The listed programme notes below have been compiled from concert programmes since 2002. Please feel free to browse these notes and to use them for your own programmes, or for further research, crediting 'James Davey' as the author.
Further links to web sites providing programme notes can be found in the General Choral Resources section of the links page.
Listed notes are in alphabetical order by Composer surname:
Further links to web sites providing programme notes can be found in the General Choral Resources section of the links page.
Listed notes are in alphabetical order by Composer surname:
Hymn to the Virgin
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Benjamin Britten began composing his first works at the age of five, and produced prolifically throughout his childhood, despite a lack of musical guidance. He would compose before breakfast, to have time to go to school. He composed A Hymn to the Virgin in 1930 at the age of 16, during a stay in his school's infirmary.
It is a macaronic carol, that is, a type of verse that combines Latin, the language of the church, with the vernacular, or language of the people. This configuration first appeared in carols of the Middle Ages, which were based on popular dances and folk music. Some scholars believe that the introduction of Latin phrases into these singable tunes was a way for the clergy to claim the popular music of the day for the purpose of reaching the masses. By the 16th century, this form of poetry had become known as “macaronic.” The often comic verse form was indeed named after the dish made of a coarse mixture of flour, butter, cheese, and assorted spices that was then called “macaroni.”
Franz Gruber, arr. James Burton
The familiar carol Silent Night was originally composed in a small church in Austria by the parish organist, Franz Gruber. It soared in popularity when several family singing groups touring around Germany and Austria made it part of their repertoire. James Burton’s setting brings to life the stillness evoked in the text, before developing the piece with richer textures and an infusion of jazz.
The Shepherds Carol
Bob Chilcott (b. 1955)
Bob Chilcott has a fast-growing reputation as one of Britain's most popular and accessible composers of choral music. He has been involved in choral music for most of his life, having been a boy chorister and choral scholar in the choir of King's College, Cambridge, and also a member of the vocal group, The King's Singers, for twelve years. Since 1997 he has worked as a full-time composer, and become involved in a growing number of workshop and conducting projects, particularly with children's and youth choirs, and also as the Principal Guest Conductor to the BBC Singers. This carol, depicting the Shepherds amazement on seeing the star of Bethlehem, was written for the Carols from Kings televised service in 2000.
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)
Maurice Duruflé produced some of the most distinctive music to appear in France in the mid-20th century and the Requiem, his most frequently performed work, is a fine example of his style. Duruflé was born in Louviers, and from the age of 10 attended the choir school attached to Rouen Cathedral, where he both sang in the choir and learned the organ. Among the scholars at this choir school were a group of Benedictines from the French monastery of Solesmes. They had developed a theory of plainchant rhythm as a free succession of notes, mostly equal in value, and grouped in two’s and three’s. Gregorian chant had become something of a French speciality in the 19th century, and the Solesmes school of thinking on this had achieved widespread acceptance within the Catholic church (and even some Protestant churches).
After a thorough grounding in this tradition Duruflé pursued further training in Paris in 1921, at the famous Conservatoire. Here he was met with the traditions of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. Despite backgrounds in differing liturgical traditions, Duruflé chose similar texts to those used by Fauré in his requiem, and the similarities don’t end there. In both cases the melodies in their requiems are based on those found in the Gregorian plainchant Mass for the Dead. Durufle explained that his compositional intention was '”to reconcile, as far as possible, Gregorian rhythm…with the exigencies of modern meter.'” He achieved this by subtly adjusting the rhythms so that the melodies would fit into larger, more structured, metric patterns, whilst at the same time fusing the plainchant melodies with those distinctive contemporary harmonies that we today associate with French composers of the early twentieth century.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) arr. Anders Jalkeus
Duke Ellington was a powerful role model in the African-American community, and knowing this he had wanted to compose a significant concert work about the history of Africans in America. He eventually completed Black, Brown and Beige, calling it "a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro", but the 1943 audience and critics at the premiere in Carnegie Hall were unprepared for such a serious and extensive work (as long as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). Ellington never performed it again in public, but one of the movements, Come Sunday, eventually found its place as a gospel standard when it was later recorded.
Anders Jalkeus arranged this song for The Real Group, one of the premier vocal jazz ensembles in the world. The five members of the group (including Jalkeus) met whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, and they are hailed for their vocal transcriptions of big-band classics.
