Lo! He slumbers in his manger (2019)

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

Bless to me this day (2018)

SA (with divisions) and piano or organ
Text: ‘The Journey Prayer’ from the Celtic compendium Carmina Gadelica
Duration: 4′
Oxford University Press
Commissioned by the BBC for the Scunthorpe Co-operative Choir, Sue Hollingworth, conductor

The sense of prescient optimism is captured in the flowing piano part, while the simplicity of the vocal lines enables the text to be imparted with warmth and sincerity.

Programme note

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Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo (2018)

Upper Voices, SATB and optional solos from the choir; violin solo and piano accompaniment
Also an upper voice version
Duration: 18′
Oxford University Press
Commissioned by The National Children’s Choir of Great Britain
First performance 10 August, 2018 | NCCGB | Harriet Mackenzie, violin | Claire Dunham, piano | Dan Ludford-Thomas, conductor | Birmingham Town Hall, UK

Programme note:

Commissioned by The National Children’s Choir of Great Britain on its 20th Anniversary and first performed by the Choirs in Birmingham Town Hall on 10 August, 2018, Harriet Mackenzie, violin, Claire Dunham, piano, conducted by Dan Ludford-Thomas.

Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo tells the extraordinary story of Nujeen Mustafa, a Kurdish teenager with cerebral palsy forced by war to flee her home and embark on an arduous journey to Europe with her sister. In this five-movement cantata Nujeen’s story – recounted in her biography ‘The Girl from Aleppo’ (co-authored by Christina Lamb) – is retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland and richly scored by Cecilia McDowall. A wealth of musical effects are employed to capture the narrative, including chorales, rhythmic spoken sections, body percussion, and a solo violin part infused with Middle Eastern flavours. The prevailing mood of Nujeen’s story is embodied by the final line of a chorale that bookends this unique concert work: ‘singing the song of life itself.’

‘Cecilia McDowall has won a reputation as a leading composer of choral music and her extensive catalogue contains many distinguished examples.  The emotional heft of this story has clearly inspired her to produce one of her most striking scores for the medium.’

‘McDowall has long had a special gift for choral writing, and here she resourcefully combines upper voices with an SATB chorus . . . in settings of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s text narrating the journey of two sisters (one pushing the other in a wheelchair) across the miles from Syria to asylum in Germany . . . The music bursts with compassion.’

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Candlemas (2014)

Anthem (suitable for Candlemas and times of light)
Text: Denise Levertov/Nunc Dimittis – in English
SATB and organ
Duration: 4′
Oxford University Press
Commissioned by Oakham School, Rutland, UK
First performance 3 February, 2013 | The Oakham Chapel Choir, Peter Davis, conductor

McDowall’s Candlemas is a celebratory and powerful piece. Making use of choral divisions and suspensions and a dynamic organ part, this setting of Denise Levertov’s text (on the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple) is reverent, yet joyous, and is ideal for a liturgical setting.

Programme note

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