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Codebreaker Reviewed

A cracking review of James McCarthy’s Codebreaker appears in the June 2019 issue of Music Teacher Magazine.

Codebreaker: The Alan Turing story
James McCarthy
Soprano Solo, SATB chorus and orchestra
Stainer & Bell
Ref: D108 — £12.95

Mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was employed at the Government Code and Cypher School, located at Bletchley Park, during the Second World War. His work there of deciphering encrypted messages saved innumerable lives and helped Britain to go on to win the war. The fact that his efforts went largely unrecognised for some time was down to Turing’s homosexuality, which was considered a crime in those years and remained so up until 1967. Rather than receiving accolades and the respect he deserved, he was instead sentenced to chemical castration for what was termed as ‘gross indecency’ in 1952. Just two years later, Turing died and it is widely believed that he took his own life as a result of the inhumane punishment imposed upon him by the state.

Composer James McCarthy felt compelled to tell Alan Turing’s story in Codebreaker: ‘The idea that really fascinated me was having one hundred-plus singers embody just one person,’ says McCarthy. ‘1 was really interested in the idea that by having numerous voices represent one person you could give something of an idea of the multiplicity of that person’s inner-thoughts and personality.’

Codebreaker was commissioned by Hertfordshire Chorus, which then premiered and subsequently recorded the work with the BBC Concert Orchestra. It has since been performed by LGBT choirs in Nashville, Tennessee. The publisher, Stainer and Bell, has taken admirable care with the presentation of this vocal score, with an appropriately designed laminated cover and high-quality paper. The score is easy to open, and the text and typesetting work beautifully.

The music itself sets a collection of texts by Sara Teasdale, Wilfred Owen, Oscar Wilde, Edward Thomas, Robert Burns and Turing himself. The first movement is a huge sing for the choir, in C major, with the performance direction of ‘Ecstatic’. The opening words are ‘We shall be happy’. This is eventually followed (again sung by the choir) with the apology given by the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 for Turing’s terrible treatment at the hands of the very country that he had worked so hard to save.

The one character in the piece who appears as a soloist is not, as one might imagine, Alan Turing, but rather his mother, who acts as narrator.

‘The most important thing for me with this piece,’ says McCarthy, ‘was to present a picture of Alan Turing as a living, breathing human being, rather than as a distant icon. That is why it was important for me to have the role of his mother at the centre of the work. This allowed me to show Turing as the inquisitive, special child that he was, and also to show the personal grief and mourning that she felt at his death. I wanted the audience to feel as though they had spent 50 minutes in Turing’s company, and to leave with the feeling of what a remarkable man he was.’

This fabulous composition sets music with high rhythmic energy and textural interest alongside beautiful sonorous movements, such as the chorus ‘Song of Songs’, which has a sublime melody and rich choral writing, as has ‘Deep in the night’. The choral writing doesn’t always make for an easy sing, particularly for amateur chorus, as the tessitura lies quite high in places. But the results are well worth the hard work and physical effort. ‘A mother’s lament for the death of her son’ for solo soprano is deeply and profoundly heart-rending as it speaks of how Turing fell in love with a boy at school, Christopher Morcom, described as ’the love of his life’. With more beautiful writing in the final movement, ‘If death is kind’, the entire work ends with a kind of ravaged hope, on the words ’for the dead are free’.

McCarthy’s musical language really speaks on a level with the human soul and manifests a deep understanding of the human condition and all its complexities. Perhaps this work will one day take its place beside the major choral greats such as Britten’s War Requiem, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and others.


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