Michael Nyman: Symphony No 11: Hillsborough Memorial
Although some of the music featured in Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial will be familiar to long-time Michael Nyman devotees, the symphony itself received its world premiere in Liverpool in July 2014. Classic Nyman, the forty-two-minute recording supplements his previously composed Memorial and Hillsborough Memorial pieces with new material in a four-movement score performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Liverpool born mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, and the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir.
In essence, the compositional process for the symphony began in 1985 when Nyman was commissioned to write a piece that was intended to be titled Centrale Electrique. But while writing it, he found himself watching on TV the European Cup Final match on May 29th between Juventus of Italy and the Liverpool Football Club at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. At this now-famous event, forty-one people died—most of them Juventus fans—and hundreds more were injured when a fence separating the teams' fans was breached and a concrete retaining wall collapsed, crushing fans in the process. In light of the tragedy, Centrale Electrique became Memorial, which Nyman dedicated to the memory of the Juventus fans and performed only once, on June 15, 1985. In the years since that performance, Memorial has come to be associated with Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover as the music appears within the film and is included on the film's soundtrack.
The 1985 tragedy is not the only one to figure into the symphony's creation, however. On April 15, 1989, Nyman was re-working the Heysel-related material while also trying to keep tabs on two FA-Cup semi-final matches, only to later learn about the death of ninety-six fans of the Liverpool Football Club at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. In 1996, Nyman honoured the dead once again, this time by composing Hillsborough Memorial, in which all of the dead fans' names are cited. And, just as occurred with respect to Memorial, a single performance of Hillsborough Memorial was given, specifically on June 13, 1996 by Sarah Leonard and the Michael Nyman Band.
Buoyed by its surging strings, rousing melodies, and Rudge's impassioned reading of the ninety-six names, “The Singing of the Names,” positions the listener solidly within familiar Nyman territory. In this opening movement, the composer infuses the music with a celebratory spirit whilst still respectfully honouring the memory of the deceased. Never one to shy away from recycling his own material, Nyman does exactly that in the lovely second movement, “Family Reflections,” which mines a rejected aria (“I now know you are my son” from the 2000 opera Facing Goya) for content and merges strings and choir voices to stirring and emotionally charged effect. Nyman's penchant for numerical symbolism comes into play in the third movement, “The 96,” where the music thrusts forward with forceful determination, its momentum tempered by the haunting sound of the choir's wordless vocalizing. At album's end, the stabbing string patterns of “Memorial” march once more, this time in a soaring thirteen-minute version filled with its familiar bluster and dramatically presented in a full orchestra-and-choir arrangement. Despite the fact that the work's contents were created at different times, the symphony holds together as a unified piece, in large part due to Nyman's unmistakable melodic sensibility.
There is a powerful political dimension to Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial, as conveyed in Nyman's own liner notes: “But unspoken, unplayed, unsung, unnannounced, beneath the surface of this symphony is the history of family pain and my anger with the corruption of the Thatcher government and her duplicitous police force, which is currently being exposed during the second inquest into the deaths of the ninety-six fans.” Political concerns aside, Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial is so emblematic of Nyman's composing style, it would be safe to say that devotees will wax ecstatic over it whereas those less enamoured of his work won't experience a radical shift in attitude. Regardless, as a sweeping symphonic presentation of Nyman's music, the recording is undeniably strong.