Anthony Milner: The Water and the Fire and The Song of Akhenaten

The Song of Akhenaten Op.5, is a setting for soprano and chamber orchestra of a text based on the utterance of an Egyptian Pharaoh regarded as one of the early monotheists. When The Song of Akhenaten was published by Novello and Co. in 1969, the Musical Opinion critic wrote that ‘… it is a pleasure to see a composer writing for the voice, rather than against it’, whilst Peter J. Pirie described the vocal part as ‘rewarding’. This score ably demonstrates Milner’s sensitive treatment of texts by creating vocal lines which are both grateful and challenging to sing and by fashioning deft instrumental accompaniments that genuinely enhance his settings.

Arguably the highpoint of the composer’s large-scale choral writing is The Water and the Fire. Lasting around 55 minutes in performance, this substantial dramatic oratorio was completed in 1961 and premiered at Hereford Cathedral on 8 September 1964 as part of that year’s Three Choirs Festival. The Water and the Fire is a truly visionary piece in that Milner’s very personal choice of text has had a strong bearing on the character and form of the music resulting in a strikingly powerful and unified conception. The music unfolds in a natural arc, from the jagged harmonies of the opening scene to the tranquil, diatonic closing melody. It is perhaps above all an eminently balanced work counterpoising instinct and logic, passion and intellect within a convincing large-scale statement that is built to last.



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Anthony Milner (1925–2002) was active in British musical life as a teacher of history, theory, composition, and harpsichord; his final position was as Principal Lecturer at the Royal College of Music. He retired in 1989. His compositional output was not large, but it included songs, sacred choral works, and instrumental pieces—including three symphonies and chamber music. The Song of Akhenaten (1954), a six-movement work for soprano and orchestra, draws its text from Arthur Weigall’s English translation of the Hymn to Aten (Egypt, XVIII Dynasty, c. 1360 BC) and the Prayer on the coffin of King Akhenaten (1380–1362). In Milner’s words “The whole…work is a hymn of praise to the sole God, whose symbol was the sun-disc or Aten, musically portraying the various moods of the word of praise.” The 14-minute work is very attractive, in the manner of conservative British song composers of the 20th Century. Melody is at the core of his style; and the music, while often challenging, fits the voice very well and becomes a good vehicle for the singer. Here Janet Price is excellent, opulent in tone and expressive in her treatment of words. Milner’s Water and the Fire reveals the same melody-based style on the scale of a dramatic oratorio. This work, lasting 57 minutes, was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral in 1964. The text, drawn from the Bible and elsewhere, narrates (in Milner’s words) “symbolically and allegorically the plight of man estranged from God and his later repentance and reconciliation, viewed in the context of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection”. The drama moves from the Waters of Tribulation to the culminating Easter Fire—hence the title. The last several minutes of the piece contain many lovely passages, and the ending is quiet and reassuring. The performance is beautifully paced and convinces us of Milner’s message. Soloists, chorus (including boys’ choir) and orchestra all present the piece in an ideal light. These performances are from BBC radio broadcasts, Akhenaten from January 17, 1973, Water from January 13, 1977. Both are quite well done and will appeal to people who like 20th Century British vocal music. American Record Guide

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