Final post

I am posting for the last time on this blog which I started on 13 November 2012.  I called it Choral Singing in Southport because my idea was to publicise and to pay tribute to the Southport Bach Choir, the choir with which I have been singing now for well over 40 years.

Southport Bach Choir. December 2013.

Southport Bach Choir. December 2013.

Since November 2012, I have written 65 posts, but it has not all been about choral singing in Southport, however generous one’s geographical conception of Southport! In fact in many of the posts the only connection between blog content and Southport has been me! I found that there was great pleasure to be had in writing about (and illustrating) the various workshops and singing weeks I attended in the UK and abroad. And I am reluctant to stop doing this altogether. So my plan is to start a new blog with a different title – but not just yet.

A major reason for my decision to bring this blog to and end is that it is no longer necessary to put information about the Southport Bach Choir into the public domain via my personal blog. When I started, the choir website was out of date, and it has taken a long time to come up with a new website that can be easily updated and which has posts for transient information as well as pages for the more durable stuff. But we now have such a website. So, this year being the 50th anniversary of the choir’s founding, I am posting on it information about the choir’s history. I have already published a first post about David Bowman’s founding of the choir that was then called the Southport Bach Society, and will follow this at roughly monthly intervals with other posts, using information gleaned from old reports, minutes of AGMs, programmes – and any information or anecdotes other people can pass on to me.

Southport Bach Choir with conductor David Williams. Unknown date.

Southport Bach Choir. Unknown date.

I started this choral singing blog ( a word I detest, incidentally, but for which there seems no alternative) after having attended a workshop put on by the Guardian, from which I learned so much. I have learned also from the blogs that I have followed written by people I met there – blogs that I shall continue to follow. I bring mine to an end by thanking everyone who has followed me.

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From Advent to Candlemas

I said at the end of my last post (22 November, 2014) that I would write about the Christmas singing I had been involved in.

The period leading up the Christmas (or I suppose I should say Advent)  is always a busy season for singers, and in 2014 we of the Southport Bach Choir had many engagements to sing carols as well our performance of Messiah at Holy Trinity, Southport. We sang carols in Marks and Spencer in the town centre on two occasions to get customers in the mood to spend, I suppose, but more importantly, from our point of view, to raise money for Derian House, a local children’s hospice.

We were also invited to sing carols at the local Pontins Holiday Camp on two evenings. This was a new environment for us, and quite testing. The atmosphere on the second occasion, when thousands of people were booked in, and a good proportion seemed to be in the enormous hall where we sang, couldn’t have been more different from the hushed reverence of Holy Trinity, Southport, our usual venue. But it was fun and we enjoyed the gig; having some children singing with us was particularly pleasing.

Melling Tithebarn was yet another different venue where we gave a concert of Christmas music. It is a beautiful old building, not large, well restored, a bit of a surprise so close to Liverpool. On this occasion were we able to sing some of the trickier carols, as well as the old stalwarts, and our MD, Ian Crawford, made sure that the audience did their bit!

Carols of a different complexion formed part of the recital given in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral by the other choir I sing with, the Renaissance Music Group. Our Director, Morris Davies, had put together an unusual programme, which he called ‘Mary, Mother of God’. The pieces put the spotlight on Mary: a wonderful Magnificat by Thomas Tallis, which we sang with viols, as well as appeals to the Holy Mother for intercession, an Ave Maria by William Cornysh and ‘Salve intemerata’ by Tallis. But Morris also included two medieval carols, and another one dating from the sixteenth century, which is well-known today in a version published in 1928: ‘Sweet was the song the Virgin sang’. The programme showed something of the wonderful variety of early English music: from traditional plainchant to complex settings of liturgical words, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, simple unison settings of carols.

After all that singing, the break over Christmas and New Year was welcome. But then I was very glad to get back to rehearsals at the beginning of January. My first singing event of this year was on Sunday (1 February 2015), for the RMG were engaged to sing at a Candlemas service at St Andrew’s, West Kirby. This celebration of Christ’s presentation in the temple seems to finish off the Christmas story, as it were, before the Church gets going on the Easter story; it does in fact mark the end of Epiphany. I love the idea of Candlemas, the procession round the church with the whole congregation joining in, and all the candles. We sang a mass by Andre Gabrieli, and 2 motets by Marenzio. But first of all, as the procession wound its way round the church, we sang a Nunc dimittis by Victoria. This usually appears as one of the canticles in evensong, but these are Simeon’s words after he has met the baby Jesus and therefore entirely appropriate in a morning service celebrating that touching occasion. 

