The Gravity of Kindness: Howard Goodall explains his thinking

Howard Goodall has written to us via David, explaining some of his thinking behind the piece he has written for us:

The Gravity of Kindness is a special commission for me, its composer. Special because it came into being as a result of a relationship between me and The Addison Singers, particularly through their conductor David Wordsworth who has been a long-time champion of my work, but also between the choir and the remarkable former member whose memory the piece honours, Cathy Bereznicki. I had wanted for a while to write a work that addressed the Christmas story from a reflective viewpoint, and was delighted that David agreed to my proposal for a work shaped around a poem, Kindness, by American-Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a poem I’d long carried around in my pocket on a piece of crumpled paper. One day, I thought, I’ll set this to music, when the right opportunity arises. I’ve written quite a few carols over the years and have always felt that the nativity story – however literally one addresses its various anecdotal/historical/mythical/blurred-by-time details – carries a very powerful, universal message: a poor mother and her child, in difficult, fragile circumstances, seeking refuge, not reduced to a footnote of the tale but elevated to the very point and purpose of it. The smallest, least important people being centre-stage. Power transferred from a mighty empire to a child. We have been reminded in recent years of the potential power of unlikely yet immensely courageous children, from Malala Yousafzai to Greta Thunberg so the subtext of the Nativity is clear to us whether or not we believe the child in question was some kind of manifestation of God. Ms Nye’s poem is beautiful and full of truth as to the nature and quality of human kindness, so I framed it with two mother-child lullabies, one from Mexico, Arrorró mi niño, and perhaps the best-known of all English late medieval carols, The Coventry Carol. That the latter contains within it, alongside a mother’s comforting lullay-ing, the foretelling of the child’s later responsibilities, torments and death, reminds us that it was once as much a Passiontide carol as a Christmas carol. Millions of mothers, right now, many of them displaced or stateless, are fearful of their children’s safety and future, and respond to the fear with an unquenchable, bottomless love, wrapping their babies in a cocoon of comfort and security as protection against the perils ahead, a process Naomi Shihab Nye describes as ‘the tender gravity of kindness’. It remains to be seen whether the music I have written to express these wonderful words successfully achieves its goal but my intention was to evoke in sound and voices the immense power and truth of that thought.”

Howard Goodall September 2019


by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

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