pro Mortem Offa (Song for the death of Offa - Chorale).
King Offa died in 795-796. His remains disappeared from a chapel near the Ouse in Bedford where he was buried. Some say that a flood washed away the chapel; others claim the successors to the area and then the invading Danes removed all traces of the King and his followers. The instruments are orchestrated such that they sound like an organ. A chorale - combining the two melodies - closes the work, a farewell hymn to the King of the Mercians.