Good News from New England (2023)

Good News from New England (2023)

SSATB and violin solo
Duration: 15′
Oxford University Press
Commissioned by Geoffrey Smeed for City Chamber Choir
First performance 12 July, 2022 | City Chamber Choir | Stephen Jones,
conductor | Carpenters’ Hall, City of London, UK

Programme note:
Good News from New England Cecilia McDowall
1. An Unexpected Shore
2. Ghost of a feather
3. Thanksgiving leading to The Old Hundredth

Good News from New England was commissioned by Geoffrey Smeed for the City Chamber Choir and its founder and conductor, Stephen Jones. The first movement of the work, An unexpected shore, has been recorded for the Coro label by The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers, and is entitled, An Old Belief. The Sixteen have programmed this movement to be a part of their Choral Pilgrimage which moves between twenty-five cathedrals, priories and concert halls throughout the UK in 2022. The work is scored for mixed voices with solo violin and draws its title from Edward Winslow’s chronicles of 1624, Good Newes from New England, in which he describes the early experiences of the Mayflower Pilgrims arrival and settlement in the New World.

An Unexpected Shore takes its text from the journal of the Puritan separatist William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford was chosen to be governor of Plymouth Colony in 1621 and gives a telling account of the arrival of the Pilgrims in a new land after their long and perilous journey. These resilient non-conformist Pilgrims were inspired by a ‘sense of earthly grandeur and divine purpose’ and the opening movement charts their voyage from one shore to another by gradually descending from A Major, through Ab Major to G Major, perhaps bringing a sense of establishing a new community in this harsh landscape.

Ghost of a feather is fashioned from two very different texts, 400 years apart, on the same poignant matter; the death of William Bradford’s wife. John Greening’s subtle yet powerful poem describes how Bradford’s wife ‘fell’ overboard into a calm sea in the harbour, December 1620, while her husband was ashore. By contrast, there is something resolute, in the face of catastrophe, in Bradford’s own poem written after his wife, Dorothy’s, tragic death. In seeing the Bradford text I adopted a semi ‘Bay Psalm Book’ idiom, with its plain homophonic style, introducing occasional dissonance to intensify the anguish. In contrast the opening and closing section of this movement might seem more ‘folk-like’ with a violin accompaniment which perhaps reflects the known Celtic influence on fiddle playing in New England at the time. ‘Cole’s Hill’ refers to the first burial ground of the Pilgrims in Plymouth.

The third movement brings perhaps a sense of release and joyfulness in Thanksgiving. The violin solo is in playful dialogue with the dance-like vocal lines. These words are taken from Winslow’s Thanksgiving le􀆩er of 1621 written to a friend in England. A year after the Mayflower Pilgrims se􀆩led in Plymouth, they had much to celebrate. The following section reprises material from the opening movement which in turn leads to Henry Ainsworth’s version of The Old Hundredth which was sung on the Mayflower and subsequently in the Plymouth Colony. The audience is encouraged to participate in singing this hymn.

(1) An unexpected shore

And lo! The winds did blow us ever to the North; so that we that crossed the Seas to seek the Lord’s right worship and the Gospell’s sweet simplicitiee, did now espy an unexpected shore; yet still resolv’d in our extremity to make it ours, by Compact, orderly and free. And here is to be noted a spetiall providence of God, and a great mercie. For we did take a better view, and soon resolv’d where to pitch our dwelling; our first house to raise for common use. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony 1630 (freely adapted and abridged by Nicholas

(2) Ghost of a feather (William Bradford’s wife, 23, falls overboard and drowns.)

A single cry from the ghost of a feather.
A solitary goodwife drops into the bay.
One burial, then another, then another.
The first house on Christmas Day.

Cole’s Hill (Burial Hill) by John Greening

Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust;
Fear not the things thou suffer must;
For, whom he loves he doth chas􀆟se,
And then all tears wipes from their eyes.

William Bradford (on the death of his wife)

(3) Thanksgiving
After the famines of the first winter, our harvest now being gotten in, we did after a special
manner rejoice and give thanks together, many of the Indians coming in amongst us we
entertained and feasted. And although it was not always so plentiful again, yet by the
goodness of our God, we were so far from want, that we often wished you partakers of our

For me a table thou hast spread,
In presence of my foes:
Thou dost anoint my head with oil,
My cup it over-flows.
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
So long as days shall be. (Bay Psalm Book)

Edward Winslow, December 1621, Thanksgiving Letter (adapted and abridged by Nicholas

(4) The Old Hundredth Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622) Book of Psalmes Englished both in
Prose and Metre (1612) freely adapted

Showt to Jehovah, al the earth,
Serv ye Jehovah with gladness;
before him come with singing mirth
Know that Jehovah he God is.