Requiem, Op. 48
Gabriel Fauré (1845 - 1924)
Introit & Kyrie
Gabriel Fauré was born in the Ariege district of the Pyrenées in the south of France, the son of a village schoolmaster. From the age of nine he studied music at the École Niedermeyer, the ‘École de musique religieuse et classique’. Here he was taught by Camille Saint-Saëns, who was regarded as a progressive teacher, introducing his pupils not only to the music of Bach and Mozart but also to controversial composers such as Wagner and Liszt.. Rather than attend the Paris Conservatoire, like many great French composers before him, Fauré continued his studies with Saint-Saëns, who greatly encouraged him by putting work his way and helping him to get his music published. The two became great friends and Fauré later said that he owed everything to Saint-Saëns.
Fauré composed the Requiem in 1887, intended simply, in his own words, “for the pleasure of it” (an ethos that his teacher would have undoubtedly supported). Fauré had an intense dislike of the large-scale effects and lack of religious feeling in Berlioz's Requiem, and Fauré’s concentration on smaller-scale works led many to criticise him for lacking depth, a judgement based on the mistaken premise that the bigger and bolder a composer’s music the more worthwhile it must be.
Fauré chose not to include a 'Dies irae' in his setting, the movement that so dominates the Requiems of Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. Consequently the prevailing mood is one of peacefulness and serenity, returning occasionally to the word ‘requiem’ to emphasise the theme of rest. In 1893 Fauré re-orchestrated the work to include parts for bassoons, horns and trumpets, and he added two further movements, the Offertorium and Libera me (written ten years earlier). A third version followed for full orchestra, although Fauré had been reluctant to publish it, preferring his original version for fewer forces.
Still, still, still
Andrew Gant was a choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, and has also sung with internationally renowned choirs The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen and The Monteverdi Choir. In September 2000 he took up his current post as Organist, Choirmaster and Composer at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal.
Still, Still, Still is a traditional Austrian tune, also known as the "Salsburg Melody" and was written around 1819. Gants’ setting is to his own translation of the text, and has a very simple, but atmospheric accompaniment.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane, arr. Peter Gritton
The successful songwriting team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote this melancholy song for the successful 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, to be sung by Judy Garland. This highly sentimental movie, about the idealized Smith family from turn-of-the-century St. Louis, was the perfect bit of escapism for wartime America. The original lyrics for their Christmas song, however, went beyond mere melancholy: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas--it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past." Garland vetoed the original version as too dark, and Blane substituted the now-familiar lyrics, which she sang in the movie.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has since become one of America's most beloved Christmas songs. Artists from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Christina Aguilera have recorded it - more than 500 versions in all.
Come, Holy Ghost
Jonathan Harvey (b.1939)
Although considered avant-garde by many, Jonathan Harvey presents a very spiritual side in his church music. This piece, commissioned by the Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1984 for Winchester Cathedral Choir, is perhaps one of Harvey’s better-known choral works. Based on the plainsong of ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, the music is in evocation of the Holy Spirit.
A Baritone solo opens the piece, gradually joined by other voices, pausing on selected notes of his melody like echos. Eventually this forms a cluster of notes, indicative of the piece’s harmonic structure. Fragments of plainsong are then passed between voices, until a tenor and soprano soloist enter to share the text.
Harvey achieves an unsettled feeling in the next section. By alternating notes of a chord between voices he creates a sense of motion within the unchanging harmony. He subtly adds slow, descending glissando’s, creating a further effect, combining fixed pitches with transient.
Next, the singers have numerous short fragments of music to be sung in any order and at any speed. A tremendous mesh of sound grows upwards from the basses, descanted by the soprano’s sustained melody, like a ‘cantus firmus’. The piece concludes in unison with the original plainsong tune.
Run Children, Run
Stephen Hatfield (b1956)
Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield started writing and arranging music after taking up a new teaching post at a school. He wanted to give his pupils the emotional, spiritual, and tribal (communal) experiences that one experiences singing in a choir, but the school had no funds for purchasing music. So, Hatfield decided to write some himself. He is now noted for his exciting arrangements and original works, and is a recognized leader in multiculturalism and musical folklore. Run Children, Run is one such arrangement. Full of influences from diverse cultures, it is based on a traditional field yell, the songs that black slaves would call out across the cotton fields in order to relay messages of support and solidarity.
