Hubris: Choral Works by John Powell (320kbps MP3)


Hubris. The pride that goeth before a fall. It’s a concept that fascinates composer John Powell, and one that informs the compositions on his new album Hubris – the first release on Powell’s own label, 5 Cats Studios — on multiple levels. In fact, according to Powell, creating the music was itself an act of hubris.

Delivered as a .zip file with 320kbps MP3s. Includes a Digital Booklet (PDF).

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Hubris. The pride that goeth before a fall. It’s a concept that fascinates composer John Powell, and one that informs the compositions on his new album Hubris – the first release on Powell’s own label, 5 Cats Studios — on multiple levels. In fact, according to Powell, creating the music was itself an act of hubris.

Delivered as .zip files with high-resolution audio (192kHz/24-bit) for maximum quality, in AIFF, Apple Lossless and FLAC stereo, as well as multi-channel six-track surround sound FLAC. Also includes convenient 320kbps MP3, as well as a Digital Booklet (PDF).

Hubris. The pride that goeth before a fall. It’s a concept that fascinates composer John Powell, and one that informs the compositions on his new album Hubris – the first release on Powell’s own label, 5 Cats Studios — on multiple levels. In fact, according to Powell, creating the music was itself an act of hubris.

“You’re a film composer,” he feared people would say. “You shouldn’t be writing classical music.”

But Powell, whose credits include Shrek, The Bourne Identity, How to Train Your Dragon (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) and the forthcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story, needn’t have worried.  In 2016, Powell’s 10-part oratorio “A Prussian Requiem” premiered to acclaim at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The three pieces that comprise Hubris – “The Prize Is Still Mine,” “A Prussian Requiem” and “Requiem Addendum” – prove that this film composer is more than capable of telling his own powerful stories away from the big screen.

Hubris begins with “The Prize Is Still Mine,” a stunning collision of styles Powell describes as “gospel meets Vaughan Williams.” Over a surging, sighing orchestral arrangement, female voices rise both solo and in unison to declare their independence from the forces of institutionalized sexism and misogyny, singing in a style that evokes the sorrow and rapture of African-American church music in an entirely original context. It’s a new kind of protest song, marrying the grandeur of classical music and the raw emotion of vintage American soul music.

“My father always said, ‘Don’t be a jack of all trades,’” says Powell, a second-generation classical musician who studied violin before turning to the world of film scoring. But far from being a “master of none,” Powell has made his eclectic approach to composition one of his greatest strengths. “I like to think I’ve mastered incorporating nearly any style into my music.”

Emboldened by the success of “The Prize Is Still Mine,” Powell set to work on Hubris’ centerpiece, “A Prussian Requiem,” which he describes as his own greatest act of hubris and, ironically, itself an exploration of one of the great acts of hubris of the 20th century — the military decision that started the First World War. Written to commemorate the centennial of that gruesome conflict, “Prussian Requiem” tells the story of General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, head of the German army, who persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm II to reject peace negotiations and begin what would become one of the bloodiest military campaigns in human history.

“I started to get into it and realized, ‘Who am I to comment on this?’” says Powell, an avowed pacifist. But by homing in on the story of Moltke, Powell is able to explore the First World War in a humane, intimate way, employing the narrative skills he learned from decades of film scoring to help himself and his listeners make sense of the incalculable suffering “one man with a feeling of historical entitlement” could cause.

An oratorio in 10 parts, “A Prussian Requiem” begins on the eve of the First World War, a month after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As nations across Europe begin to marshal their armies, using the assassination as a pretext for turning long-simmering tensions into conflict, Moltke eagerly anticipates his chance to finally achieve the same renown as his namesake uncle, Moltke the Elder, a hero of past Prussian military victories. When the Kaiser receives a last-minute offer to broker a peace, Moltke convinces the German leader that their triumph is assured, even though an all-out war means Moltke’s armies must fight on two fronts, France and Russia.

Showcasing a dazzling array of techniques and styles, “A Prussian Requiem” is Powell at his ingenious best.   In “We, the Glorious Dead,” he employs the slightly atonal “murmurations” that characterize the singing style of the “We Free” churches of North Uist, Scotland to represent the “smearing of the truth” that often accompanies the rush to war. The staccato rhythms of “The Papers of Peace” mirror the Morse code used to transmit futile overtures of diplomacy as Europe careened headlong into conflict. The haunting, wordless keens of despair that overtake the oratorio’s heartbreaking final passage, “The Gift,” are set to its opening melody, time-stretched from march to dirge.

Taken altogether, “A Prussian Requiem” represents Powell’s explorations of European classical romanticism from “La Belle Époque” that the First World War brought to an end to the minimalism and atonalism of today – from Maurice Ravel to Philip Glass, Claude Debussy to John Adams. But it also represents his determination to find new, more accessible vocabularies for contemporary classical music. “It’s fighting this idea of the classical world being very erudite and intellectual,” Powell explains. “And if you don’t have the right musical language, you’re sort of just passing through.”

Following a personal tragedy, Powell wrote Hubris’ final piece, “Requiem Addendum” – a continuation of some of the musical and conceptual themes of “A Prussian Requiem,” but written from a much more personal perspective. “It’s about marriage and relationships, and men and women, and how we don’t understand each other but we like living together,” says Powell. Despite the piece’s tragic subject matter – which Powell had translated into Latin so its painful words could be heard “from a safe distance” – he describes the piece, with characteristic humor, as a sort of “requiem for a requiem … a very postmodern gag.”

