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

Ave maris stella (2001)

Duration: 12′

  • Text: Ave maris stella, Psalm 26/27, Psalm 106/107
  • Soprano solo, mixed chorus, string orchestra
  • Oxford University Press
  • Score cat no NH43
  • Commissioned by The Portsmouth Grammar School
  • First performance 11 November 2001  |  Portsmouth Chamber Choir, London Mozart Players/Nicolae Moldoveanu  |  Portsmouth Anglican Cathedra

Ave Maris Stella was commissioned by Portsmouth Grammar School for the Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir and was first performed by them in Portsmouth Cathedral on 11th November 2001 accompanied by the London Mozart Players under the direction of Nicolae Moldoveanu at Portsmouth Cathedral. Ave maris stella is recorded on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7146.

The text has a special significance for Portsmouth with its great naval heritage; the central section “they that go down to the sea in ships” being particularly poignant as the piece was originally written for performance on Armistice Day.  McDowall, like so many of us, was horrified by the events of 11th September 2001, and with Ave Maris Stella successfully composed a simple peace anthem which cannot fail to touch the hearts of all those who experience it.  The initial inspiration for the work came from a quotation of Woodrow Wilson, whose words appear at the head of the score: “the freedom of the seas is the sine qua non of peace, equality and co-operation”.

Ave Maris Stella, with its modest scoring for soprano solo, mixed chorus and string orchestra consists of seven short sections; the whole piece structured symmetrically around the tempestuous central section.  McDowall’s intelligent use of text helps shape the entire work; the first and final parts using the ancient Latin antiphon Ave Maris Stella, while the more turbulent central section uses words from Psalm 106.  Acting as a sort of musical buffer before and after the central section, there are two hauntingly beautiful recitatives for solo soprano, using the words of Psalm 26, The Lord is my Light.

Ave Maris Stella bears the dedication pro pace and the beautifully tranquil choral and instrumental writing, which pervades the whole work, gives it an almost mystical aura.

© 2011, George Vass

  • Ave maris stella,
  • Dei Mater alma,
  • Atque semper Virgo,
  • Felix caeli porta.
  • Hail, Star of the sea,
  • nourishing mother of God,
  • and ever a virgin,
  • auspicious gate of heaven.
  • Solve vincla reis,
  • Profer lumen caecis
  • Mala nostra pelle,
  • Bona cuncta posce.
  • Release the chains of the guilty,
  • bring light to the blind,
  • take away our sins,
  • For all blessings pray.
  • Dominus illuminatio mea et salutare meum.
  • Dominus fortitudo vitae meae quem formidabo?
  • The Lord is my light, and my salvation.
  • The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? (Psalm 26/27)
  • Qui descendunt in mare navibus facientes opus in aquis multis
  • Ipsi viderunt opera Domini et mirabilia eius in profundo
  • Dixit et surrexit ventus tempestatis
  • Ascendunt in caelum et descendunt in abyssos
  • Clamabunt autem ad Dominum in tribulatione sua et de angustia educet eos
  • Statuet turbinem in tranquillitatem. (Psalm 106/107, King James Version)
  • They that go down to the sea in ships: and occupy their business in great waters;
  • These men see the works of the Lord: and his wonders in the deep.
  • For at his word the stormy wind ariseth.
  • They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep.
  • So when they cry out unto the Lord in their trouble: he delivereth them out of their distress.
  • For he maketh the storm to cease.
  • (The Book of Common Prayer)
  • Dominus illuminatio mea et salutare meum
  • The Lord is my light and my salvation.
  • Vitam praesta puram,
  • Iter para tutum:
  • Ut videntes Jesum,
  • Semper collaetemur.
  • Display a pure life,
  • prepare your way
  • till we find Jesus,
  • Joy for evermore.
  • Sit laus Deo Patri,
  • Summo Christo decus,
  • Spiritui Sancto,
  • Tribus honor unus.
  • Praise to God the Father,
  • glory to Christ the great,
  • the Holy Spirit,
  • One honour in three.
  • (Ave Maris Stella)