Paul Mealor: De Profundis
Paul Mealor was born in North Wales, 1975, and as a young child he studied composition with William Mathias. He attended the University of York, and studied under John Pickard and Nicola LeFanu. For fourteen years now, Mealor has taught composition at the University of Aberdeen. Mealor is perhaps most well-known for his commission to be the composer for the Royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton, at Westminster Abbey on 29th April 2011. Also in 2011, Mealor composed the choral work, De Profundis, which is what this blog is centred around.
Inspired by the pureness and beauty of Russian Orthodox Chant, Mealor composer De Profundis for choir and bass soloist. What makes this particular piece unique is the range that Mealor has written for the bass voice, which goes down to a low E – a sixth lower than a cello can go. To find the perfect (and of course, capable) voice for this part, the hunt began to find someone with this extraordinary singing voice.
After a global campaign and over 400 entrants, Mealor and his team chose Tim Storms to sing this record-breaking part. Although they had many applicants, only 40 were shortlisted, and even then many of these men strained to get down to the infamous low E. However, this is not the case with Tim Storms, as his range is very rich and secure, meaning the clarity of his voice in that range is incredibly impressive. After it was recorded it won the Guinness World Record for a piece of music with the lowest note for choir that is possible to sing.
Based on Psalm 130, De Profundis represents a man talking to God, and asking for his help. Mealor makes some very small changes to the literally translated Hebrew text, and below is that translation:
From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication
If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?
But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered.
I trust in the Lord;
My soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the Lord,
More than watchmen wait for the dawn, let Israel hope in the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
The text used throughout De Profundis:
Out of the depths do I cry to you O Lord;
Lord hear my voice
Let your ears be attentive to my voice,
In my supplication
I cried to you, O Lord
Let you ears be attentive
To my voice
I cried to you, I cried to you,
I cried to you
Let your ears be attentive to my voice
In you is forgiveness, my Lord
The cleverness of this work can be from the sheer novelty of this bass voice. The attentiveness that the soloist is asking for from God, is being received in abundance by the listeners (and, of course, the choir). Mealor commented on this evolution of this piece saying that he has:
“been constantly trying to write lower and lower, and the bassists I write for seem very pleased about this.”
He goes on to say that:
“My setting of De Profundis calls for a rich and powerful voice; a voice that can not only touch the heart with its sincerity and truth, but also make every fabric of the human body resonate as it plunges into the very lowest parts of the vocal spectrum.”
The choir reacts to the soloist by taking key words or phrases and layering them into the cluster-chord filled texture. Words such as ‘hear’ and ‘cry’ are taken to support the dramaturgy of the work, which becomes a very powerful tool for Mealor. A lot of the accompaniment from the choir is indistinguishable, which creates an even more mysterious undertone to the work. The staggered entries at the beginning of the work set the scene, before a quick resolution in the chord progression, which sets up the soloist to enter ‘out of the depths’ as it were. With the text used, it definitely comes across as a plead from the soloist for the higher power to listen, help and forgive. I find this work particularly powerful for this reason.
Mealor also uses word-painting throughout, which offers different interpretations of this work. For example, the second line ‘Lord hear my voice’ the soloist hits the lowest note of the work thus far, with the choir dropping out on the word ‘voice’ so the Lord can hear this voice properly. For me, this also shows the vulnerability of the soloist, in context to the text. The next line ‘Let your ears be attentive to my voice’ is manipulated in such a way that the words ‘my voice’ is sung in a descending sequence (unlike the rest of this line), making it the focal point of this section.
Another way Mealor uses word-painting is example is when he and the choir climax on ‘I cried to you’, which is repeated three times. The highest of the soloist’s range is heard here, which could represent the desperation that this person is feeling, and even with the support of the choir, is still not able to reach the attention of the higher power.
Furthermore, two lines later on ‘My Lord’, the soloist is again left alone by the choir and the lowest note of the work is then heard – the infamous E1. Again, this highlights the importance of the soloist, and of course the novelty of being able to sing that low! The ending is subtle, with the choir proclaiming their ‘Amen’ quietly, and then the soloist coming in after with the closing ‘Amen’.
A really atmospheric work, De Profundis is certainly a bold statement from Mealor, and is one of my favourite choral works! I came across this recording on an album entitled Tranquillity: Voices of Deep Calm – which for me says it all! This blog would not have been possible without the invaluable help and kindness of Paul Mealor himself, who kindly offered me some information about this work.
This blog is dedicated to Paul Mealor.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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Amanda · 6th December 2020 at 4:38 pm
It is indeed an amazing piece! What I’d love to know is what the highest note of the solo part is, to be able to tell it’s range.