A ‘fancy’ of four folk songs are brought together in joyful celebration of youthful love and courtship. They are scored for mixed voices and harp and have been specially written for the Canterbury Chamber Choir. Green Bushes, for all voices, tells of a lady who waits for her lover, but not for long because she has another offer from a young man walking by. The lover arrives – too late.
The Rambling Sailor, a swaggering song in five time, is sung by the men of the choir. With bravado the sailor recounts how he is giving up his sea travels in favour of a more pleasing pastime, the pursuit of young ladies. He has permission from the King, so that’s alright then.
The Crystal Spring, for female voices, opens with soprano solo. A young man asks his lady if she could ‘fancy’ him and he assures her that he can provide her with everything she desires. Can she believe him? This leads straight into the final song, O, No John, for all voices. The trick here is for the young man to elicit the answer he requires from a young lady, whose ‘father always bid me answer ‘No’. It takes a few verses for him to work out how to word his proposal of marriage to achieve this. A negatively positive ending.
A Fancy of Folksongs
The Rambling Sailor
The Crystal Spring
O No, John!
Duration: 15′ For the text please contact Cecilia McDowall
Just over ten years ago I wrote a Christmas cantata called, Christus natus est, in which I made use of one of my own original Christmas carols, Of a Rose, to make instrumental links between five traditional carols, re-conceiving the harmony of them all. I love Christmas and have a great fondness for many of the carols associated with such a special time of year so I was delighted to be commissioned by the Worthing Choral Society to write a new cantata, A Winter’s Night, for mixed chorus, brass quintet, percussion and organ.
Selecting carols is half the fun and I have chosen a mixture of English, German and French carols, some of my very favourite. As the commission came from a Sussex town it seemed appropriate to include a carol from this part of the world, the Sussex Carol. Ralph Vaughan Williams noted down the tune in 1919 in Horsham, Sussex, hence the name.
The cantata is structured in an arc; jubilant carols at the opening and close of the work with a spirited carol at its heart and in between, carols of a more gentle, contemplative nature. The work unfolds without a break. An instrumental prelude opens A Winter’s Night with medieval intimations which underlie the three fast-moving carols. Each verse of the joyous In Dulci Jubilo is scored slightly differently for voices and accompaniment and the familiar tune is given an overlapping or echoing effect, perhaps suggesting bells ringing out.
The second movement, O little one sweet, is an arrangement of a 17th-century German melody, the best known arrangement being by J S Bach, and before him, a simpler setting by Samuel Scheidt. In the third verse the sopranos and altos weave a descant across the melody sung by the men of the choir.
This is followed by a rhythmic and energetic treatment of the traditional French melody Noël Nouvelet, written around the same time as the famous ‘Agincourt Song’ of 1415. Any allusions to the latter are not coincidental. In its original form Noël Nouvelet is rather ‘march-like’ but I have given each phrase a little rhythmic twist, something unexpected.
The title of the cantata comes from the next carol, Still, still, still. In 2013 I worked with the American poet, Angier Brock, on a carol she had commissioned for her close friend’s 70th birthday, Advent Moon. Afterwards I asked Angier if she would make a re-working of the translation of this simple but charming 19th-century Austrian carol; this is her opening line, Still, still, still, the winter’s night is still.
The instrumental material from the start of the work returns to introduce the final carol, the Sussex Carol, this time at a faster pace. The descant of In Dulci Jubilo makes a final appearance in the last verse, bringing the beginning and the end of the cantata together in joyful exultation. © 2015, Cecilia McDowall
The first performance of A Winter’s Night was given by the Worthing Choral Society, conductor Aedan Kerney, on 15 November, 2014. A few weeks later, on 5 December, A Winter’s Night received its US premiere given by the Washington D.C. choir, Choralis, with the Classical Brass Quintet, conductor Gretchen Kuhrmann. With grateful thanks to the Worthing Choral Society and the RVW Trust for their generous funding and support of A Winter’s Night
Ad Lucem: A Canticle of Light is a setting of words taken from religious texts, poets and philosphers and scored for soprano solo, mixed voices and string orchestra. The work, commissioned by Alan McGlynn, is dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Mary Josephine Blackburn, a member of St Albans Choral Society. Both she and her husband, Alan, have been strong supporters of Amnesty International. The first performance of Ad Lucem: A Canticle of Light was given by Rebecca Rudge (soprano), St Albans Choral Society and Orchestra Nova, conducted by George Vass, at St Saviour’s Church, St Albans, Hertfordshire, 24 October 2009. The work was subsequently performed by Rebecca Rudge (soprano solo), St Albans Choral Society, accompanied by Richard Harvey (organ), conducted by George Vass, at Brecon Cathedral and St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, Wales, on 30th and 31st October, 2009.
