Archives for category: Choir

MattA stirring performance of the St Matthew Passion on Saturday night in Winchester Cathedral (by the Waynflete Singers with guest conductor Sir Roger Norrington), reminded me just how great the opening chorus (“Kommt ihr Tochter”) is. It’s ridiculous to try to analyse such a towering masterpiece in a short blog entry – and I wouldn’t feel up to the task however many words I used. Instead I’ll just summarise the most obvious things I heard once again tonight that add up to so much.

First the orchestral introduction with its ominous, 12/8 tread over a persistent pedal point and grinding harmonies, ratcheting up the tension before the choir enters. In fact two choirs enter, spatially separated and singing different parts. They represent the crowds in Jerusalem (perhaps on either side of the road) questioning each other as Jesus walks slowly along bearing the cross. And there’s a third layer, choirboys singing a simple chorale melody (“innocent Lamb of God”), soaring above the complex texture in a bright G major, which contrasts with the choir’s somber E minor. Towards the end, when it seems like all the main material has been presented, the choir takes up something new, a more fragmented, quieter and harmonically uneasy sequential passage, as the crowd starts to acknowledge its own complicity and guilt. “Look. Look where? On our offence”. After that the two choirs come together as one for the first time: “Look – behold his love for us”. It’s breathtaking.

This is one of Bach’s longest single choral movements, usually lasting around eight minutes, but it never seems long enough to me – though that doesn’t mean it should be played too slowly. There’s an urgency in the music that pushes it along and that shouldn’t be resisted. For me the reason this movement is so compelling is its mixture of explicit drama, coming from the situation and the text, coupled with music that’s expertly paced in the way it ebbs and flows harmonically and rhythmically. On top of this are the spatial contrasts between the two choirs, the choirboys and the two orchestras. It’s as if the various forces have been blocked for positions, just as actors are in the theatre. This all intensifies the drama to an unimaginable height. Norrington (who is now 81 years old), sat down to conduct the performance, but his long arms expertly traced the contours of the piece to guide and inspire the performers. Chorus Master George Castle, who did a lot of the preparatory work behind the scenes, was also on hand to conduct the Winchester Cathedral Choristers.

For a very different production with the very minimum of forces that highlights the drama (perhaps a little at the expense of the music, but exhilarating none the less) an excerpt of Jonathan Miller’s theatrical staging can be seen here.


deathAt the Oxford Bach Choir we’ve been rehearsing this nine movement, 50 minute long choral work since mid-January. But it’s often only at our mid-term longer Saturday daytime rehearsal that the music we are working on really starts to come into focus. That was the case this week when composer Jonathan Dove joined us for the day – he not only listened to and commented on our singing, but participated as well – singing the solo parts and playing the piano accompaniment during sectionals. For an Unknown Soldier was first performed on November 9 last year in Portsmouth Cathedral, followed by a repeat the following week in Croydon, both times conducted by the OBC’s principal conductor Nicholas Cleobury.  Our performance will take place at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Saturday March 14 when we’ll also be singing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

At the rehearsal Dove told us that he likes to think of himself as “a storyteller,” and the work uses a sequence of poems telling the story of what might have been just one soldier’s war – from the initial enthusiasm to enlist through to realization of the horror of war, death, and the bereavement of those left behind. Any composer choosing war as a theme has to negotiate around the overwhelming example of Britten’s War Requiem.  Dove deals with this by setting much less familiar poems of the  First World War, some by poets killed in action, and some by poets who survived.  Among them are those that Robert Graves identified (in Goodbye to All That) as “the three poets of importance killed during the war” – Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Two movements in particular have started to stand out for me as I become more familiar with the music. The third movement sets Jessie Pope’s The Call alongside Sorley’s All the Hills and Vales Along. The Call is a patriotic jingle first published in the Daily Mail, echoing then popular sentiments– and sung here by a children’s choir, as if chanting the lines in the playground. This innocence is set against the Sorley poem, which describes men singing as they march to their deaths – all to an accompaniment that sounds like bullets ricocheting. The sixth movement is surely the centerpiece of the whole work, setting the extraordinary poem Dead Man’s Dump by Rosenberg (unknown to me until now). It’s full of harrowing war images.  Here the four choral voices are locked together in jagged and dramatic homophony, with interjections from the tenor soloist.