Though the works of Hubris are light-years removed from Powell’s work as a film composer, he has no interest in placing them on some sort of high-art pedestal, far above the light-hearted fare he has written for animated comedies and escapist action flicks. If anything, he hopes Hubris can help open up fans of his cinematic work to the richness of the entire classical canon. “If people come along from How to Train Your Dragon to ‘A Prussian Requiem,’ it’s an introduction to so much of the great music that inspired me.” It’s tempting to view such ambition as yet another form of hubris – but upon hearing the beauty and humanity of John Powell’s work on Hubris, you realize it’s actually a great act of generosity, from a gifted composer capable of bridging popular and classical music in ways that never cease to surprise.

The Prize is Still Mine
Program Notes 

The Prize is Still Mine” takes female voices and infuses them with a Gospel style, yet the new work sits firmly within the body of contemporary classical music. The intention was to highlight how the soul voice has so often been excluded from orchestral music with a women’s chorus responding to an absent male voice, addressing a missing omnipresent “HE”, who now exists as a personal and an institutional male, the lover and the oppressor. The women in the fullness of their voices call upon that patriarchy to end their oppression: “He only followed, the rules, his rules, now he rules me”.

Women, in all cultures, experience misogyny, covert as well as open aggression, attacks on their personal safety, and the women here call out a silent violence: “so he took it, from me, from mine…” It is ever more incumbent on men of whatever colour, religion or sexuality to speak out against this misogyny, not that women can not or have not done so, but to join them in this ongoing cultural evolution where it is hoped all will be seen and treated as equals.

Powell successfully walks a musical tightrope calling on references from the classical, gospel and protest songs while never entering the realm of pastiche. We hear a true soulful cry in the voices as they sing: “He said, he didn’t have to care.” Yet the joyful and triumphant way the women declaim – “The Prize Is Still Mine” makes the heart leap as the trumpets blast out a hopeful, forward-looking ending of pure strength and power reclaimed.

A Prussian Requiem
Program Notes 

The action takes place the night before the start of the First World War. A month earlier (June 28, 1914) Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, had been shot by Gavrilo Princip a Yugoslav nationalist (a Bosnian Serb) and the assassination was used a pretext for the many empires of Europe to make plays for yet more power. Kaiser Wilhelm II (a close friend of Ferdinand) was generally seen as a buffoon who liked dressing up in military attire but was not of a real military mind nor discipline. Wilhelm was a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II (Russia) and King George V (Great Britain) who joined forces against him after Wilhelm’s attempts at diplomacy were thwarted by his generals all too eager for war despite the human cost.

When the Kaiser was presented with the possibility of peace negotiations (musically throughout the work this is represented by the repeating rhythms of diplomatic telegrams in morse code; using the word “peace”) it was Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke (The Younger) who refused to alter his battle plans, and the ‘Great War’ commenced. The work can be seen as a requiem to the consequences of one man’s hubris upon the 20th century.

Whilst Powell eschews the notion that this is actually a “requiem” in the Classical sense, he structured the work with resonance to the form. The work opens with An Introduction, as our main protagonist, Moltke, romantically longs for the glory of sweeping across Europe in a heroic repeat of his uncle’s victories (Moltke the Elder). A brief moment of doubt is brushed away as the orchestra and chorus regales us with the twisted skipping March!, where the ironic words are but rhythmic devices for celebrating the new century’s industrialized warfare.

By part 3, Beware The Bear, Moltke is beginning to feel the cost of being at the forefront of his decisions, as the reality of sticking with the “Schlieffen plan” (fighting on both west and eastern fronts) sinks in. We, the Glorious Dead, part 4, begins as the chorus sings a contorted canon (musically based on Powell’s interest in the unusual singing style of the “We Free” churches of North Uist). It aims to be a sonic representation of people’s ability to follow each other into the fully expected suffering of war led only by the noble ideals of propaganda. Men sing mournfully of their release from the cannons and the women mechanically butcher the meanings of words to cheerlead the flock.

By part 5, Easy, Moltke uses the Glorious Dead melody to luxuriate in his regrets that he couldn’t “lunch in Paris” followed by “dinner in St Petersburg”. As he continues to complain of interrupted banquets, the chorus returns to lament with him in what is the closest to the Lacrimosa section of the Mass.

An excited instrumental beginning to The Papers of Peace (again using rhythms of morse code) intones frenetic diplomacy as the Kaiser arrives to tell Moltke the good news. But his enthusiasm is dashed in part 7 Let the Rails Roll where the two men verbally battle. Moltke’s contempt for peace; “a mere piece of paper” crescendos into part 8, Victory is Ours. This is Powell’s nod to many famous “Dies Iraes” and the composer brings forth musically the expected violence and force that belies the irony of the words.

The final sections present the disfunction of the human animal and its constructs. In My Reasoning we see an ego build to its final explosive measure as Moltke cannot keep quiet about his fears of lost glory for himself, but the doubt is clothed in the language of patriotism. The chorus starts singing a hymn of lost innocence in The Gift, and we see the opposing forces of vast empires tear apart in the simplicity of this song; a song where the youth of the world offer themselves as a “libation”, a naive gift to “the gods The wordless ending brings all the combatants back. Powell shows that language can no longer compete with the madness of total war. As their keening moans are overtaken by the choir, these two Prussians fade into history and obscurity, a fitting epitaph. If the work truly is a requiem, it is one for the global victims of these catastrophic actions.