‘We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, as I trust shall never be put out.’ (Bishop Hugh Latimer; Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perilous Days, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563)
‘From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all,'(Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882)
‘Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.’ (Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C)
‘His light is like a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp encased in glass, the glass a glistening star. It is light upon light. Nurun ala Nur. (Qur’an, Sura 24.35; translated from the Arabic by the Rev. J.M.Rodwell 1909)
‘Light is the symbol of truth.’ (James Russell Lowell 1819-1891, American poet and critic)
‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.’ (The Third Collect, for aid against all perils – Evening Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer)
Advent Moon by Angier Brock
Annunciation was commissioned by Choros and Janet Lince. The first performance was given on 4 December 2005 at St Peter and St Paul Church, Deddington, North Oxfordshire by Choros, conducted by Janet Lince.
Annunciation (from Holy Sonnets)
Light of light, you have flooded every age with golden light and rosy splendour, adorning the heavens with glorious martyrdom, on this sacred day, which pardons sinners.
The Ave Maria, written for upper voices, is one of a triptych of Marian motets, the others being Ave Regina and Regina Caeli. It is the most intimate in expression of the three and features ‘a pair of laddering motifs, the one rising in close harmony quavers, the other cascading down in chains of suspensions.’
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 Regina, a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary, is the first of a group of three Latin motets (Ave Maria and Regina Caeli) all specially commissioned for the Canterbury Chamber Choir by Janet and Douglas Mackay in memory of their parents. It is a gentle and lyrical response to the “Queen of the Heavens, from whom the light came into the world”. Ave Regina is one of 44 anthems included in the Choirbook for the Queen, commissioned by Prince Charles for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
A Carol To Be Sung At the Dark Time of the Year
Cantate, Astra is part of a long and fruitful collaboration between Cecilia McDowall and the novelist and poet, Christie Dickason. Their work together ranges from carols and other songs, via cantatas – including Five Seasons, to opera, all widely performed and recorded.
Cantate, Astra evokes the spareness of medieval texture, responding to the elegant clarity of the lyric with its Latin refrain and the word ‘hope’ repeated in seven different languages from around the world.
This carol for mixed voices and organ is a setting of a poem by G. K. Chesterton. I felt the gentle but intense words suggested a steady, focused response. Each verse opens with a repeated note which subsequently expands harmonically, gradually unfolding in all voices, then slowly retracts to a single note. The first performance of this carol was given in the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, December 1996, conducted by Philip Berg. Cecilia McDowall
The cantata, Christus natus est, written for mixed chorus, soprano solo and children’s choir, presents a sequence of five Christmas carols, all celebrating the birth of Christ. The carols, some familiar, others not, suggest different atmospheres ranging from tenderness to exaltation. McDowall has made use of one of her own original Christmas carols, Of a Rose, to make instrumental links between the five traditional carols and she has re-conceived the harmony of them all.
After the jubilant introduction, the choir sings the Latin carol, Personent Hodie, which tells us that, ‘On this day angel’s sing, praising Christ who was born to save us.’ Following on, the soprano soloist introduces an old French carol, Entre le boeuf, a gentle lullaby to Jesus. ‘Between the ox and the ass Jesus sleeps, and a thousand angels keep watch over him.’ The next carol, Gaudete!, brings an earthy quality to the cantata. Steeleye Span, with its local St Albans connection, (where the cantata was first performed), has made this unusual carol familiar. Gaudete! Christus est natus, ‘Rejoice! Christ is born!’ The harmony, here, brings a medieval spareness to the carol.
