Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial

Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial

Hillsborough Memorial

The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Youth Choir perform Nyman’s Hillsborough memorial in the Anglican Cathedral

On Saturday we joined the crowds pouring into Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on a beautiful summer’s evening for the public première of Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial Symphony performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Youth Choir.  It was an intensely moving experience which transcended the usual boundaries of a musical performance.

Memorial programme

The programme cover

The Symphony consists of four movements.  In the first, ‘The Singing of the Names’, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge sings the name of each of the 96 who lost their lives at Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989. It took me a few moments, in the cavernous soundscape of the cathedral, to locate where Rudge’s voice was coming from (the pulpit to the left in the photo above) and to tune into the words she was singing as being the names of those who died.  But, I soon adjusted to the rhythm of her delivery as each name, carefully enunciated by Rudge as the orchestration shifted and eddied beneath her voice, soared to the cathedral vaults.


Pages from the programme: The Singing of the Names

It was intensely emotional, as Kathryn Rudge’s declamation shifted between tenderness and something that sounded close to anger. Listening I wondered how it must have felt for relatives of the dead, listening to it that afternoon when and the Memorial was played for a private audience of family members of Hillsborough victims.

I thought, too – perhaps because we’re at this historic juncture one hundred years on from the outbreak of World War One – of the parallel with the naming the dead on First World War memorials, and the biblical phrase, chosen by Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his own son in the war, inscribed on many British war memorials: ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’.  I thought of Liverpool’s beautiful memorial – outside St Georges Hall – to those who fell in World War One, and the inscription it carries: ‘The victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people’. This music, and the two memorials to the Hillsborough victims that now exist in Liverpool, will ensure that the names of the 96 will not now be forgotten.

Cenotaph Cenotaph detail 2Cenotaph detail 1

Beautiful detailing by Herbert Tyson Smith from Liverpool’s memorial to those who fell in the First World War

With the second movement, ‘Family Reflections’ we were in familiar Nyman territory: the signature insistent pulse and repetition of slowly changing chords that gradual transform into long, arching phrases. Nyman coined the term minimalism for this kind of music, and it shares an affinity with works by Terry Riley or Philip Glass.  The entry of the youth choir, singing a wordless aria above the orchestration, lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.

In the programme notes, Nyman explained how the third movement – entitled ‘The 96′ – drew on the numerical symbolism of ’96’, repeating a 4-bar phrase made up of three chords so that the piece consists of (96 times 3 divided by 4) bars.  If that sounds coldly mathematical, it wasn’t.  The movement built relentlessly to a heart-stopping point when the orchestration fell away and young voices of the choir came to the fore.

The final movement was simply titled ‘Memorial’, an uplifting requiem in which I thought I could discern elements of the George Martin/Beatles arrangement on ‘All You Need Is Love’, with trumpet and horns superimposed above a repeating choral line.  When the end came, the audience leapt their feet to greet orchestra and choir, and conductor Josep Vicent with rapturous applause. The 70 year-old Nyman was in the audience, and was encouraged to come forward to thunderous acclaim.

Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman

Earlier, Nyman had told the Liverpool Echo that he had sounded out representatives from the family groups before taking on the commission. He added that he felt they had been ‘treated like scum and not given their voice. You might say they’re getting their voices back now. But it’s 25 years too late.’  Speaking of the Memorial Symphony, he said, ‘It’s a piece without any surface politics. There’s no text which deals with evidence. It’s basically a very human and warm and strongly emotional piece. For the first time in my life I will own up to writing a piece whose sole purpose is to have an emotional, cathartic, beneficial influence on a situation that is still unresolved and extremely painful.’

Nevertheless, in the programme Michael Nyman writes that ‘unspoken, unsung, beneath the surface of this Symphony is the history of family pain and my personal anger with the corruption of the Thatcher government and her duplicitous police force.’ Amen to that.

There’s a rather curious story involved in how Nyman came to compose the Memorial. At the time of the Heysel disaster in 1985, he was part way through composing a new work to be performed in a disused power station in Rouen. One evening he sat down in front of the TV to watch the Liverpool -Juventus match – and on seeing the events that unfolded he immediately decided that the piece he  was writing should be a memorial piece. The finished work was performed – just once – in Rouen. He attempted to have it performed in Liverpool, without success. The last movement was later used by Peter Greenaway on the soundtrack for his film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Then, on the afternoon of 15 April 1989. Nyman was in the recording studio, coincidently revisiting his ‘Heysel Memorial’, when news of the disaster at Hillsborough began to unfold. In the weeks after Hillsborough, he decided to build a new memorial work around the piece he had originally dedicated to the Heysel Stadium disaster.

A recording of the Symphony will be played in Liverpool Cathedral at 15:06 on Wednesday 6 August, 3 September, and 17 September, and a CD will be released in September.

Meanwhile, up the road in Warrington, the inquests into the deaths of the 96 at Hillsborough continue. They began at the end of March and are expected to conclude in July 2015.

Hillsborough Memorial Anfield

 The Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield