Christmas Eve at Sea

Duration: 6′

  • Text: John Masefield
  • Tenor or baritone and piano
  • Commissioned by Jane Wickenden
  • First performance 23 December, 2006  |  Richard Latham (baritone) and Victoria Savage (piano)  |  Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London
  • Written for the occasion of her husband Robin’s 50th birthday.

Christmas Eve at Sea was commissioned by Jane Wickenden for the occasion of her husband’s 50th birthday. It was first performed by Richard Latham, baritone, and Victoria Savage, piano, at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London on 23 December, 2006.

Jane asked me if I would write a song for her husband’s 50th birthday which falls on Christmas Eve. She suggested the poem Christmas Eve at Sea by John Masefield and it couldn’t be a better poem to set for Robin who is in the Royal Naval Reserve. It was not a poem I knew but I felt there was something really quite beautiful in the ghostliness of it, with its eerily swaying imagery and starry, moonlit sky; an unusual and intense welcoming in of Christmas Day. Subsequently Christmas Eve at Sea performed as a tenor song by James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbury (piano)at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, on 12 February, 2011.

  • Christmas Eve at Sea
  • A wind is rustling, south and soft,
  • Cooing a quiet country tune.
  • The calm sea sighs, and far aloft
  • The sails are ghostly in the moon.
  • Unquiet ripples lisp and purr,
  • A block there pipes and chirps i’ the sheave,
  • The wheel-ropes jar, the reef-points stir
  • Faintly and it is Christmas Eve.
  • The hushed sea seems to hold her breath,
  • And o’er the giddy, swaying spars,
  • Silent and excellent as Death,
  • The dim blue skies are bright with stars.
  • Dear God – they shone in Palestine
  • Like this, and yon pale moon serene
  • Looked down among the lowing kine
  • On Mary and the Nazarene.
  • The angels called from deep to deep,
  • The burning heavens felt the thrill,
  • Startling the flocks of silly sheep
  • And lonely shepherds on the hill.
  • Tonight beneath the dripping bows
  • Where flashing bubbles burst and throng,
  • The bow-wash murmurs and sighs and soughs
  • A message from the angels’ song.
  • The moon goes nodding down the west,
  • The drowsy helmsman strikes the bell;
  • Rex Judaorum natus est,
  • I charge you, brothers, sing Nowell, Nowell,
  • Rex Judaorum natus est

John Masefield

Four Shakespeare Songs

Duration: 10′

  • Text: Shakespeare
  • Soprano and piano
  • Duration: 10 minutes
  • 1: What ’tis to Love  |  2: Give me my robe  |  3: How should I my true love know  |  4: First rehearse your song by rote Friedrich Hofmeister
  • First performance 1992  |  Gillian Humphreys (s)  |  Courtney Kenny (pft)  |  Southwark Cathedral, London
  • (From SHE CD 9627)
  • For soprano and piano
  • 1: What ’tis to love  |  2: Give me my robe  |  3: How should I your true love know?  |  4: First rehearse

The music of Four Shakespeare Songs reflects some very different aspects of love. The first, What ’tis to love, gives a gentle affirmation of it, using text from the closing scenes of As You Like It in an exchange between Rosalind, Orlando and two shepherds. The second song, Give me my robe, is sung by Cleopatra who, devastated at having been abandoned by Antony, prepares herself for her death. How should I my true love know? is sung by Ophelia in the play, Hamlet, when she finally loses her reason, provoked by Hamlet’s harsh treatment of her. The simple old melody is used here, altered slightly, with an agitated accompaniment to mirror her unhinging. First rehearse, sung by Titania, appears in the closing scene of Midsummer-Night’s Dream. Here, Oberon and Titania cast their fairy blessing on the lovers, united at last. The light texture of the ensemble gives an exuberant finish to the song cycle.

The four songs were commissioned by Gillian Humphreys for performance as part of Shakespeare and Love, a compilation of extracts from the plays with a selection of Shakespearean song settings. The first performance of Four Shakespeare Songs was given by Gillian Humphreys (soprano) and Courtney Kenny (piano) with the actor, Edward de Souza, in 1991 in Southwark Cathedral. The programme was recorded and issued on the Pearl label.

Radnor Songs

Duration: 15′

  • Text: Simon Mundy
  • Soprano, piano
  • 1: The Buzzard  |  2: Four  |  3: Summergill  |  4: Flat Out  |  5: Radnor (New)  |  6: Radnor (Old)
  • Church and Harp
  • Gemini Publications
  • Commissioned by Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts
  • First performance 29 August, 2005  |  Rachel Nicholls (s), Paul Plummer (pft)  |  St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, Wales
  • See also: The Buzzard

Radnor Songs, a cycle of six settings of atmospheric poems by Simon Mundy which evoke the history and beauty of the Welsh Border Marches, has been commissioned by the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts and will receive its first performance on 29th August 2005 by Rachel Nicholls (soprano) and Paul Plummer (piano) at St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne.

The first performance of The Buzzard was given by Gillian Keith (soprano) and Simon Lepper (piano) in St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, on 25 August, 2003, and was written for A Garland for Presteigne to celebrate the Presteigne Festival in its twenty-first year. The composers who contributed to the Garland were Michael Berkeley, James Francis Brown, John Joubert, Geraint Lewis, David Matthews, John McCabe, Cecilia McDowall, Rhian Samuel, Hilary Tann and Adrian Williams. This jubilant cycle was recorded in January 2004 for the Metronome label at the Royal Academy of Music.

Two Ratushinskaya Songs

Duration: 10′

  • (1996 rev. 2002)
  • Text: Irina Ratushinskaya
  • High or meduim voice, piano
  • 1. Song of the Mice  |  2. Chipmunk
  • Gemini Publications
  • Commissioned by Mary Hamilton
  • First performance 6 October, 1996  |  Mary Hamilton (a), Kathron Sturrock (pf)  |  St Olave’s, London

Two Ratushinskaya Songs were commissioned by the contralto Mary Hamilton and first performed by her, accompanied by Kathron Sturrock (piano), in 1996 in St Olave’s Church, London. The first performance of the revised soprano version of Two Ratushinskaya Songswas given at the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts by Rachel Nicholls (soprano) and Simon Lepper (piano) in 2002.

In March 1983, on her 29th birthday, the Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, received a seven year prison sentence for expressing ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ in her verse. Undaunted, she continued writing poems in prison, aware of the possibility of yet more serious danger and punishment. She wrote, in minute handwriting, on tiny scraps of paper, anything available, and gradually the verses were smuggled out of the prison camp. Later they were gathered into a collection called Pencil Letter.

The Song of the Mice and the Chipmunk both come from this anthology. In the Song of the Mice the mother sings her tender lullaby to her little one. She sings of sweet things, of a sleepy crust of bread and of the pleasure of eating cats, yet there is always an underlying sense of real fear.

The Chipmunk is an unfortunate character. Life has dealt him a poor hand and he is outraged by the injustices heaped upon him. At the start of the song the chipmunk stutters nonsense to itself before unleashing a diatribe against the ‘bear’, which, of course, symbolizes the repressive Soviet regime. His ridiculous plea is that he should be born again but this time . . . as a tiger!