This is followed by the traditional Polish carol, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, sung, in English, by the children’s choir, another gentle lullaby, encouraging the baby to sleep, surrounded by cattle and hosts of angels. The final, 13th century, carol, Angelus ad virginem, acts as a summary to the whole cantata by re-telling the Christmas story. The cantata’s introductory hymn, Personent Hodie, makes another appearance in the final verse as a descant sung by the soprano semi-chorus, and the cantata is then brought to a close with the words, Christus natus est.
© 2011, George Vass
The premiere of Christus natus est was given on 8th December 2002, at the Alban Arena, Civic Centre, St Albans, by Abigail Smith, soprano, St Albans Choral Society, St Hilda’s School Choir, Harpenden and Orchestra Nova Brass under the direction of George Vass. Christus Natus Est is available on CDLX 7146 (Dutton Epoch). For the text: please contact – Cecilia McDowall
A light hearted, anti-pastoral song about the seasons, with words by the novelist and poet, Christie Dickason. City Almanac was commissioned by South Hampstead High School for the Chorale, conductor, Diana Kiverstein. It was first performed on 6 July, 2006 at Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod on Junior Choirs Competition Day.
The a cappella anthem, Deus, portus pacis (God, the port of peace), commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund in the name of Sir Thomas Armstrong for the 2009 Festival of St Cecilia Service, is a setting of a medieval poem by the Augustinian canon of Oseney, John Walton, who created it from a translation he made of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae. At first reading the beautiful lyric seemed to possess a curious blend of present day English with a hint of the medieval about it; the product of multiple revisions over the years. With the help of the Middle English specialist, Dr Rosemary Greentree, the poem has now been restored, as far as possible, to a more ‘authentic’ state. By taking the title, God, the port of peace, and using it in its Latin form, I hoped that the interpolation of the words, Deus, portus pacis, in medieval macaronic fashion, would bring repose. The encouraging and uplifting nature of the resultant text, reassuring in these difficult times, suggested to me arched, melismatic phrases to fill the generous acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral. The anthem was first performed by the combined choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey under the direction of Andrew Carwood.
Deus, pacis portus
Duration: 7′ 20″
The Vesper hymn, Deus, qui claro lumine, is by turns contemplative and ecstatic. The beginning unfolds around a single note, extending upwards to the high solo soprano entry. The fading light of day is suggested by the downward shift of tonality and the work closes with the gradual descent of the soprano solo over the gently repeated Amens.
Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir with musicians from Kokoro, contemporary music ensemble of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Our brief was simply a “Celebration of the Organic Landscape”. But how do you go about writing a piece about “organic landscape”. There were no other prescriptions or rules, for either us or the farmers we visited on five residencies in May and June this year. “Is this what you want?” they asked. “Is this it?” All we could say was “YES! Everything is still possible. Everything is vital.” Our five, very different, research visits became a long, slow unfolding of generously given riches. We filled notebooks and cameras, and kept a joint journal. Our challenge: how to boil it all down into twenty minutes.
Before starting, we had thought we might have five movements, one for each farm, progressing through the arc of the seasons. Very soon, we found certain common concerns cropping up, regardless of the size and location of the farm. Our structure began to take early shape around these shared themes one afternoon as we sat in the warm afternoon sun beside Crab Tree Pool in Cumbria.
Though the two of us have worked together many times, the special collaborative nature of this project was unique. The farmers, with their huge early input, became part of the creative team. They gave us the crucial detail we needed to avoid a general response and to let their voices come through. The collaboration then continued with a rare chance for us to explore material at an early stage in a joint workshop with the Choir.
Cecilia and Christie
So much is now involved in managing the land organically -simple joy, philosophical principles, politics and funding, financial struggle, agricultural practice, education, conservation and preservation. The power of natural beauty still underpins our relationship to the landscape, but a mere lyrical celebration of beauty, tempting though it is, avoids urgent issues facing the organic movement. After visiting the five farms and hearing what the farmers had to say about the many issues, we finally settled, with great difficulty, on just a few themes which we nested within the framework of the dominating seasonal arc of the organic year. Our five seasonscorrespond roughly to spring, summer, autumn and winter, but with a centrally placed fifth season of the heart.
