Archives for posts with tag: Oxford Bach Choir

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.


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

ViolinThe Violin Concerto, op.15, isn’t performed that often and has a reputation as being something of a difficult work, perhaps because it was influenced by the Berg concerto: Britten attended the Barcelona world premiere in 1936, and later went to further performances in London. But hearing Britten’s concerto live (I think for the first time) at the Albert Hall on Sunday night I was surprised. It was written for the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa as a lament on the Spanish Civil War, and so the soloist begins with a long and languid Spanish-flavoured melody, accompanied by an ominous martial rhythmic figure underneath. The martial elements take over completely before the sorrowful theme returns, this time played by the full string section, while the soloist takes on the military rhythms and some guitar-like imitations on top. It’s a characteristic Britten moment of great directness.

I sang the contemporary choral work Ballad of Heroes with the Oxford Bach Choir earlier in the year, and while that work has more of a propaganda feel about it (owing to the explicitly political words supplied by Auden and Randall Swinger), it, too, employs essentially simple means to similarly powerful effect. After a Shostakovich-like Scherzo, the concerto’s final movement returns to elegiac mood with a passacaglia, opening with a powerful series of downward scales in the full orchestra – recalling back to mind the opening work in the Prom, Avro Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, which is entirely based on similar downward scales. The soloist in the Britten was Janine Jansen (who has also made a recording of the work), with the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Paavo Jarvi. We saw many of the orchestra again later in the evening, once they had packed up and sought out – like us – pretty much the only restaurant still open on Kensington High Street after 10pm on a Sunday.


Musical Authors: Edmund Crispin/Bruce Montgomery (2)
Although his film work got his music out to a huge audience, the numerous comedy scores in particular stand in stark contrast to Bruce Montgomery’s church music and concert works, with which he started out. These began to appear in the mid-1940s, at the same time his detective novels were appearing under the name Edward Crispin. Church music predominates, the culmination being the Oxford Requiem, commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir and first performed at the Sheldonian Theatre in July 1951 (also the scene of a crime in his novel The Moving Toyshop – and more personally for me, where the Oxford Bach Choir still holds its concerts today). He may have been motivated to compose the piece following the death of his close friend and teacher, the organist and composer Godfrey Sampson (1902-1949) – thought also to have been the inspiration behind the character Geoffrey Vintner, the organist and friend of Gervase Fen in The Case the Guilded Fly

An Oxford Requiem “is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date,” wrote one critic, “and confirms the suspicion that he is a real composer with something of real significance to say.” Malcolm Arnold called the secular choral work Venus’ Praise of the following year “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard”, and that work, a setting of seven sixteenth and seventeenth century English poems, may well have been the peak of his musical achievement. It was first performed in April 1951 at London’s Wigmore Hall. Montgomery and his friend the composer Geoffrey Bush had hired the hall jointly, and Bush’s Summer Serenade was also performed. (The two also collaborated on a short detective story, “Who Killed Baker”, published in the Evening Standard in 1950).

Even less known are the operas, which include a children’s ballad opera, John Barleycorn, and two intriguing collaborations with his friend Kingsley Amis providing the texts. The first, Amberley Hall, was described by Montgomery as “a mildly scandalous burlesque set in England in the 18th century.” The second, To Move the Passions, was a ballad opera commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Both remained unfinished, and Amis complained that Montgomery was too busy “writing filthy film scores and stinking stories for the popular press.” Unfortunately, only the Concertino for String Orchestra, a substantial three movement piece despite the modest title, and the only purely instrumental work Montgomery ever had published, is generally available as a recording.

Montgomery returned to literature at the end of his life, with the final Crispin novel, Glimpses of the Moon. By now, the composer character, Broderick Thouless, is writing “difficult” film music and light concert works, rather than the other way round (as it was with Napier in Frequent Hearses). Such comic perversity is characteristic of Crispin. But even in the midst of the comedy, it’s possible to read between the lines of, in the words of Philip Lane, “a composer of talent who was perhaps sidetracked, and, not helped by increasing alcoholism, was unable to fulfill his full potential.”