- Review by Kaya Savas - 7/19/18
On the centenary of WWI, John Powell decided to compose a war requiem. Something he would describe as “an act of grand hubris.” Powell wanted to examine how the war began and tell that story through a rich and detailed concert work. Through thorough research, John found a protagonist for A Prussian Requiem in General Helmuth von Moltke. Powell’s fascination with this general’s "hissy fit" that very much could have been the reason that sparked the war, is what fueled John’s fascination with the subject. How could one man’s hubris lead to war? Powell is a self-proclaimed pacifist, so his commentary on this subject through his art is even more intriguing and engaging.
John would weigh this general’s hubris with his own, and even question the idea of writing a requiem. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate act of hubris? Composing a requiem about another man’s pride and ego? Maybe, but John is probably one of the least egotistical human beings I’ve ever met. His intelligence and deep understanding of the human condition has made him one of the most resonating storytellers of any generation, but his humbleness and caring for those around him paint the true picture of himself. John is an observably shy, thoughtful, funny and witty guy. His understanding of the spectrum of human emotions is evident in his ability to evoke tears of all kind via his music, from joy to sadness. So with Hubris, John marks one of the most resonating chapters of his career, a concert piece that tells a very specific story but is relatable on a grand human scale. Hubris is thoughtful, it’s haunting, and it's everything that we love from John as a musical storyteller.
Before the main course, we are treated to an appetizer of sorts. The Prize Is Still Mine opens the album. Powell’s frequent collaborator, Michael Petry provided inspiration for this piece. It was born from John’s part in the recordings of an installation piece written with Gavin Greenaway. This blending of styles sees gospel blended with romanticism to tell a story of pride and jubilation that leads to a reawakening.
Lyrics such as “So he got the prize, So he took our prize, So he has our prize, The prize is still mine.” echo the first half. A chorus of women chant “He only followed the rules, His rules, Now he rules me.” The tone of the piece is bold and triumphant. We see this rebirth and rejuvenation emerge; a conquering of oppression to emerge stronger than before. The message of the piece being, “Whatever was taken, the prize is still mine.”
Now we move into the main event, A Prussian Requiem. The requiem is split into 10 parts and they are as follows: I. Introduction to Moltke / II. The March / III. Beware the Bear / IV. We, the Glorious Dead / V. Easy / VI. The Papers of Peace / VII. Let the Rails Roll / VIII. Victory is Ours / IX. My Reasoning / X. The Gift. The final track is an addendum. The whole requiem runs roughly 45min and is a gripping and emotional journey that is rich with Powell’s style.
Part I introduces us to Moltke, and the lyrics are told from his point of view; confidence and flourish are heard in the music. This leads us to Part II, "The March", which carries that confidence and has lyrics such as “March toward victory / toward glory / away from truth”.
Part III is again told from the point of view of Moltke, a bit more yearning and melancholic this time. The light is dying, the music’s flourish can be heard making its final breath as we enter into Parts IV and V. "We, the Glorious Dead" is a haunting portrait of lives lost. Powell’s affinity for the chorus shines in these shifts of tone. Moltke returns in Part V reflecting on how he initially envisioned having lunch in Paris and dining in St. Petersburg. But in reality his hubris has lead to misery and death.
Parts VI and VII examine Moltke’s unwillingness to reason and how the thought of victory pushed him to continue onward. The music here is structured to showcase Moltke’s pride and is juxtaposed with The Kaiser’s begging for reasoning. Moltke does not listen and marches towards victory, which is death. Part VIII is titled “Victory Is Ours”, but the irony is that it’s all about the dead. “Ring the bells from every tower / toll loudly our names, the dying sound is our memorial.” Part IX is probably the most propulsive and intense section showcasing rage and throwing caution to the wind, possibly a musical representation of a “hissy fit”. Lyrics like “The cock and the bulldog would form a vice / to grind our bones / to feed the bear. / No, there is fucking stopping!”
The closure in Part X is a haunting portrait of the results of all this bloodshed. “The Gift” being another ironic title that refers to the gift of the young lives to the afterlife. At the end of this piece, the performers playing Moltke and the Kiaser turn their backs to the audience in shame and begin howling the sounds of sorrow. We now enter the addendum, which is in Latin; a beautiful yet haunting reflection on the preciousness of life.
A Prussian Requiem is an invigorating and haunting examination of human pride, and how that can lead to tragedy. When you learn more about Powell as a person, his fascination with these figures and this moment in history makes absolute sense. This was the perfect subject for his requiem, and his execution of it is stunning. Powell’s film scores have always been heavy with chorus, and here he utilizes chorus along with his rich music to tell not just a cautionary tale but also an examination of his own hubris.
I started this analysis talking about how kind and generous John is as a person, and that is true. John wrote a note in the liner notes, and it provided a window into his own thought process. A horrible tragedy occurred in John’s personal life that coincided with the premiere of this requiem. His wife, Melinda, passed away from a terminal illness when A Prussian Requiem made its world debut. He was holding his wife’s hand as the sounds faded in the concert hall from the premiere. He reflected back asking himself if his own hubris lead to pain and suffering the same way that Moltke’s hubris did. I can tell you, John, that your hubris does not bring suffering. I would also argue that you do not have any excessive pride or self-confidence. You have the pride and confidence required to do the job that you do, and I’m sure like any human being you’ve had selfish moments, but everything you do is always in consideration of the bigger picture.
John Powell’s A Prussian Requiem is a momentous achievement (there ya go, John, I’ll pad your pride just a bit). It’s very rare we get to see a solo work such as this from an A-list film composer. Business and box office is tossed out the window. Everything about this album was based from Powell’s own curiosity and inspiration. He didn’t have a director or producer telling him what to do and he for once was not servicing another person's vision. Hubris is a beautiful window into John Powell’s world, and even if you’ve never listened to any of his scores (Is that even remotely possible?) you should still reward yourself the experience of this album. I recall holding the soundtrack to Face/Off, his first score, when I was 10 years old. I had no idea who the hell John Powell was. All I knew was that I was a kid who got a kick out of action movies and the music that was in them. I probably shouldn’t have been watching R-rated John Woo extravaganzas at 10, but I turned out slightly fine so it all worked out. Anyway, I’ve been listening to John’s music and being enthralled by his scores since I was 10. I’m 31 now, and can safely say his music helped shape me to now work in the entertainment industry and also run Film.Music.Media. So, thanks, John. And a toast to your hubris!