The Battle of Jericho
Trad. Arr. Moses George Hogan (1957-2003)
Until his untimely death in 2003, Moses Hogan held an international reputation as one of the world's leading contemporary directors and arrangers of the African-American spiritual. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Hogan’s early musical success was as an accomplished concert pianist. He studied at The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and also studied at New York's Juilliard School of Music and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
It wasn’t until 1980 that he began arranging and, with over 70 published works, Hogan’s arrangements have become staples in the repertoires of high school, college, church, community and professional choirs worldwide.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Holst was not conventionally religious. He believed strongly in supra-human forces and besides dabbling in astrology, he was greatly influenced by Eastern religious theory - particularly the doctrines of Dharma and reincarnation.
Although written for Richard Terry in 1915, the Nunc Dimittis was not performed until it was revised by the composer’s daughter, Imogen, in 1974. Holst then returned to complete the final three movements of The Planets, finishing Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune before the end of 1915. The Nunc Dimittis exploits the possibilities of eight-part chorus, including antiphonal effects, in a manner similar to the double-choir works of his teacher, Charles Stanford.
Requiem (selected movements from)
Requiem aeternam (1)
'I heard a voice from heaven'
He studied under Charles Stanford and Henry wood on a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, taking great influence from his contemporaries, Vaughan Williams in particular, and developing a style of unmistakeabe English character.
Howells was considered the best of his generation at the college and is highly revered amongst church musicians today.
An oversensitive nature led to some of Howell’s finest works remaining unperformed years after their conception. This is true of the Requiem mass; Finished in 1936, but, like Martin’s mass, a very private affair. The first performance was some forty-four years later. Howells had been devastated by the premature death of his eight-year-old son, Michael, from meningitis. It is thought that he wrote the Requiem in reaction to this. He is said to have marked his calendar every year with the date of Michael’s death.
These three movements, of a total six, are each an expression of hopefulness, with related texts being taken from both the Latin Requiem mass and the Book of Common Prayer.
The scored markings for musical direction in the Salvator Mundi allude to a romantic interpretation, requiring real pathos; ‘slowly, but with flexible rhythm’. This aids a very fluid transition as the harmony shifts slightly at the words ‘save us and help us’, using dissonance reservedly, so that any hint of chromaticism has profound effect.
Requiem aeternam (1)
This setting projects a deep sense of grief, although this feeling is almost forgotten at the words ‘Et lux perpetua’, Howells capturing in music the silent splendour of light. The choir divides to enrich the texture, and Howells marks the dynamic ‘pp’ to achieve the effect.
'I heard a voice from heaven'
Taken from a passage in the book of ‘Revelations’, this concluding movement is concerned entirely with hopefulness. Hope is certainly at the words ‘blessed are the dead’, echoed evermore faithfully in a repeat of the phrase. The Requiem ends with a Baritone soloist in musical conversation with the choir, the words: ‘for they rest from their labours’, seeping gently into slumber.
Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby
Louis Jordan (1908 – 1975) arr. James Oxley
Born the son of an Arkansas bandleader, Louis Jordan was particularly popular during the second World War as a saxophonist before finding his fame as a songwriter. He built on this musical talent to create a more accessible version of Ellington style jazz, and this music brought Jordan his first million-seller in 1944 with Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby. He pursued a basic rhythm of Shuffle Boogie (later taken over by early Rock 'n' Roll) in a way that he said "made the blues jump".
O Magnum Mysterium
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
Morten Lauridsen is one of America’s most performed contemporary composers, writing sacred and secular works that are accessible and appealing to audiences and performers alike. In his book on Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, musicologist Nick Stimple describes Lauridsen as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered”. Lauridsen is notable for his colouristic harmonies, his ‘signature’ harmonic structure being a first-inversion major triad with an added major second or perfect fourth. It is with such a chord that his Magnum Mysterium opens.