I The Shimmer
CD: Early spring. The most conventionally lyrical of the five movements, this first section shows the world at its natural best. The Shimmer is the reality we are struggling to preserve. Spring here is “another chance to get it right”, but that second chance is really for us.
CM: We found that the haunting, desolate cry of the curlew recurred on different farms and it was tempting to imagine the call being gently suggested by a distant oboe solo – a musical starting point. The curlew’s song opens the work and the voices emerge slowly, building to “Again, here’s light!” As with the spring, one stage of the movement unfolds from, and into, another. We both wanted to avoid the “pastoral.” For me, that meant making use of the bare fourths and fifths of the early music tradition, a style that combines a spare quality with the ecstatic.
II Grading Eggs
CD: The early summer scramble to keep up with work. We heard it everywhere “NOT ENOUGH TIME!” People spoke of the “rush” or the “surge” From a huge range of tasks, we chose grading eggs as our starting point after we were lucky enough to help prepare an order for seven hundred organic eggs. Our muscles began to understand as well as our heads.
CM: Christie gave me a vigorous and structured list of “tasks”to set, from which I made a musical scrambled egg. I wanted the pulse of the movement to urge the words relentlessly onwards. Moments of significance, such as a “small death”(of chick) or “pause to teach”, cut across the breathless “to do” list. Time waits, then mechanical clatter returns. “Small, medium, large”, in any order, define the path through chaos, until overtaken by “no time to do it all!”
III Grace Before Meat (Introit) The Darkening (Dies Irae)
CD: These two linked pieces are our fifth season, la saison en enfer or season in hell. At opposite poles from each other, they show the two extremes of man’s relationship with the land and animals in his care, at any time of the year. Grace Before Meat speaks for the mindful heart that strives to act with love and responsibility, but without sentimentality, when dealing with the paradox of both caring and killing. The Darkening cries out against our past lack of mindfulness. “Darkening” a Cumbrian word for “dusk” is extended here to include an underlying darkness that came up in conversation at most of the farms. Though this section uses images from the hoof-and-mouth epidemic, it opens out to suggest all hidden consequences of man’s mismanagement where gain has been put ahead of long-term concern for consequences and the present has been severed from the past.
CM: One of the special experiences of our farm visits was singing together with many of our hosts. Music was important to them all. I encountered for the first time, at Low Luckens Farm in Cumbria, Shape note music. Simple and unaffected, this style of singing gave heart to Grace Before Meat. It was an interesting challenge to write the Dies Irae for a small ensemble (without brass and percussion) and still to bring the urgency and intensity of the text into focus. The importance of the words is paramount. The Darkening closes with a recall of the song of the curlew, this time played by the darker-hued cor anglais, leading into . . .
IV Sheep in the Mist
CD: Autumn, and a gentle reply to the despair of The Darkening. In the falling energy of autumn, grazing sheep become an oblique poetic expression of continuity and respect for the past. A still beauty balances the relentless work pressure, offering a respite for the soul that seemed central to life on all five farms.
CM: “The tying thread as yet unspun” of the sheep that “graze forward” gives an underlying structure to Sheep in the Mist. The repeated note D, as a harp harmonic, threads its fragile course through the central section, returning once more at the end of the movement before disappearing into the misty ether.
V Dance for the Feast of Everything That Grows
CD: Winter. The title is from a Nepali festival, The Feast of Everything That Grows, when the Nepalese kill nothing, pick nothing, harvest nothing.It is an amnesty of respect for every living thing. Winter is a time to plan, to mend, and “to have time to talk.” And it is a time for communal celebration. Before starting, we had not guessed how much music we would find at the hearts at the farms we visited. We had to include a communal song! Dance for the Feast ends the cantata with a celebration of the tightrope act of sustaining the earth’S riches that gave us so much joy while working on the piece. Everyone we met was dancing “the Balancing Dance”.