 Presentation at the Temple, Giotto.

Giotto, Presentation at the Temple.

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Early Music for Advent and Christmas

My Christmas singing started early this year – on 22 November to be exact. Even if it would be more appropriate, more precise, to talk about singing in the Advent period, we were still making an early start. I’m not grumbling. The pieces we sang by Giovanni Gabrieli, Hassler, Guerrero and Hieronymus Praetorius were glorious and, one feels, could be sung at any time of the year. This music is a world away from the tinny jingles and overblown Muzak that the commercial world sees fit to inflict on us as we do our shopping.

St John's Knutsford.

St John’s Knutsford.

The workshop on 22 December was the last one this year to be organised by the North West Early Music Forum. It was held in a church I hadn’t visited before, St John’s, Knutsford, and was led by a musician I have sung with before, Roger Wilkes. There were about 30 of us, singers and instrumentalists, so we had the treat of being accompanied by an assortment of period instruments. Roger’s speciality is polychoral music, and on this occasion two of the motets were for two 4-part choirs. G.Gabrieli’s motet for Christmas Day,’Hodie Christus natus est’ is a wonderfully joyful piece: angels rejoicing in lively syncopation.

Less well-known is Hieronymous Praetorius’s ‘Ecce Dominus veniet’. I’d encountered this Praetorius (1560-1629 – no relation of Michael Praetorius) earlier in the year at Roger’s spring weekend of polychoral singing (see post 17/3/14), and was pleased to be introduced to more music by him. Although he never went to Italy, he was one of the first of the German composers to be influenced by the Venetian style, and this motet exploits the swing between the two choirs in an exciting fashion. I don’t think we sang it as fast as the group on the YouTube recording do, though!

Fra_Angelico_069

Fra Angelico, Annunciation.

We started with a motet by another German composer, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), ‘Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt (‘God so loved the world’). Unlike the other pieces we tackled, this motet is firmly in the Lutheran tradition, relying on block harmonies rather than polyphony, so that the words come across more clearly, and Roger spent some time analysing the way the music gives extra meaning to the words. Fascinating simply looking at the way Schütz emphasises the word ‘Also’ (‘Thus’).

‘Word’ became, for me, a major theme of our day’s work. Hans Hassler (1562-1612), whose ‘Verbum caro factum est’ we studied, wrote both Lutheran and Catholic music; this piece shows the Venetian (Catholic) influence in its divided sopranos and tenors, and use of imitation between vocal parts.

Another piece we rehearsed was by a Spaniard, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). ‘Pastores loquebantur’ uses divided sopranos and basses. Again, there is plenty of imitation between the different vocal parts as Guerrero, setting St Luke’s words, describes the shepherds making their way to see Jesus in the manger. The word ‘verbum’ is important again: ‘et videamus hoc verbum quod factum est’. This is translated in the Authorised Version as ‘and see this thing which is come to pass’. Interesting that ‘verbum’ is not translated as ‘word’. [Nor is it in the translation which accompanies the second of the two YouTube links I give.] The motet ends with lovely rippling alleluias. As Roger said to us: Guerrero is very good at alleluias.

Here are the two recordings I’ve chosen to show different interpretations: The Choir of Magdalen College Oxford  and The Notre Dame Choir of New York City. The shepherds in the second one seem in less of a hurry to get to the manger!

David Colijns, Annunciation to the Shephers.

David Colijns, Annunciation to the Shepherds.

In my next post I’ll write about Advent choral singing in Southport and Liverpool.

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English Renaissance Music: Tallis

In my last post I wrote about John Sheppard, one of whose works the Renaissance Music Group will be singing in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on 7 December. We shall also be singing two pieces by his great contemporary Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585).