We’ve still work to do before we reach performance standard, namely the mastering of the technical difficulties so that we can start getting the emotion across. “I can still hear the counting” said Dove as we sang through a particularly fiendish passage of alternating 5/4, 7/4 and 3/2 bars. But we’ll get there.  There are no recordings as yet, but I think this piece will prove to be popular with choral societies in the future.  Come to the concert if you can.

BennettA recent Wigmore Hall concert (27 June, 2014) featured the four male voices of New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied. The programme included Richard Rodney Bennett’s, A Colloquy with God, which he composed specifically for the group in 2012, just before his death on Christmas Eve that year. The text, by Thomas Browne, begins “The night is come, like to the day; Depart not thou great God away”. It is a meditation on sleep and death, and it’s been set to music before by composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Vaughan Williams, W H Harris and Gordon Crosse. The 1961 Harris setting, in particular, has a particularly intense and expressive ending:

These are my drowsy days; in vain
I do not wake to sleep again:
O come that hour, when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bennett, who effortlessly straddled musical styles from Boulez to popular film music and cabaret, though as he grew older he distanced himself from his early, more radical musical language. All credit to New York Polyphony for championing this piece to the extent of commissioning a video to help promote it, which is freely available. (The recording is also available on their 2013 CD Times go by Turns). Their performance is excellent, but for me the new layer of meaning added by the filmed narrative is entirely irrelevant and superfluous. For Bennett’s musical language in this piece is paired down to the most minimal of materials. It’s largely homophonic (like a partsong rather than a madrigal), and the melodies and sequential passage are almost subliminal, sunken in as they are within the overall textures of four equal voices.

The opening material in F minor is used for the first two verses and the last, though the rhythmic emphasis and harmonies change each time. The range of pitches is kept very tight, but in the first and third verses the music rises towards a very Purcell-like dissonance, reaching a high D flat (on the second syllable of “eclipse” and, at the end, on the middle words of the phrase “never sleep again”). The middle section builds up to its greatest intensity on the words “Sleep is a death, O make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die.” What little polyphony there was is abandoned in this passage for a rising sequence of very close chromatic block harmony. When the opening material returns (marked “tutti poco portamento”) the music slides lazily across the bar lines for the words “these are my drowsy days,” resolving into an F major chord at the very last second, providing perhaps just a glimmer of hope on “wake forever”.

GerontIn March I took part in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Oxford. I’ve been in two previous performances, the first with the Epworth Choir at Guildford Cathedral in the mid 1970s, the second (playing timpani this time rather than singing) at the University of Keele in the early 1980s. It’s one of those works that stays with you once you get to know it – and although I haven’t listened to it a great deal in recent years, I found I’d not forgotten it. This isn’t a typical English oratorio from the Victorian period – like Parry’s later Songs of Farewell it is profoundly religious and spiritual music, but without asserting unwavering conviction. As Wilfrid Mellers points out, it concerns “a suffering seeker after faith…the personal testament of a man in some ways similar to Elgar”, and that’s the reason why Gerontius caught the popular imagination in the way that The Apostles or The Kingdom, which toe the standard biblical line, did not.

Whatever Elgar’s own convictions, the music often reaches an intensity that (for me at least) provides just about the closest thing there is to a religious experience. Part Two – in a passage which Mellers characterizes as “celestial music” – opens with what are probably Elgar’s simplest but most beautiful bars, a brief instrumental prologue depicting Gerontius’ soul set free following his earthly death. It’s quiet and still, using step-wise parallel motion in intervals of fourths and fifths, and its underlying harmonies, though sequential, are still slightly uncertain, modal rather than diatonic. The music soon blends seamlessly into the continuation of Gerontius’ highly melodic recitative, starting with the words “I went to sleep, but now I am refreshed”. There are echoes here of Elgar’s most famous piece, “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, though the mood is very different. It’s this passage, along with the eight minute opening orchestral prelude, that are the highlights of Gerontius for me.