It’s he that made us, and not wee;
his folk, and sheep of his feeding.
O with confession enter ye his gates,
his courtyards with praising:

Confess to him, bless ye his name.
Because Jehovah he good is:
his mercy ever is the same
and his faith, unto all ages.

Henry Ainsworth, English Congregationalist, wrote the psalter that was used on the
Mayflower and at Plymouth, Massachuse􀆩s by the Pilgrims. Later, the first book published in
America would be another psalter, the Bay Psalm Book, but when the Pilgrims first sang
psalms in the New World, the lines came from the Ainsworth Psalter, titled The Book of
Psalmes: Englished both in Prose and Metre with Annotations.

‘McDowall’s radiant anthem sets the words of Puritan separatist William
Bradford as he recounts the voyage of the Mayflower. The work dextrously
captures both the sway of the ocean and the relief of reaching firm ground, and
this fine interpretation features a beautiful solo line from soprano Alexandra
Kidgell.’ – BBC Music Magazine

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Cecilia McDowall – Good News from New England

Lo! He slumbers in his manger (2020)

Text: Watts’ Carol
Unaccompanied SATB
Duration: 3’
Oxford University Press

First performance 14 December 2019 | St Albans Choral Society, conductor George Vass

Marlborough Road Methodist Church, St Albans, UK

Brightest Star (2019)

Text: Seán Street | Sir Alexander Coutanche

Unaccompanied SSATB
Duration: 4′
Oxford University Press
Commissioned by IFAC for the 9th International Competition for Young Conductors

organised in collaboration with ECA-EC,

First performance 20 October 2019 in Paris | Le Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris.
Le Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Paris, France

Programme note:

2019 marks the centenary of the remarkable humanitarian aid institution, the Internationl Red Cross. To commemorate the extraordinary achievements of this charity I asked the British poet, Seán Street, to create a poem around a particular set of circumstances in 1944. From June 1940 until liberation in May 1945 the Channel Islands were occupied by German Armed Forces. In August 1944 the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir Alexander Coutanche, asked permission of the German authorities to contact the IRC to beg for help as the islanders were on the brink of starvation. The IRC ship, the Vega (brightest star), came to the Channel Islands after Christmas in 1944, bringing food parcels, medical supplies and so much more. The Vega made six more visits to the Islands before VE Day.

The opening of Brightest Star underlines the bleak conditions on the Islands that year; dissonant harmony, downward sliding phrases. The pace is steady but underscored by a certain urgency, always driving onwards. Extracts from the Bailiff’s letter, sung by the men of the choir, draw attention to the gravity of the situation.  In contrast the upper voices bring an ethereal quality to the texture, one of hope perhaps. Towards the close of this setting the sopranos and altos sing phrases suggestive of the lovely traditional French Christmas carol, Les anges dans nos campagnes, better known in English as Angels from the realms of glory. 

Brightest Star has been commissioned by IFAC for the 9th International Competition for Young Conductors organised in collaboration with the European Choral Association – Europa Cantat and first performed on 20th October 2019 by le Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris.

Brightest Star

Advent in nineteen forty four came cold,
when Coutanche the Bailiff wrote a letter from the dark:
Message to the Protecting Power
Essential drugs now exhausted.
Butter exhausted, soap exhausted.
No gas since September.
Electricity will fail mid-January
Wood inadequate. No matches.

They waited for answers, for the seawash static
broken by song in the deep lake of war.
Then Vega, brightest star in the blackest night
came through tides like a red-winged bird in flight
and with humanity towards peace shone light,
Vega, season’s star, angel in flight,
for what is Christmas without angels in the night?
For what is Epiphany but new hope’s light?

Seán Street

Quotes from Sir Alexander Coutanche, Bailiff of Jersey, and the motto of the International Red Cross

I have done what is mine to do (2006)

Duration: 2′

  • Anthem
  • Text: 13th cent. attrib. St Francis of Assisi (d.1226)
  • SATB – a cappella
  • Gemini Publications
  • First performance 4 October, 2006  |  Choir of Ely Cathedral; conductor, Paul Trepte  |  Ely Cathedral
  • composed for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ordination of The Reverend Canon Dr Peter Sills, Vice-Dean of Ely on St Francis Day.

This anthem was composed for a friend of mine, the Revered Canon Dr Peter Sills, Vice Dean of Ely, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his ordination on St Francis Day, at Ely Cathedral in 2006. The anthem was performed again, by the Choir of Ely Cathedral, conductor Paul Trepte, on 18 February the following year as the introit to for the BBC Choral Evensong service, the first Sunday evensong after the abandonment of the mid-week service on BBC Radio 3. It is essentially a meditative work.