Tallis’s long life meant that he was the one major composer to live through the reigns of all five Tudor monarchs (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward IV, Mary and Elizabeth), adapting to the oscillation between Catholic and Anglican faiths. Like Sheppard he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and was able to stay in favour despite being recognised as a Catholic sympathiser. The Magnificat which we shall be singing, a setting of the Latin text, comes from the latter part of his career, when Elizabeth (less intolerant than her sister) was on the throne. It alternates chant with polyphonic sections, making great use of imitation between the vocal lines. What gives the music a particularly Anglican flavour is his preference for syllabic setting rather than long melismatic lines on single syllables where the text tends to be overwhelmed by the music. It is a more upbeat piece than his famous monumental setting of ‘Spem in alium’, or the equally well-known, and even more austere Lamentations.

The other major work of his that we shall be singing, ‘Salve intemerata‘, is one of his earliest compositions, a substantial piece in the tradition of Marian antiphons. In praising Mary the words enunciate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and beg for intercession. There are three parts to the piece in which duets and trios alternate with sections for the whole 5-part choir (SATBB). The addition of a second bass part gives the music a weightiness, a firm foundation, above which hangs the high treble or soprano part – another feature that distinguishes English Renaissance music from that of continental Europe.

[I’ve provided a link to a recording of this piece by Canterbury Cathedral Choir, which goes rather slower than I think we shall be singing it. It is preceded, I’m afraid, by an advert that give the ears a bit of a jolt!]

This is solemn music, a world away from the jolly carols we more commonly associate with the period leading up to Christmas. And it is certainly more challenging to sing. But it makes a fitting conclusion to the recital, reminding us that the narrative of Christ’s birth has a significance that transcends the particulars of time and place.

Giotto, Nativity.

Giotto, Nativity.

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English Renaissance Music: Sheppard

There is a distinctive, rather plaintive, charm about English music of the Renaissance. The most obvious feature that differentiates it from European music of the same period is the prevalence of ‘false relations’: that is, the chromatic clash between two notes in two different parts sounding together or close together: G natural and G sharp, say. Producing such a clash would have been considered bad form by Palestrina, but English composers enjoyed the spice it gave the music and would introduce these fleeting dissonances to add to the emotional tension. They are fun to sing.

Another feature that you become aware of, especially when you are sight-singing, is the rhythmic complexity of much Tudor music, and, I think, particularly of music from the Eton Choirbook. I wrote recently about the syncopated dancelike rhythms of Padilla’s Spanish/Mexican choral music (10/18/2014). But there is a different sort of vitality about the Tudor rhythmic patterns; they seem like a decorative addition, ornamentation of the polyphonic lines. In fact I find myself drawing an analogy, a visual analogy, with those elaborate twisty chimneys that characterise Tudor architecture.

Quite apart from my fanciful thoughts, such music was indeed composed for particular buildings – or at least for the choirs that sang in them. Henry VI may not have been much success as a king, but he did found both Magdalen College, Oxford (1474) and Eton College (1476). And both places established long-lasting traditions for choral excellence. One of the composers whose music the Renaissance Music Group is singing at their recital in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on 6 December is John Sheppard (c.1515-1559). He was choirmaster at Magdalen College from 1543 to 1547, and some time around 1547 he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the choir whose duty it was to sing at the behest of the sovereign.

Several works by Sheppard were sung at a glorious concert given by The Sixteen in Liverpool’s Metropolitan  Cathedral on 19 September as part of their Choral Pilgrimage this year.  There is an introduction to this concert on YouTube, and there is a splendid CD of The Sixteen singing all the music, which goes by the poetic title, The Voice of the Turtle Dove.

However, in the recital which RMG are giving we shall be singing another piece by Sheppard, not included in The Sixteen’s programme, ‘Christi Virgo dilectissima’. This is a contemplative piece with the plainsong sung by the sopranos, while 5 lower parts weave polyphonic lines until the words ‘Subveni domina’, a call to the Virgin that occurs 3 times, each time sung by 3 parts in homophony with the lowest 2 parts repeating the phrase, one after the other.

Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini, c. 1465.

Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini, c. 1465.

Writing in the programme for The Sixteen’s concert, Sally Dunkley says that Sheppard has ‘one of the most characterful and distinctive voices of his time, his music speaking with rare individuality’. Listening in the Metropolitan Cathedral I was thrilled by the warmth and dignity of his music. I look forward to singing Sheppard’s ‘Christe virgo dilectissima’ in the more intimate surroundings and acoustic of the Lady Chapel.