SolomonAside from the orchestral opening of Act III (“The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”), Handel’s old testament oratorio Solomon is nowadays relatively unknown. Although written in only six weeks (between May 5 and June 13, 1748), it’s still every bit as good as The Messiah, full of magnificent arias and choruses. Of course (as Jeremy Summerly in Building a Library points out) the librettist takes liberties of omission: Act 1’s portrayal of the completion of the new temple and Solomon’s marital bliss only works if his other 699 wives and 300 concubines are ignored – as they are.

We’re coming to the end of rehearsals at the Oxford Bach choir in preparation for the concert at the Sheldonian Theatre (where Handel himself once conducted) on Saturday, December 7th. Unusually, the title role will be sung by a mezzo-soprano, rising star Hanna Hipp. The orchestra is the London Mozart Players, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

In the fast double choruses, such as the opening “Your Harps and Trumpets Sound,” and the especially tricky “Shake the Dome” in Act III, Handel takes full dramatic advantage from the complex interplay of the eight vocal lines. But it’s some of the calmer, cumulative fugal numbers that stick in my mind, particularly “Throughout the Land” (also set for double chorus), which illustrates its subject (the wandering of the Israelites) through the inexorable harmonic journey of the music, which ebbs and flows beautifully between major and minor, with many modal inflexions. The opening recalls an earlier style of counterpoint, beginning with the canonical entries of the tenor and soprano both starting on F, followed by the altos and basses both starting on Bb. And throughout, four part unison entries of the subject are the norm, unlike a more conventional fugue where the subjects typically imitate each other using different piches. These unison entries serve to emphasise our arrival at the various harmonic signposts of the journey – C major at bar 33, then A minor (bar 48), D minor (bar 63), G minor (bar 79), then back home to the tonic F at bar 87 where the main theme returns triumphantly in the bass.

There are plenty other highlights, such as the melodic final choral number of Act 1, “May no rash intruder”, often referred to as the Nightingale Chorus because of the imitated birdsong in the flutes. And there’s also the centerpiece of Act II, in which Solomon’s wisdom resolves a dispute between two women over who is the mother of a baby. The compassionate aria “Can I see my infant gor’d”, reveals the true mother in response to his suggestion that the live child should be divided up between them through the sword. Handel had only recently turned his back on producing Italian opera in London in response to changing fashions. But even in the course of a sacred oratorio, he never lost his sense of the dramatic


On May 10th 2008 I was in the chorus for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah to open the Newbury Spring Festival at the large 16th century church of St Nicholas (pictured). It was a memorable performance, with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Parry and with Sir John Tomlinson as the bass soloist. The chorus was expertly prepared by Janet Lincé (who is excellent at taking rehearsals). However, while I enjoyed learning the music far more than I expected, nearly five years on the only part that has really stuck in my brain is one chorus – No 29 in Part 2 – “He Watching Over Israel”. It’s beautifully mellow and melodic and, although I’m not religious, it compliments the biblical text perfectly. The structure is simple. The first part sets the phrase “He watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps”. Then comes the second part: “Shouldst though walking in grief, languish, He will quicken thee”. Finally, the two parts are combined for eight bars which ratchets up the emotional tension and leads straight into a beautifully intense, but still languid coda, where most of the emphasis is put onto the words “slumber” and “sleep”. The harmonic sequence used in the coda, repeated twice with variations, shows just how rich the combination of four voice parts can be – and Mendelssohn is a master at tweaking the parts to unexpectedly turn what might have been a major chord into a minor one, and vice versa. It really gets the blood pumping – it did so in the performance and continues to do so whenever I hear it again. Music history tends to put Elijah in a somewhat negative light. Bernard Shaw dismissed it as conventional and uninspired, and it set the tone for the often stultifying English oratorio tradition which its popularity here sparked off. But there are gems within, and this chorus is one of them.