“For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful O Magnum Mysterium text depicting the birth of the newborn King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God's grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy”. Morten Lauridsen
Crucifixus pro nobis, Op. 38
Hymn; Drop, Drop Slow Tears
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child
Kenneth Leighton (1929 - 1988)
Kenneth Leighton is regarded as one of the most distinguished of British post-war composers. He believed that his musical training as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral was responsible for his ability to respond “emotionally to Christian subjects and text”. He studied in Rome with Petrassi, and Leighton’s early works, although still founded in church traditions, indicate his tutor’s ‘hallmark’ influence of atonality and chromaticism.
Drop, drop, slow tears is the final movement of a cantata; Crucifixus pro nobis, written in 1961 for the Choir of New College, Oxford. Leighton scores unaccompanied choir for the first time in the cantata, ending the work with both release and reflection. A great tension has been building, each movement ending with an image of tears, weeping at the inevitable crucifixion. The reflection concerns the inevitability of our sins in the knowledge that a great sacrifice was made to secure our forgiveness.
Composed when he was only 18, Leighton's setting of the text of the Coventry carol is wonderfully evocative, and features a lyrical soprano solo who takes the part of Mary lamenting the fate of the Christ child. The words are from the Pagent of the Shearmen and Tailors, Coventry, written in the 15th century.
Carol of the Bells
Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych (1877-1921)
One of the most often performed works of Christmas choral music, Carol of the Bells began its life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol written by one of the Ukraine’s most popular composers. Set by M. Leontovich, it was first performed in 1916 by students at Kiev University and soon became a popular addition to the repertoire sung by carol singers on New Year’s Eve.
In 1936, Peter J. Wilhousky penned a Christmas text in English, and the music includes a bell effect to accompany the tune. The carol was made even more popular by its inclusion on the soundtrack to the film Home Alone, and also features in UK TV advertising this Christmas.
Crucifixus á 10
Antonio Lotti (c. 1667 - 1740)
Lotti was born in Venice where he spent most of his life as a musician at the famous church of St Mark's. Beginning with an engagement in 1689, singing alto in the choir, Lotti took up a succession of deputy and sub-organist posts until finally, in 1736, he was appointed Maestro di Cappella (one of the highest positions an Italian composer could hold). In fact, so significant was St Mark’s in his life that, as a memento, he kept the carriage in which he travelled home and, in his Will, bequeathed it to his wife.
Monteverdi and Gabrieli were two of Lotti's illustrious predecessors at St Mark’s, but whereas they had been forward thinkers, Lotti preferred to write in the stile antico (or ancient style) in which polyphony was the dominant form. The resulting long arching lines of text and melody facilitate a very open and relaxed style of singing. This was possibly also intended to free the voices of the castrati, employed to sing the upper voice parts in St Mark’s choir. As Fétis wrote in the late 19th century: "(Lotti's) style is simple and clear and no one in modern times has possessed, better than he, the art of having the voice sing in a natural manner"
Wade in the Water
Trad. arr. Norman Luboff (1917-1987)
Chicago born, Norman Luboff, forged his musical reputation as a conductor/arranger in Hollywood, working with favourite celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. His own group, the Norman Luboff Choir, became one of the leading choral groups in the world, recording more than 75 LP’s and touring for nearly 25 years until he died in 1987. The roots of this traditional spiritual are as a coded signal song, in which a certain event, such as a planned escape from a plantation, was imminent. Specifically, the hidden meaning of this spiritual is a reminder “to wade in the water to throw the bloodhounds off your scent” as you travel along the Underground Railroad.
Mass for two four-part choirs
Frank Martin (1890 - 1974)
Sanctus & Benedictus
By the age of nine Frank Martin was already composing, having taught himself to play the piano even before he started school. A personal style developed rapidly, influenced over the years by the works of French composers such as Frank, Debussy and Stravinsky.
Aged twelve he saw a performance of Bach’s famous B Minor Mass, and it is thought to have had a profound effect on his subsequent musical output; Bach becoming his favourite composer.
These influences are apparent throughout the mass, but there is also great depth of personal religious devotion in the music, a result of the discipline of his upbringing. Martin was the tenth and youngest son of a Swiss Protestant priest. When he began this mass setting, in 1922, it was a very private affair between he and God. It would be another forty years before its first public hearing.