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Music from Spain and the New World

Although it takes only an hour and a half to drive there, I had never been to Natland before last Saturday. It is a quiet village just outside Kendal. At the centre old houses surround a large green in front of St Mark’s Church, which is where Clive Walkley tutored a workshop for the North West Early Music Forum. It is a lovely church to sing in, with a warm acoustic and some beautiful stained glass windows. During one of the breaks I talked to Clive’s wife, Jill, and she told me that the two modern windows had been made by their daughter.

One of the modern stained glass windows.

One of the modern stained glass windows.

The other modern window.

The other modern window.

The music we sang was from a different world, however, and had a very different feel from English music of the same period. We started the day with two motets by Bernadino de Ribera (c.1520-after 1580), a Spanish composer, whose first important post was in Avila, where he would no doubt have had dealings with the young Victoria. From Avila Ribera moved to the cathedral of Toledo, where a choirbook of his music was put together. This choirbook has been severely mutilated, but six motets have been recovered and it was two of these that we rehearsed in editions prepared by Bruno Turner.

The first, ‘Regina caeli laetare’, was fairly joyful: ‘Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluya…’, a polyphonic piece, making use of imitation, with smoothly flowing lines, nothing extreme, nothing unexpected – a pleasure to sight-sing.

The second motet, ‘Rex autem David’, was in a different mood. Like those well-known motets by Weelkes and Tomkins (‘When David heard’), it sets words of David’s mourning for Absalon (or, as it is more usually spelt, Absalom). Here there was particular interest in the accidentals suggested by Bruno Turner. As Clive explained, accidentals weren’t usually written into scores of Renaissance music, since the singers (or players) would have just known when a note should be sharpened or flattened. However, in the case of ‘Rex autem David’, matters are more complicated because Turner has drawn on two sources for the music, the Toledo choirbook and Valencia partbooks, and the Valencia source does contain a number of accidentals, which if observed give the music a chromatic intensity to match the emotion of the words. His conclusion is that, whether intended by the composer or not, some choirs would have given the repetitions of ‘Absalon’ chromatic flavouring. We sang the motet both with and without the accidentals. It was an interesting exercise, which showed us just how much difference they made.

[There is a YouTube recording of this piece – with chromatic ‘Absalon’s.]

In fact one of the most interesting aspects of the day was the discussion of the difference between performance practice then – insofar as one can discover it – and now. When I think about the grumbles of today’s choral singers – grumbles in which I’ve shared! – about poor light, not having a full vocal score, having to stand for too long, rehearsals going on too long and so on and so forth…well, it’s worth remembering the conditions for those early cathedral singers!

Taking a break during the workshop.

For most of the afternoon we worked on a Mass by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664), who was born in Spain but spent most of his life in Mexico at the cathedral of Puebla. He writes here for double choir, higher voices in choir 1 (SSAT) and the usual four voice parts in choir 2. The music contrasts polyphony with homophonic passages, makes lively use of exchanges between the two choirs and is characterised by vigorous, syncopated rhythms and off-beat entries. At times, for instance in the second Kyrie, one could feel the liveliness of South American dance rhythms. Padilla’s writing even gives energy to the Credo, which is helpful when there are so many words to get through. But it does entail a curiously jolly setting of the words ‘Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est’. I was reminded of a piece I had sung earlier this year in Lisbon, a dancelike setting of words about Christ’s suffering on the cross (see my post of 21 April, 2014). I seem to remember Carlos Aransay, our conductor in Lisbon, saying that such a disjunction between words and music is not unusual in Spanish Renaissance music.

As is customary at the workshops run by NWEMF we ended the day by running through all the music we had been rehearsing – far from blemish free, but enormously satisfying. And I drove back down the M6 not exactly singing the tunes, but my head too full of the sound of Spanish Renaissance music to want to listen to the car radio.

St Mark's Church, Natland.

St Mark’s Church, Natland.

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A Plainchant Workshop

After the splendid concert in Chester Cathedral that I wrote about in my last post (31 July, 2014), there was a dearth of choral singing in my life. I neither sang nor listened to any, apart from catching the occasional piece on the radio. It was a summer to spend out of doors.