CM: Scotland has always been associated in my mind with the vitality of the dance and the power of the song and in Dance for the Feast the Scottish folk tradition informs both the words and the music. In fact, the words just danced themselves a rhythm for me – all I had to do was find the right notes. After the distant stillness of Sheep in the Mist a slow elaborate oboe solo (bagpipes?) embellishes a line around a drone and then unfolds into a tightly rhythmic introduction to the verse, “Take the children to high places that teach you how to dance,” (sung by the women of the choir.) The subsequent verses and chorus, each with a little difference, steer a steady course to a full and exuberant conclusion. Hope, mindfulness and joy are brought together to celebrate what we have now and what we hope our children will have for their future.
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.
I know that my Redeemer liveth was written at the suggestion of Robin Kimber, conductor of Epsom Choral Society, to be perfomed with Brahms’ A German Requiem and is a setting of the words used by Handel in Messiah; 2009, the year of the commission, was the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death.
The Requiem was probably not conceived as a liturgical work and Brahms avoided any reference to Christ or life after death. However, the first performance of six movements was given in 1868 in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday and in order to compensate for the absence of texts associated with Christ, the music director, Karl Reinthaler, interpolated Handel’s aria, I know that my Redeemer liveth, into the Requiem.
This new setting of I know that my Redeemer liveth has been scored for unaccompanied mixed voices and I have added an optional accompaniment for piano which can be used if performed with the piano duet version of Brahms’ Requiem.
I know that my Redeemer liveth was commissioned by the Epsom Choral Society and first performed on 21st March 2009 at St Martin’s Parish Church, Epsom, Surrey, conductor Robin Kimber.
Laudate is a three movement setting of the Latin Psalm 112 (from the Clementine Vulgate Bible) for mezzo-soprano solo, SATB chorus and chamber orchestra and is the second commission from the St Albans Choral Society (the first being the Stabat Mater which was recorded in 2007 and released on the Dutton Epoch label (CDLX 7197).
A fanfare of trumpets ushers in the opening movement, leading to the gentle entry of the chorus with the words, Laudate, pueri, Dominum(Praise the Lord, ye servants). The mezzo-soprano solo enters over pulsating strings with pizzicato bass line. This is followed by an exchange of dialogue between soloist and chorus, coming to a climax together, Laudabile nomen Domini (Blessed be the name of the Lord). An instrumental section continues and moves towards the final section where chorus and soloist imitate and overlap, concluding with a final flourish of trumpets.
The second movement, for mezzo-soprano soloist, Excelsus super gentes omnes Dominus (The Lord is high above all heathen) brings a mood of simplicity and quiet joy to the work.
In the final movement, Suscitans a terra inopem (He that taketh up the simple out of the dust) a feeling of optimism is established. The soloist takes the verse and the chorus answers in joyful reply and the work closes with the affirmative cry, Lauda! (Praise!)
Laudate was commissioned by St Albans Choral Society with financial support from the Williams Church Music Trust.
Light Eternal brings together the liturgical text for Remembrance, Lux Aeterna, and the evocative poetry of Denise Levertov. Commissioned as part of a trilogy suitable for significant occasions during the church calendar year by Oakham School, Light Eternal has a haunting and exotic quality, the music beautifully illustrating the sense of the texts. The anthem was first performed on Armistice Day 2012 by the Oakham Chapel School Choir and conducted by Peter Davis. Suitable for Remembrance and other occasions of solemn commemoration.
Lonely Hearts is a setting of three poems by the novelist, Christie Dickason, each offering a different view of being alone. The first song, Autumn Migration, describes the flight of a flock of birds across the sky pursued by a ‘single late flyer’ stitching ‘together earth and sky’. The second song, Night Garden, beautiful and atmospheric, evokes the delicate fragrance of a still, summer’s evening in which ‘lives too small to risk the light’ bravely begin to stir. The final, witty song, Would like to meet, presents a ‘Lonely Hearts’ column, with a difference.
The Magnificat was a centenary commission from Finchley Choral Society and was first performed by them, accompanied by Orchestra Nova, on 15 November 2003 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London.