Kyrie The Kyrie opens with the Alto’s singing a melodic line not dissimilar in style to plainsong. The other parts begin to join in a fugal style, but Martin remains conservative with the quantity of counterpoint in the texture. Instead, some voices are given sustained notes which, combined, create his characteristic atonal sound. There is no apparent key, but the overall theme is very melodic.
During the course of the movement he develops the plainsong into concisely structured segments, crossing several musical genres. Creating an ever-present feeling of timelessness throughout the mass.
Gloria After an initial exclamation of ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, we hear the double choirs antiphonally for the first time. However, the second choir becomes an accompaniment to the first, singing sustained chords underneath a unison melody from the first choir. This device recurs throughout the mass, and gives it unity. Bach’s influence on the composer is clearly heard in the final section of the Gloria, fulfilling a wonderful pastiche and observing Bach’s style of conservatism and sensitivity.
Credo This section is divided into several short ideas, beginning with a harmonised version of an ‘intonation’; A solo voice would usually precede the Credo, singing the first line of text. Martin incorporates this idea into the opening. Using open fifths (where the middle or third note of the chord is omitted) he creates a slightly medieval atmosphere at the outset. This atmosphere only appears again at the final ‘Amen’.
At the words ‘Et incarnatus est’ the mood changes, reflecting the great mystery of Christ’s birth. A repeated note in the soprano part holds this suspense. In contrast, Martin then delivers sorrow as a single tenor part enters on ‘Crucifixus’, before changing style once again at ‘Et resurrexit’ to a lively and joyous passage with a feeling of awakening.
Sanctus & Benedictus The Soprano line that appears with the melody of the Sanctus has distinct similarities with Faure’s Requiem. This angelic imagery continues with antiphonal exchange between the upper voices in the ‘Hosanna’. The Sanctus then flows straight into the Benedictus with a ‘call and response’ motif between the lower voices of each choir. Meanwhile the Sopranos soar above the texture, dueting in thirds. The repeat of the Hosanna is shorter than the first time around, the ideas condensed and consequently the exclamation more jubilant.
Agnus Dei The second choir is an accompaniment to the first throughout this final movement, chanting the text almost relentlessly whilst underlying a unison melody, similar to the plainsong style of the Kyrie. The movement climaxes with an extended development of the ‘Miserere’. The first choir breaks into harmony at the crux, but settles back into unison until the two choirs finally join together to close the work.
Ave Verum Corpus K.618 (1791)
Wolfgang A Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Mozart, the child prodigy, began composing when he was just five years old, and by the time of his death at the early age of 35 had become exceptionally skilled in his craft, leaving a legacy of compositions that are still hugely popular as we approach his 250th Birthday. Written only a few months before his death, the setting of the Ave Verum Corpus represents the distillation of his genius with this developed craftsmanship. Mozart wrote it in June 1791 for his friend, Anton Stoll,the village schoolmaster and church choir director at the spa town of Baden bei Wien, near Vienna. Stoll had reserved rooms at the spa for Mozart's wife Constanze, who was expecting their sixth child, and the short anthem was offered in gratitude of this. The text is a prayer for salvation through the suffering of Christ's body, and Mozart referred to it as his “little funeral piece”.
Randy Newman (b1943) arr. Simon Carrington
Possibly best known for writing the music for the film Toy Story, Randy Newman was born into a musical family and was working as a professional songwriter for a Californian publishing house by the time he was 17. He became well known for his sharp wit and satire, as highlighted by this 1977 hit song, which offended so many listeners, and was so talked about, that it reached number two in the charts.
Simon Carrington wrote this arrangement for the King’s Singers, of which he was a founding member (for 25 years serving as its co-director and creative force). The piece quickly settled into their repertoire and, as they say, it “never fails to make the vertically-challenged frown disapprovingly (albeit due to misinterpretation)”.
Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (1525-1594)
Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina was born in the small town in Italy from which he took his name. From choirboy to choirmaster at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, he lived his entire life in that city and, from his post as Composer of the Papal Chapel, became the greatest champion of polyphony of the Counter-reformation. Palestrina was tasked with revising liturgical books to enact changes made by the Council of Trent, changes intended to purge Roman Catholic church music of "barbarisms, obscurities, contrarieties, and superfluities." He is, in fact, credited with saving Western music as we know it, as the Council of Trent nearly banned polyphony in worship because they feared it obscured the text.