However, September brought the start of regular choir practices (even if the weather pretended it was still summer) and there have been other events to enjoy. I have been slow to write about them, though, because I have been heavily involved in building a new website for the choir I’ve singing with for well over 40 years, the Southport Bach Choir. Now that the site has gone live, I can get back to writing about the choral events I have been involved in recently.

A Chant Workshop for Holy Cross Day

The Church of Our Lady & St Nicholas in Liverpool was the venue for an intensive day singing Gregorian chant organised by the North West Early Music Forum on 13 September. The church is right down near the waterfront and has an elegant sailing ship as a weather vane; I have always known it as the seamen’s church. But officially it is the parish church of Liverpool.

Our tutor for the day was Philip Duffy, who has an amazing knowledge and understanding of this music. Last time I joined one of Philip’s workshops was on a freezing day in January, when we sang the Officium Stellae, the liturgical drama that enacts the arrival of the Magi (see 27 January 2013). This time, thank goodness, we were blessed with lovely autumnal weather.

An interest in early music soon leads you into complications of Christian religious observance that are bewildering to a non-believer, and on this occasion we were introduced to the first Vespers for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a festival that falls on 14 September – and, I discovered when I consulted Wikipedia, a festival that was followed by a period of fasting that lasted until Easter. [I am reminded of a story – was it one that Philip told us? – of excavations at a ruined monastery where scraps of food were found in the erstwhile monks’ stalls. Not surprising, when you think of the gruelling life of many monks.]

A Carthusian monk at the foot of the Holy Cross.

A Carthusian monk at the foot of the Holy Cross.

Philip gave us a quick reminder about chant notation, and then we started on a hymn – 7 verses in Latin, with just the first verse set to the chant. I’ve no doubt constant practice makes this easy enough, and those monks for whom this music was first written would certainly have known what they were doing. But, although I’m reasonably competent at sight-reading Anglican chant and church hymns, I found the plainsong hymn an exercise that demanded huge concentration, and a lot of practice to get right. Actually, I’m not sure I ever did get it absolutely right!

Our workshop may have been hard work, but it was not gruelling. We had a generous break at lunchtime to relax in the sun in the lovely garden next to the church, and we could eat as much as we wanted to! As we worked our way through various psalms, antiphons, lamentations and responsories it became more natural to be singing this music, and when we returned to that hymn we started with it didn’t seem as impossible as it had first time round.

After a tea-break, we formally sang through the Vespers. It was a moving and uplifting experience.

St Nicholas Church. Liverpool.

St Nicholas Church. Liverpool.

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Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem

Vaughan Williams’s cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem, is a profoundly moving work. It made a good companion piece with Elgar’s Spirit of England, both of which were performed at the concert in Chester Cathedral (19 July) that I wrote about in my last post.

Dona Nobis Pacem was commissioned in 1936 for the 100th anniversary of Huddersfield Choral Society, composed at a time, therefore, when fears of a second world war were growing. Whereas both the words and the music for Spirit of England were written at the start of the First World War, the words that Vaughan Williams chose were drawn from poetry by Walt Whitman relating to the American War of Independence, from a speech by John Bright campaigning against the Crimean War, and from various Old Testament sources concerning biblical strife. The liturgical words, ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’, sung by the soprano soloist (Judith Howarth on this occasion), start the cantata, but it is the last three words that form the basis of this movement, as the choir takes up the theme, and the plea for peace rises to a climax of excruciating intensity.

There is no break between the movements, and as the soprano sings her last forlorn-sounding phrases, martial music grows in the orchestra and there is a splendid outburst with the first of the Whitman poems: ‘Beat! Beat! Beat!’. This movement, like the first part of Elgar’s piece, is full of energy and excitement, martial music that was sung vigorously by Chester Festival Chorus. The next poem, ‘Reconciliation’, is set to music of a very different kind. The solo baritone (James Burton in the Chester performance) sings a beautifully lyrical melody to the words ‘Words over all, beautiful as the sky…’, which are then taken up by the chorus. It is worth quoting the last 3 lines of this text:

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,

I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,

Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

I recall the words of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’), written about 50 years later, which Britten sets in the War Requiem.