Scored for soprano and mezzo soprano soloists, mixed chorus and a chamber orchestra of oboe, cor anglais, bassoon and strings, the Magnificat is cast in six contrasting movements. The work opens with a slow orchestral introduction and leads to a faster-paced choral setting of the Magnificat. The central section of this movement, Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae, is poignant in character. The soprano solo, Ecce enim, with its filigree woodwind writing, brings a bright gracefulness to the next movement and is followed by a gently flowing, contemplative chorus, Quia fecit mihi magna, with sustained overlapping vocal and orchestral lines. Et misericordia, a solo for mezzo soprano, is also slow and reflective and has a prominent bassoon part using the highest register of the instrument, while the duet for soprano and mezzo soprano, Fecit potentiam, develops from a fanfare-like opening. The finale, Deposuit potentes, which follows on immediately, returns to the music of the opening chorus and, with an expansive coda, brings the work to a triumphant close.
In 2006 Michael Lock contacted me to ask if I would write a carol for the Concord Singers for performance the following year which, of course, I was delighted to do. I chose the text of the 15th Century carol, Now may we singen, and set it in a linear style, spare in texture, to resonate with the words. The carol was first performed at the Corn Exchange, Bedford, December 2007, conducted by Mary Lock. Now may we singen is written in memory of Michael Lock.
On Angel’s Wing was commissioned by Janet Lincé and the Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir, and is dedicated to the memory of the young composer Tim Stevenson. The cantata is a setting of John Clare’s poem Love lies beyond the tomb, interspersed with plainchant taken from the Vatican Prefaces. On Angel’s Wing is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus and unison children’s choir, accompanied by solo piano and a single percussionist.
The first performance of the original version was given on Sunday 28th June 1998 by Alison Mary Sutton, Quentin Hayes and the Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir conducted by Janet Lincé.
The premiere of the revised version was given on Sunday 14th July 2002, with Bonita Hammond (soprano) Julian Hubbard (baritone) The City of Canterbury Chamber Choir, Kent County Junior Singers, Gretel Dowdeswell (piano) and Christopher Brannick (percussion) conducted by George Vass.
This hymn to the ‘Queen of the Heavens’ is a glorious work, replete with dramatic changes of mood and texture. The majestic chords of the opening bars quickly give way to a spirited section in which unison altos and basses mimic the insistent flourishes of the sopranos and tenors. This pattern of contrasts is repeated throughout the piece before the final jubilant chords fade away to a modest triple piano.
Shipping Forecast was commissioned by the Portsmouth Festival Choir in celebration of its 40th anniversary and first performed by the choir, conducted by Andrew Cleary with organist Mark Dancer, on 18 June 2011 at the Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral.
All three movements are to do with the sea:
1. Donegal | 2. They that go down to the sea | 3. Naming.
The first and last movement are settings of poems by the poet, broadcaster and academic, Seán Street, a collaboration with whom seemed tellingly apposite as Seán’s home town is Portsmouth and his father, a Naval Officer. In Donegal Seán uses snatches of the shipping forecast itself (spoken here) weaving them almost dreamlike into the atmospheric texture of the poem.
The second movement is a setting of the Psalm 107: 23-26 | 28-29: They that go down to the sea in ships. This is a setting with the feel, perhaps, of a Celtic lullaby which moves from a simple statement to a centre of turmoil then back to overlapping phrases, melting into tranquillity with the words, For he maketh the storm to cease so that the waves thereof are still. The text is often read to those about to set sail, a time of uncertainty, and so I have grounded the whole movement over a pianissimo pedal G, a kind of harmonic anchor, a note of reassurance.
The final movement, Naming, comes from another set of poems by Seán Street based on a different forecast, The Fisheries Broadcast, known simply by Newfoundlanders as The Broadcast. Naming is the second of a collection of poems called The Broadcast in which Seán has expanded the idea into ‘a meditation on the fortunes of the sea as reflected in other names, gathered from coastal maps of Newfoundland’. Belle Isle, Come-by-Chance, Cabot Strait . . . Every name’s a story until new stories come where men after men die fighting the sea for a harbour. Energetic, in perpetual motion and rhythmic, Naming drives the whole work to an upbeat finish.