Palestrina's approach gives the listener a strong sense of chordal harmony, which became the basis of Western classical music from the Baroque to the Twentieth Century, and his music exemplifies the stile antico, a conservative style for its time, embracing the clarity of individual melodic lines and allowing dissonance only when associated with smaller note values, on certain portions of the beat (usually unaccented), and with strict rules regarding its placement within the melody. The result is the smoothly flowing, almost homophonic, texture heard in the motet Sicut Cervus, a setting of Psalm 42:1 written after the death of his son, two brothers and his wife.
The text for this piece was traditionally sung during the procession to the baptismal font on the night before Easter, when converts were baptized.
Arvo Pärt (1935-)
Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia, a small town near Tallinn where he would later study composition under Heino Eller at the famous Tallinn Conservatory. Pärt earned notoriety in the 1960’s for his use of serial technique and expressionism, but then ceased composing for several years while he studied plainchant and early French and Franco-Flemish polyphony. During this period he developed a new tonal style, based around the idea that the three notes of a triad have a bell-like quality to their sound. He termed this 'tintinnabuli' (from the Latin, “little bells”).
The Soviet Union’s occupation of Estonia in 1944 (which would last for almost 50 years) had a profound effect on Pärt’s life and music. Under the occupation all traditional musical forms were completely stifled, and his frustration ultimately forced him, his wife Nora and their two sons, to emigrate in 1980. Since leaving Estonia, Pärt has concentrated on setting religious texts, which have proved popular with choirs and ensembles around the world. The Bogoróditse Djévo was written in 1990 as a special gift to the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and their conductor, Stephen Cleobury.
Hear My Prayer
Henry Purcell (ca.1659–1695) / Sven-David Sandström (1942-)
Currently professor for composition at the Indiana University School of Music, Swedish composer and teacher, Sven-David Sandström, studied composition at the Swedish Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Gyorgy Ligeti and Per Nørgård. Although he concentrated at first on instrumental composition, few Swedish composers avoid writing for choir with such a vast culture of choral singing in Sweden.
This piece is a contemporary completion of Purcell’s short anthem, Hear My Prayer. Purcell, the towering figure of English Baroque music in the late 17th century, wrote his heart-wrenching anthem around 1682. The one surviving original manuscript, held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, contains further pages which have been ruled with staves, suggesting it might have been the first section of an otherwise unwritten work.
Les Fleurs et Les Arbres – opus 68 No.2
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Camille Saint-Saëns is perhaps best known for his Carnival of the Animals, ironically written as a private joke that he never intended for performance. Published in 1883, Les Fleurs et Les Arbres also reflects this ethic of “art for art’s sake”, a view which Saint-Saëns perhaps impressed upon his pupil, and life-long friend, Gabriel Fauré.
This approach ran counter to the prevailing Romantic Movement, but Les Fleurs et Les Arbres certainly doesn’t lack Romantic sentiment. Saint-Saëns took great interest in developments in aesthetic thought, and this piece, set to a text written by Saint-Saëns himself and dedicated to his fellow composer, Charles Gounod, is concerned entirely with the aesthetics of nature.
At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corners
Robert Saxton (b.1953)
Robert Saxton is the youngest composer represented in this programme and also the earliest starter. He began composing at six years of age and at nine took it upon himself to contact Benjamin Britten. It was on Britten’s advice that he began compositional studies with composer Elizabeth Lutyens in 1970. Following studies at both Oxford and Cambridge universities and being head of composition at both London’s Guildhall School and the Royal Academy of Music, Saxton has now established himself and receives regular commissions for new works.
At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners was commissioned for St Paul's Cathedral Choir for the 1992 City of London Festival opening concert. It is a dramatic setting of the sonnet by John Donne. It begins with a chromatic motif from tenors and basses, representing the imagined corners, joined by the sopranos as they enter, angelic trumpeters, rising up from the lower register of their voices into a layered texture. Saxton uses this device throughout the first part.
The second section is, in contrast, prayerful in mood. Whilst the text pleads for salvation and a place in Gods kingdom, we find relief in the harmony. Having begun with an unknown tonality based around ‘A’, the tension is released, finally, in an A Major chord.
