Composing and performing Beata Viscera

Morgan Beata Viscera first page of score

Discovering the 13th century Parisian composer Pérotin was, for me, one of those musical ear- and mind-expanding moments. The Hilliard Ensemble released an album of his music in 1988: when I was a university student (not Officium with Jan Gabarek!) being slightly geeky and into medieval music, my friends and I were instantly mesmerised by the powerful and sudden unprepared dissonances, the intricacies of rhythm and structure, and by the outstanding singing too. The music sounded fresh, modern, mysterious and transporting. 

But, rather than the more obvious majesty of the four-part Viderunt Omnes, it was the sinuous melody of Beata Viscera that captured me completely: the rise and fall of the solo voice, describing modal arcs over a drone, has haunted me ever since and, some thirty years later, still influences my composing in many ways, both consciously and unconsciously. (I will write in another post how the single chord of Glyn Perrin’s sublime Sigma Lambda similarly found its way under my skin and stayed there).

Recently I was moved to write a piece for a friend, one who has been a generous, supportive influence on my work, as well as that of many, many others. The Marian Christmas text of Beata Viscera instantly came to mind as being one that might speak strongly to him, as well as to me, so I made the decision to create a meditation that overtly follows the melody and structure of Pérotin’s work. The friend had also, some ten years ago, also very kindly commissioned an organ piece, Haven (first performed by David Pipe at the Temple Church in London in 2014), so I felt it might be good to use some of the textures and harmonies from that work in the new music.

I chose an alternating structure for Beata Viscera: the “A” passages use fragments of the melody, (occasionally whole phrases), set against dancing ostinati or later in canon with each other (e.g. bar 42ff). The sound of these passages is important to me, though I of course recognise that such registrations are not always possible. A 4’ flute combined with a 2 2/3 nasard is a sound I first used in Haven: I adore the vocal quality of this registration, and the way it becomes throatier and stranger as it dips into the lower registers. This is set against the sweetness of 8’ and 2’ flutes in the other manual, all over a pedal drone. Using a 4’ flute for the latter (or a 2’ down an octave if no top G is available on the pedal board) is ideal, so the drone is “within” the melodic texture, rather than underneath it – again though I recognise that this is not always possible and that compromises need to be made.

The “B” passages are more chorale-like, arising from the simple rise and fall of three or four notes from Pérotin’s melody. The sound should be richer, thicker and complex: combining two or three 8’ tones in the left hand, with an 8’ added to the 4’ flute and nasard for the right hand, and depth in the pedal. Tempo should be stately; the rests are important, to allow the music to resonate through the building.

The final passage, from bar 77, though retaining the tempo of the “B” passages, steps out of this alternating structure, and is both more mysterious and more final. It is also an overt reference to the ending of Haven, harmonically and in the more chromatic twists of the melody. If possible, two 8’ flutes should be used in combination for the melody, to create a more vocal, amplified and slightly unstable sound. I find it helpful to count quavers in this passage, rather than crotchets!

My own, slightly flawed recording (on the magnificent Walker instrument of All Saints Pembroke Road in Bristol) of Beata Viscera can be heard here:

Huw Morgan, October 2023

ps – a colleague recently discovered that Google Translate renders Beata Viscera as “happy bowels”…