© 2011, Cecilia McDowall
Seán Street’s poem, Shipping Forecast, Donegal, was originally part of a sequence of poems written for Radio 4 on National Poetry Day in 1998, Radio – 10 Poems About Sound, in which the radio is a character in all the poems.
For baritone solo, youth choir, mixed chorus and small orchestra
Stabat Mater was commissioned by St Albans Choral Society to celebrate their Diamond Jubilee, with the financial support from the Williams School of Church Music and donations from individual members of the choir.
The premiere of Stabat Mater was given on 23 October 2004 at St Paul’s Church, St Albans by Michael Bundy (baritone), Parmiter’s Senior Singers (youth choir), St Albans Choral Society and Orchestra Nova conducted by George Vass.
With grateful thanks to the following for their generous contributions towards the commissioning of Stabat Mater:
Stabat Mater Programme Note
The words of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa have been variously attributed to Pope Gregory I, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Innocent III, St Bonaventure, Pope John XXII, Pope Gregory XI and the medieval religious poet, Jacopone da Todi. Of these ascriptions, scholars believe the only probable authors are Jacopone da Todi and Pope Innocent III.
This lyrical Thirteenth Century hymn is a meditation on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary as she stands by the Cross and is the liturgical sequence for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary (15 September and the Friday before Palm Sunday). Stabat Mater Dolorosa was admitted as a liturgical sequence in 1727 and though it is now no longer used on the Friday before Palm Sunday and is optional on 15 September it is still used in non-liturgical Lenten services.
When I began setting the Stabat Mater Dolorosa I was astonished to find how many variants there were of the text. As I examined the settings by Haydn, Dvorak, Rossini, Szymanowski and Poulenc, I found that each had his own idiosyncratic textual variation. I have used twelve of the fourteen verses of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa from the Liber Usualis. The two exceptions occur in the closing passages of the sequence; these alternative verses are Inflammatus et accensus (When I am consumed with flames) and Fac me cruce custodiri (Let me be guarded by the cross). The reason for this is purely to do with enunciation: I chose these words feeling they would better suit the opening mood of the final movement of this work.
I have structured these beautiful and acutely poignant words into seven movements, feeling that the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary suggested a natural shape to the work. The overall form of the Stabat Mater is symmetrical, flanked with choruses at either end, which encompass two chorales, two baritone solos, and a central movement for children’s choir or semi chorus.
The work commences with a solemn and, at times, impassioned chorus, Stabat Mater dolorosa (The Mother of sorrows stood in tears beside the cross) which centres, at the outset, around the tonality of D minor and, after passing through other tonal areas, finishes a semitone below. This is followed by the first of the two contemplative chorales, Quis est homo qui non fleret (What man would not weep). Both chorales use the Stabat Mater Dolorosa plainchant.
The baritone solo, brings a sharp edge to the verse, Pro peccatis suae gentis (For the sins of his people); the tight dotted rhythms underline the anguish and the torment while the lyrical middle section gives a plaintive desolation to the words Dum emisit spiritum (As He yielded up His spirit).
The central movement Eia Mater (O Mother, fount of love) for children’s choir is, for the first time, in a clear major tonality, bringing a mood of optimism to the work. It is gentle and lyrical with a contrasting darker section before returning to the brighter opening material.
The second baritone solo, Sancta Mater (Holy Mother) is supported by the sinuous obbligato of the clarinet in a tender entreaty to share the burden of suffering. This is followed by the second chorale, Virgo virginum praeclara (O Virgin, peerless among virgins).
The final movement for chorus, Inflammatus et accensus (When I am consumed with flames), opens emphatically at a fast pace and gradually and gently unfolds into the closing section, Quando corpus morietur (When my soul dies) in which all voices are brought together. Here the stately choral interjections are woven around the baritone solo and the children’s voices, singing the plainchant, Paradisi gloria (the glory of heaven). As their voices fade the phrase becomes a distant echo on high muted horn.
