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Work of the Week: John Casken – Madonna of Silence

John Casken’s Madonna of Silence, a new 24 minute work for trombone and orchestra, will be given its world premiere by the Hallé Orchestra on 28 February 2019 at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. The work was commissioned by the orchestra for their Principal Trombone Katy Jones, and will be conducted by Jamie Phillips.

Madonna of Silence takes its name from a drawing by Michelangelo that Casken first discovered in Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Composed in a single movement, the drama of the work is divided into three sections: The Madonna in contemplation, The Madonna’s hymn and The Madonna’s lamentations.

John Casken: Madonna of Silence – ‘A scene brimming with unease and premonitions’

Casken’s fascination with Michelangelo’s image began with its beautiful title, but extends to every aspect of the new composition. The personalities, motivations, and stories of each character are embodied in the music through the interaction between the trombone soloist and the orchestra.

‘The Madonna is not the delicate young woman we usually associate with such painted scenes […] her right hand holding an open book. Is this a Book of Prophets that has revealed the truth about the child on her lap?  Joseph is a towering figure at her left shoulder, gazing as a thoughtful and troubled witness.
The child Jesus is far from being a child, his position across the Madonna’s lap already that of the pietà, the fallen Christ descended from the cross. And, who is the mysterious figure in the background, finger to his lips, shushing, urging silence on the scene? Is he urging silence in order not to wake the child, or is it a more serious exhortation not to speak of what is about to unfold in the life of Christ?’
(John Casken)

The interaction between these four figures is the reason Casken has called Madonna of Silence ‘a drama for trombone and orchestra’ rather than a concerto.

Further dramatic works by Casken can be heard this spring with the song cycle Lines from a Wanderer at Wigmore Hall on 30 April 2019 and the Brighton Festival on 15 May 2019, and performances of the melodrama Kokoschka’s Doll throughout the UK.



Image: Virgin and Child with Saints Joseph and John the Baptist (after Michelangelo´s Madonna del Silenzio), 1561, Metropolitan Museum of Art