The soprano’s final quiet ‘Dona nobis pacem’ leads into the drum beats of a funeral march, the ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’. The music is subdued to begin with but rises to a climax with the words ‘I hear the great drum pounding…’. Snare drums and brass take over for a strong instrumental interlude before a gentler section as the chorus sing about the father and son being buried in the same grave. Vaughan Williams gives the words ‘O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!’ to unaccompanied choir, a musical phrase of tender beauty that is echoed in the final (also unaccompanied) line: ‘My heart gives you love’.

Drum beats gradually dying away lead into the next section which sets John Bright’s words about ‘The Angel of Death’ sung by the baritone almost like recitative. A desperate cry of ‘Dona nobis pacem’ from the soprano fails to halt the martial tone of the music as the chorus sing words from Jeremiah (8:15-22): ‘We looked for peace, but no good came’.

The turning point in the cantata comes with the baritone’s great declamatory phrase: ‘O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea be strong’ (Daniel, 10:19). And from Haggai (2:9), ‘The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former…and in this place will I give peace’. Another orchestral interlude, quiet, mostly strings, introduces the final chorus based on words from the Old Testament – words of optimism which foretell a future of righteousness and peace. The music at this point is in the positive key of C major, and the chorus sings either in unison or in firm block chords. The final line from Luke (2:14), ‘Glory to God in the highest…’, is set to music characterised by the joyful spirit we associate with Christmas. But the piece ends quietly with the solo soprano’s final plea for peace.

As the music came to an end in the cathedral, James Burton, the conductor, seemed to hold time in his hands as the final echoes died away and the emotions aroused by the music simmered down. There was a long pause before the applause started.

Anxious to listen again to this work, which had been performed so magnificently by the RLPO, Chester Festival Chorus and the two soloists, Judith Howarth and William Dazeley, I looked on YouTube and found a very good performance with Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the soprano solo sung by Yvonne Kenny and, instead of a single baritone soloist, Bryn Terfel and Philip Langridge (tenor). One big advantage of this recording is that it is accompanied by the vocal score.

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A musical commemoration of the centenary of WW1

I heard choral singing of a very high standard in Chester Cathedral on Saturday, 19 July. As part of the Chester Music Festival, the Chester Festival Chorus and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave performances of Elgar’s Spirit of England and Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

The concert started, however, with Benjamin Britten’s version of the National Anthem. A quiet chord on the strings and a gentle rumble of drums, then the chorus entered, unaccompanied, quiet as a prayer, so small a sound that the audience was uncertain whether to stand or not. As the volume increases Britten’s orchestration and subtly altered harmonies mitigate the somewhat pompous tune we are used to. It is an arrangement better suited, perhaps, to a nation that has been active in two world wars, that knows the threat of the atom bomb and that has had to relinquish the proud certainties of imperialism. Instead of the routine cadence at the end of the anthem, Britten writes a threefold repetition of ‘God save the Queen’, which turns the words into a heartfelt plea rather than the usual rather complacent ending. And the choir delivered it with full force.

Much of Elgar’s early music, unlike Britten’s, is characterised by imperialistic fervour, but the short orchestral piece which opened the concert, Sospiri (first performed on 15 August 1914), was wistful, not only a premonition of the sadness and loss to come, as the programme note suggested, but a reflection of the melancholy of those who had seen husbands, sons, lovers and friends depart for battle.

Spirit of England is one of Elgar’s lesser-known choral works, and listening to it in Chester Cathedral I found myself wondering why. Perhaps the poems, by Laurence Binyon, are not to our taste these days – I confess I don’t find them very appealing – but the music is wonderful, with vivid and unusual orchestration, and some stirring music for solo soprano. The opening is rousing enough: ‘Now in thy splendour go before us,/Spirit of England…’, writes Binyon, and the music has a patriotic splendour, which returns at the end of the movement (‘The Fourth of August’). And there’s an echo of the demons from The Dream of Gerontius at the words:
She fights the fraud that feeds desire on
Lies, in lust to enslave or kill,
The barren creed of blood and iron,
Vampire of Europe’s wasted will…’

But Elgar was apparently devastated by the death and destruction brought by the war, and there is a sense of desolation in the other two movements. ‘To Women’ ends with the words, ‘To bleed,/To bear, to break, but not to fail’ (surely Binyon had Tennyson’s words at the end of ‘Ulysses’ in mind: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’), and the music dies away poignantly as they are repeated.