The Stabat Mater was commissioned by St Albans Choral Society in celebration of their Diamond Jubilee, and bears the inscription ‘in memory of Father Michael Prior’, a distinguished friend of the composer who worked vigorously for the Palestinian cause and died suddenly during the composition of the work. The commission was supported with funds from the Williams School of Church Music and individual members of the choir.
The Christmas carol, The Angels for the Nativity, was commissioned by the Addison Singers as part of the ‘Anniversary Commission’ in celebration of David Wordsworth’s ten years as the choir’s Musical Director. The carol has been generously funded by donations from The Robert Kiln Charitable Trust, The Kenneth Leighton Trust, The Addison Singers and Friends. The Angels for the Nativity is a setting of a poem by the 17th century Scottish lawyer and poet, William Drummond, who ‘devoted his life to poetry and mechanical experiments’. The setting of the Angels’ message is in a gentle triple meter, rather like a menuet, and the opening and closing organ phrases suggest the arrival and departure of the angelic host.
The Angels for the Nativity (William Drummond)
This work is a setting of two verses taken from the poem ‘Wonder’ by the Hereford-born, metaphysical poet, Thomas Traherne. Traherne’s works were not discovered (and indeed little known of the poet himself) until the late nineteenth century and were first published as Poemsin 1903. Subsequently, he has become highly acknowledged as a very fine poet and theologian and by 1939 Gerald Finzi had completed Dies Natalis, a setting of five of Traherne’s texts.
Written for double choir, The skies in their magnificence opens with the two antiphonal soprano lines intertwining above a full chorus. The luminous, or even numinous, words inspire a slow, stately and full textured progress in which the work unfolds gently to an ecstatic climax.
The skies in their magnificence was commissioned by the English Music Festival and premiered by The London Chorus, conductor Ronald Corp, at Dorchester Abbey in the final concert of the Festival on 27 May at Dorchester Abbey, 2008. Duration: 5′
from Wonder | Thomas Traherne (1637-1674
Each of the chosen texts for these Three Latin Motets for unaccompanied SSATB choir is addressed to the Virgin Mary; the first, Ave Regina, for full choir, is a serenely expressive response to the ‘Queen of the Heavens’, ‘from whom the light came into the world.’ The tranquil and distinctive opening phrase is alluded to in passages of greater intensity, and its final partial restatement lingers on after the voices have died away.
The more intimate Ave Maria is written for upper voices; this gentle supplication to the Virgin grows from its plainchant-like opening, embracing expressive dissonances and suspensions in a setting of great purity and directness.
Regina Caeli is more spirited, with dramatic changes of mood and texture. In this hymn to the ‘Queen of the Heavens’, each Alleluia points up the linear setting of the verses, which traces the plainchant of the Regina caeli. The composer’s keen sensitivity to the text is much in evidence in all three motets, which were commissioned by Janet and Douglas Mackay and first performed in April 2004 at St Mary of Charity, Faversham, Kent, by the Canterbury Chamber Choir conducted by George Vass.
Thy voice, o Harmony, is divine was commissioned by Magdalen College School to celebrate the Bicentenary of Haydn’s death and the composer’s association with Oxford. It was first performed on 1 July 2009 by the Oxford Sixth Choir, conductor Jon Cullen, in the Sheldonian Theatre Oxford as part of the MCS Arts Festival.
Also performed at the same concert were works by Handel and Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass) by the Hanover Band, conductor Paul Brough.
The London premiere was given by the Esterhazy Singers, conductor Esther Jones, on 4 November 2009 at St Giles Cripplegate, Barbican, London.
This work is inspired by a little piece written by Haydn for the award ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre at which he received his honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Haydn’s Canzone à tre was composed as a round in a clever setting of the words, Thy voice, o Harmony, is divine, which could be turned upside down and sung backwards, simultaneously. The words are attributed to the Haydn.
The phrase shapes of this motet, Thy voice, o Harmony, is divine, derive in some way from Haydn’s Canzone, unfolding and overlapping between the voices. The central section presents a homophonic reference to the Haydn’s round with text and notes set in palindromic fashion. The conclusion of the motet dissolves into repeated, lingering phrases which melt into the air. The text is taken from the Haydn Canzone.