Rock-A my Soul
Trad. Arr. Kirby Shaw
With a portfolio of nearly 2000 choral arrangements that have sold millions of copies, Kirby Shaw is a highly respected exponent of vocal music in the USA. For nearly 30 years he has been educating choirs in how to sing American popular music with stylistic authenticity, and his arrangements have become a tool of this important trade. Shaw was greatly influenced by the vocal jazz groups that were springing up throughout the 1950's and 1960's, and is himself a very talented performer, known to scat alongside some of the best in the industry, including Bobby McFerrin.
Urmas Sisask (b1960)
Estonian composer Urmas Sisask is considered something of a musical shaman. A graduate of the Tallinn Conservatory (a world centre for excellence in choral music), he took great inspiration from early music and Gregorian chant, but also pursued research into the theory of astrologically governed sounds. He worked out theoretical sound values for the rotations of different planets and was astonished to discover that his system of notes was an exact counterpart of a Japanese pentatonic scale known as Kumayoshi. This joyful Benedictio carries the hallmark of Sisask’s style in the way it combines these influences, resulting in what has come to be known as Astromusic.
Adam Lay Y bounden
Howard Skempton (b.1947)
Celebrating his 60th birthday this year, Howard Skempton has composed more than 200 works, producing music that has retained independence from all mainstream tendencies in new music. Instead, his work has grown consistently from its roots in the experimental tradition and is characterised by an extreme economy of means, a concentration on essentials and an absence of rhetoric, drama and decoration.
He draws inspiration from a range of extra-musical sources, including Constructivism in the visual arts, with its emphasis on material and form. Working always with chosen limits, discovering internal detail within a defined structure, he is primarily concerned with the sound-material itself, rather than with expansion and development. This is certainly reflected in his setting of Adam Lay Y Bounden, in which he rests a beautiful melody on top of a continually driving harmonic pulse.
John Tavener (b. 1944)
John Tavener’s public recognition rose dramatically when his Song for Athene made a stunning impact at the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales. In 1977 he was converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, and since then sacred music has largely dominated his output.
The Lamb, set as a Christmas carol to words by William Blake, is one of his most performed and recorded pieces. Tavenere says it came to him and was written in an afternoon. A simple, geometric structure, in which the opening melody is repeated and mirrored, captures the theme of innocence.
Rocking is a new work, commissioned for Chantage by the BBC following the choirs’ success in the BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year competition. It was premiered on 5th December 2007 at the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters Awards, held at the Glazier’s Hall in London.
Dance, Clarion Air
Sir Michael Tippett (1905 - 1998)
Renowned for his involvement in political radicalism, and for his pacifist views, Tippett was never a purely musical person. Rather, he was a man of ideas who chose music as the best medium to express them. In 1952, along with ten of the country's most eminent composers, Tippett was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain to write a madrigal, as part of an anthology of unaccompanied choral pieces marking the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The anthology, titled A Garland for the Queen, was deliberately modelled on The Triumphs of Oriana, a multi-author collection of madrigals which had been compiled in honour of Queen Elizabeth I. Set to the words of his friend Christopher Fry, Tippett’s contribution was this Dance, Clarion Air. It is a contemporary madrigal, but one that recaptures the rhythmic and contrapuntal vitality of its Renaissance counter-parts.
Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1549 – 1611)
Victoria’s sacred compositions brought him a great deal of fame during his lifetime and today his music is performed more frequently than any other composer of the Spanish Renaissance. This fame was certainly a consequence of being able to get his works published (80% being published before his death in 1611) and may also have been due to his desire for perfectionism in his craft, judging by the constant revisions he made to his works before re-publishing them.
Victoria was also one of the more widely travelled of Spanish composers. When he was 16 he ventured to Rome to pursue his study of music at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum, where it is believed he may have been tutored by Palestrina. Victoria was certainly one of the few composers in Rome able to master the subtleties of Palestrina's style. However, despite the noticeable influences, Victoria’s own compositional style is more sensitive to the text. Victoria was ordained to the priesthood in 1575, suggesting that his motivation for study of texts may have inclined him toward much deeper understandings than many of his contemporaries.