From the start Elgar was clear that the poem, ‘For the Fallen’, should be the climax of the piece, and by the time he started writing the music it was clear that the war was causing thousands to fall. This movement has an orchestral introduction, a subdued, halting march which conjures up a vision of wounded soldiers limping back home. In the second stanza, the lines, ‘There is music in the midst of desolation/And a glory that shines upon our tears’ are given a glorious melodic outpouring, before a change of mood (and, I think, key) in the next stanza, ‘They went with songs to the battle…’, as the words recall the youth and vitality of the soldiers as they left for war. A passionate climax comes with the final stanza: ‘As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust…’, but the ending is subdued as the march with which the movement opened returns and gradually dies away.

This music was given a convincing, nuanced performance by the choir (who had been prepared by Frances Cooke, a choral director with a great reputation), the soprano soloist, Judith Howarth, and the RLPO, under James Burton. Wanting to hear it again, I turned to YouTube, where I’ve found a performance under David Lloyd-Jones. In this version, the second movement has a tenor rather than soprano soloist.

I shall write about the Vaughan Williams piece in my next post.

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Singing Bruckner and Beethoven in Liverpool

When you normally sing with a choir of fifty or fewer singers, it makes an exhilarating change to sing with a larger choir. I said something about this when I wrote about singing Verdi’s Requiem with the Really Big Chorus last summer (10/07/2013). That was a choir of thousands. Last Saturday the Southport Bach Choir, augmented by a few singers from the Renaissance Music Group, was joined by 30 plus singers from the Chester Music Society Choir to form the Crosby Symphony Chorus – about 80 singers in all. It was the job of the SBC director, Ian Crawford, to weld us into a harmonious choir to sing Bruckner’s Te Deum and the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Crosby Symphony Orchestra in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

In our March concert we of the SBC had sung the Bruckner with piano accompaniment, but we discovered at a rehearsal the week before the Met concert that it was a very different matter singing this work with an orchestra – a full symphony orchestra, including lots of brass. However, Bruckner also writes passages for unaccompanied voices, so having been gaily singing along with the comfort of an instrument or two playing your part, you suddenly find yourself exposed. It’s like stepping into a void, and these moments needed careful rehearsal to make sure that the choir sings out confidently.

But, apart from the dramatic effect, this technique is a very clever move on Bruckner’s part. He clearly knew how to write for a resonant acoustic, and these unaccompanied passages allow the voices to be heard more clearly and give the listeners’ ears a bit of breathing space, as it were. The acoustic in the Met is even looser than most, and Ian Crawford, who conducted this piece, allowed a generous pause at the end of each movement for the echo to die away. I wasn’t counting very carefully (too busy thinking about what was coming next!), but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that 5 seconds elapsed before the sound finally tailed off. Anyway, I know I wasn’t the only one to find this piece exciting to sing on Saturday, and I really enjoyed the variety of orchestral sounds and the voices of the four soloists.

Beethoven’ Ninth is a different matter. The orchestra under Robert Sells played well, but in that acoustic much of the intricate detail of Beethoven’s score, particularly in the fleet-footed Scherzo, got lost in the reverberant space. I have to confess, rather shame-faced, that this is not one of my favourite pieces, and it is not as rewarding to sing as the Bruckner. As an alto, perhaps the most exciting aspect is being required to sing beyond the usual range for choral altos: high Es and even a high F, as well as down to G below middle C. It’s a different matter for sopranos, of course, who require great stamina for all the high notes they have to sing. And this is where it really helps having the support of a larger chorus. One way or another every voice part was pushed to its limits in this concert.

The concert brought to a grand finale Robert Sells’ long association with the Crosby Symphony Orchestra, whose Conductor and Musical Director he has been since 1982. We of the SBC were pleased and honoured to be asked to form the nucleus of the newly designated Crosby Symphony Chorus, and to have the opportunity of singing in a concert and a venue that is outside our reach in the normal course of events. Our concert season is finally at an end.

Liverpool Met concert

In my next post I shall write about the choral concert I went to at Chester Cathedral this Saturday (19 September), when the Chester Festival Chorus and RLPO performed Elgar’s Spirit of England and Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.

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