A Tone Poem
Eric Walter John Ball (October 31, 1903 - October 1, 1989)
(Notes by Robert Getz)
The word resurgam comes from the Latin word resurgo, meaning "to rise again, to appear again, to lift oneself". Resurgam means "I shall rise again", the most intimate and personal form of the word.
A World War II war correspondent coined the now famous phrase: "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". Not surprisingly, this piece written by "brass banding's mystic" (born on All Hallows Eve) fits this description perfectly - a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Several things point to this conundrum. Eric was not in the habit of dedicating his works, yet he dedicated Resurgam to his wife's younger sister, Elsa, with no explanation. Some say it was because the piece came to him during the time of his struggles over resigning from The Salvation Army, the tragic illness which took Elsa and which perhaps led him deeper into spiritualism - which may have led him to Resurgam. Perhaps, but we will never know. Another mystery is that Ball, a former Salvation Army Officer, elected to use text from the ancient apocryphal book of The Wisdom of Solomon, rather than the more accepted Scriptures. Is the choice of text tied to his bitterness over being pressured to resign his Army commission? (Yes bitterness was there, but not broadcast.) If Not, why did he select so pointed a text from "secret" and sometimes doubted scriptures when equally convincing or superior texts can be found in the more universally accepted books? There are musical riddles as well. For example, what does the hammering figure in the development section mean? First there is one note, again, then three, then four, one, one then six . . . why? Some say "fate knocking", while others are mystified that it seems not to fit at all and yet somehow strangely belongs - a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?
There is more. Little is known about the creation of the piece. The composer stated to this writer that he did not remember writing it at all. Peter Cooke confirms this in the biography, Eric Ball - the man and his music. However, the piece didn't magically appear on paper. Clearly, memory notwithstanding, much thought went into the writing, the inclusion of quoted tunes or motifs, even the selection of an obscure Latin title. The opening phrase is a modified quote from Ball's vocal piece "The Awakens", a Salvation Army Training Session song: "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead". Interestingly, these opening notes also fit the first phrase of the selected text from the Apocrypha if the word "but" is omitted.
"But the souls of the upright are in the hands of God,
And no torment can reach them.
In the eyes of foolish people they seemed to die,
And their decease was thought an affliction,
And their departure from us their ruin,
But they are at peace".
The tone poem has five basic elements which are presented as in the following outline: A B A C D E A D. Considering the subject matter, one is left to ponder whether or not Ball was aware of the word spelled by the second half of the form outline. Is this a part of the mystery, or just coincidence?
The composer has clearly stated that there was no intent to specifically tie any text to any musical ideas, but this rather should be left to each listener to divine for themselves. Such statements notwithstanding, Ball was as much a literalist in selecting musical themes that directly portray text and ideas as was Bach. One need go no further than his beautiful setting of Psalm 150, where trumpet figures accompany similar words, and men's voices form rich chordal sonorities for the word "organ", etc. Consequently, it is not out of the realm of possibility, in fact likely, that he had thoughts of specific texts (at least in the back of his mind) as he wrote various sections of Resurgam. Regardless, this writer has conducted and played the piece many times and listened many more and finds some possible conjectures useful when searching for further individual access to the spirit of the piece.
The piece begins with what has been called the "Faith" motif (theme A). This is very solemn but hopeful music, but which ends questioningly, almost as though the players are singing, unconvinced, a quote from the apocryphal text: "and no torment can reach them". This is abruptly interrupted by a driving, conflict-ridden section filled with questioning and wailing (B), which is repeated. The faith motif (A) returns followed by even more questioning and doubting, reiterating over and again the uncertain entreaty "and no torment can reach them. . . reach them . . . reach them". This leads to a cornet solo filled with deep despair (C). Once again, the words from the text seem to fit emotionally and are easily adapted musically (especially the second phrase): "And their decease was thought an affliction, and their departure from us their ruin . . ." In rehearsals Eric used the words, "death took my love away" to illustrate the pathos needed (some speculate more, due to the mysterious dedication). This theme is transferred to the euphoniums accompanied by a cornet obbligato . A brief euphonium recitative evolves into a soaring melody of hope (D). This is interrupted by sinister forces represented by the lower instruments and turmoil and bitter conflict are the stuff of this section (E). We hear a battle between the upper voices seeming to try to triumphantly shout "But they are at peace" against the sinister forces of evil and death in the lower voices. Cascading chromatics, the pounding or "fate knocking" motif, and the insistent Dies irae ("day of wrath", from the 13th century mass for the dead) - are the elements of this section. Finally as the last pounding of fate dies, distant bells toll, and the "death" motif (borrowed from the composer's own Exodus) followed by a crash of the gong ominously ends this section. The faith motif (A) introduces the return of the soaring euphonium melody of hope (D), which is now wonderfully fulfilled and transformed from hope to promise of eternal life in the resurrection. As the music lifts us beyond life, could there perhaps be a suggestion of the composer's own setting of "In the Secret of Thy Presence"? The earlier questions are transfigured into quiet "amens", underscored by a final reminder of the faith, which began our pilgrimage.
The great British composer/conductor, Elgar Howarth, states: "The spirituality of Resurgam as much as its superb scoring has made it the most performed and best loved piece in the band repertoire". It was the Belle Vue test piece in 1950. Eric Ball conducted the fourth place band and admitted that the first place winner, Harry Mortimer, understood the piece and found more depth in it than he, the composer! Such a piece and such a man may never be encountered again until we all experience Resurgam. Amen.
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