Friday, December 07, 2007

Seven, They Are Seven

My main gift is a fairly useless one: I can listen to almost any piece of classical music and either know or guess the composer, country of origin and decade in which it was written. My mother-in-law thinks that I'm a genius and should find a job that utilises this talent, but when was the last time you saw a job for people who can identify unknown pieces of music? That's why I ended up in bookselling.

Tonight, however, I was completely foxed. I was channel hopping and stumbled across a concert at the Barbican on BBC4 featuring the LSO accompanied by a huge choir. The music was amazing, with a visceral, primeval quality, as if it was cast from the raw materials of the earth. Brass chords surged and swelled, whilst the percussion section issued menacing rumbles and roars. And all the time, the choir sang of death and destruction, wreaked by an enigmatic group of gods called the Seven:

Seven are they, In the Ocean Deep seven are they, Evil are they, evil are they, Seven are they,Twice seven are they! By Heaven be ye exorcised! By Earth be ye exorcised.

The words were sang in Russian and the repetitive chanting of sem, sem, sem gave the music a hypnotic, ritualistic quality. I wondered which contemporary composer had written this powerful music. I thought it might be Sofia Gubaidulina, whose St John's Passion had transfixed me during a car journey to B&Q, but there was something very male about the music. I racked my brains for other likely contenders, but had to give up.

The music finished, the audience applauded and an announcer who looked about 12-years-old said that the music was by Prokofiev. I was amazed, particulary when I discovered that Seven, They Are Seven was an early work, first performed 90 years ago. The words are apparently from a Mesopotamian cuneiform from the 3rd century BC

I realise that this is probably of no interest to you (and thank you for reading this far), but this was a remarkable piece of music, quite unlike anything I've heard and I think it would also appeal to people who don't like classical music. Sadly, despite Prokofiev's stature as a composer, recordings of Seven seem to be thin on the ground.


Jim Murdoch said...

Just for the record I was interested. I'd noticed it in the listings but forgot to watch it. I'm also fond of trying to identify composers too.

You surprised me a little when you said Prokofiev recordings were thin on the ground. I have probably about a dozen CDs by him though I'd never heard of Seven, They Are Seven. Amazon throws up 2,562 results for Prokofiev; mind you I expect 2000 of them will be Peter and the Wolf.

The problem I have is that I have very broad musical tastes and only so much money. I enjoy choral music but find so much of it overtly religious. Hopefully this one will get repeated. BBC4 is quite good that way.

Steerforth said...

Sorry, I meant recordings of this particular piece. I've corrected the entry.

You're right about Peter and the Wolf - there are dozens of recordings, some with really unlikely narrators like Frankie Howerd and David Bowie.

genevieve said...

Steerforth, this is most interesting indeed, and I think you have just helped me find a gift for my brother's birthday into the bargain.
I would kill to have your gift, a pity you find it under-utilised at present. It sounds like you should be a classical music presenter at one of those radio stations where they occasionally put on the wrong thing :-)

Brian Low said...

I've just read this post from 8+ years ago. Someone has put a recording of this on YouTube.