This Salve Regina is written for eight voices, in two four-voice choirs. It would have been commonplace for one choir to be replaced by instruments where necessity demanded it, and by indicating this on his published scores Victoria would have made his music accessible to a variety of different types of ensemble, further widening his audience.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart
Where does the uttered music go?
William Walton (1902–1983)
Of all English composers active in the late 1920s and ‘30s, William Walton was considered the most eminent. His early induction into church music was as a chorister in his father’s church choir, learning the standard church repertoire. Aged ten he was accepted into the choir of Christ Church Cathedral at Oxford University, where he would write A Litany, aged fifteen.
Following three failed attempts at a degree from Christ Church, Walton went to study with Paul Hindemith. This inclined him further toward romantic traditions, taking influences from Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky. He was also inspired by the jazz found in George Gershwin’s works and there are distinct hints of this in all three of these pieces. Walton sensitively combines his Anglican church influences with the ‘Romantic’ and ‘Jazz’, all under a veil of chromaticism.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart This short anthem was composed for a wedding service, that of the Honourable Ivor Guest and the Lady Mabel Fox-Strangways. Ivor Guest was son to a very close companion of Walton’s, Lady Alice Wimborne. A personal interest in writing the piece is evident in the attention he gives to sentiments of ‘Love’.
At the words ‘love is strong as death’, an uncertain sense of hope emerges as the phrase falls to an open fifth on the word ‘death’. The lack of either major or minor tonalities encourages the uncertainty. Eight bars later he repeats the passage, this time brightening the last chord to a triumphal Major seventh, proclaiming love’s strength. As the piece seemingly draws to a close, Walton recaptures the more affectionate emotions of the opening, ending with a real sense of security.
Where does the Uttered Music go?
This motet was written for the unveiling of a stained-glass window in 1946. The window was a memorial to Sir Henry Wood, erected in a quiet corner of St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn, London. Lady Wood commissioned Walton to set music to a poem by the composer laureate; John Masefield. The finished poem was entitled Sir Henry Wood
Although not a sacred work, it is both personal and spiritual. Understanding, as he did, a composer’s relationship with music, Walton openly expresses his own relationship, delving into a wealth of emotions at the words ‘What is this creature. Music…’ Sir Henry Wood is then celebrated with ‘This Man with Music touched our minds’. The motet closes with repetitions of an earlier line of text; ‘O Mortals praise him’. The voices gradually divide into twelve parts, then sixteen, as the upper voices lead the final climax up to top A for the word “praise”.
A Litany Walton’s setting of this poem, by Phineas Fletcher, shows an extraordinarily mature understanding of harmony for a boy of fifteen, already shaping the image of his later works. In review of a performance, in which Walton conducted the piece himself, Times journalist, William Mann, wrote: “It is a real piece of music, no student exercise, and fifty-five years later it provided a genuine moving experience”. It opens, concealing the home key of E Minor amongst clashing seventh chords and triads, but finding emotional and musical release three bars later as an E Minor chord begins the main body of the text.
A litany was originally only scored for upper voices, revised for SATB in 1916. The rich sound of a full choir gives great power to moments such as: ‘To cry for vengeance’, and Walton is masterful in sustaining a gradual rise of tension. After a reprise of the opening melody, Walton draws to a close with grieful reflection, through the words ‘My tears’.
Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
Peter Warlock was the pseudonym of Philip Heseltine, a London-born composer, critic and editor of early English music, chiefly of the Tudor period, who was one of the most lively and original musical talents of the early 20th century. Warlock was primarily a songwriter and belonged to the generation of Butterworth, Gurney and Finzi, but he owed much more to the influence of Delius, whom he met in 1910.
The composition of Warlock’s "Bethlehem Down" arose through the mundane situation of the composer and his poet friend Bruce Blunt being strapped for cash during the Christmas of 1927. To raise funds, they hit on the idea of writing a carol for publication in a daily newspaper. Known for their Bohemian behaviour and drinking capacity, on a December night’s walk between two village pubs Blunt conceived the words; Warlock dashed off the music in a few days and the carol duly appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. Flushed with success Blunt recalled that ‘we had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves “Carols Consolidated”’. Despite the flippancy of its creation, Bethlehem Down, with its caressing lilt and tenderness riven with melancholy, is a brilliant marriage of words and music.