Notes from Geoffrey Whittington, choir member, relating to the pieces we’re performing on 8 July 2023:
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Five Flower Songs, Op. 47 (1950)
Britten was the leading English twentieth-century composer and vocal music was always close to his heart. These songs are a sophisticated and fresh take on the English part-song. Skilfully written, they are a brilliant fusion of high-class music and poetry taken from three different centuries.
These were written for the 25th wedding anniversary of the owners of Dartington Hall, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. Our conductor, Peter Gambie, is an alumnus of Dartington, where a pervasive egalitarian philosophy formed much of his experience. The Dartington estate gardens were planted by the Elmhirsts and are particularly beautiful.
To Daffodils, set to words by Robert Herrick, uses often quirky rhythms but ends smoothly, evoking imagined dialogue of the daffodils to one another.
The Succession of the Four Sweet Months, also set to words by Herrick, brings the voices in one at a time in quasi-fugal form and has a sublime resolution.
Marsh Flowers, set to words by George Crabbe, uses rather angular and dotted rhythm phrases and octave slides to suggest these less glamorous but tall flowers.
Finally the moving The Evening Primrose sets a poem by John Clare in the unusual key of B major and evokes the delicacy of this flower.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934): To be sung of a summer night on the water (1917)
Delius was born in Bradford but studied in Leipzig and lived at times in Paris and America.
This is a highly romantic, wordless ‘tone-painting’ in six parts of the feelings engendered perhaps whilst on a boat gliding along a river on a warm summer evening. As such, it’s a musical equivalent of the romantic paintings of Monet. The general chromatic downward drift of the harmony suggests the tranquillity and languidness of the scene.
Roderick Williams (b. 1965): Ave verum corpus re-imagined (2016) for three choirs
Roderick Williams is one of the leading baritone singers today, having performed in many of the world’s concert halls and opera houses. From 2022/23 season he takes the position of ‘Composer in Association’ with the BBC Singers. He was awarded an OBE for services to music in June 2017 and sang at the Coronation Service of King Charles III in May 2023, as well as composing a choral work for the event.
This work is a contemporary take on an English choral classic, William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus using the same words and “smearing out” Byrd’s phrases. The radical harmony at several points includes clashing chords of ambiguous major and minor harmony, perhaps harking back to the false relations of sixteenth-century pieces.
John Cage (1912-1992): Four² (1990)
The radical twentieth century American composer John Cage made a whole career of experimentation with new ways of writing and interpreting music. He experimented with construction based on rhythmic combinations, with specially prepared instruments e.g. pianos with objects inserted between the strings, groups of variable speed turntables and so on, and with totally unconventional notation systems.
In this piece, which is simply notated on a single page, the singers hold static notes with one letter of the word ‘Oregon’. The starts and finishes of each note are deliberately somewhat imprecise. This piece is a completely new departure for the choir.
Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795-1856): Lay a garland, and Great God of love
Pearsall was brought up in Bristol and appears to have been a self-taught musician. He had a strong love of history, writing articles on early music and he is famous for several multipart choral works which hark back to Renaissance and Classical period methods.
Many of the pieces were written for and first performed by the Bristol Madrigal Society. Lay a garland is a rich, romantic part-song in 8 parts written in 1840 and builds in power by imitation and clever harmonic shifts but is always very smooth.
Great God of love is an equally fine 8 part work written in the same style which hopefully shows off the dynamic range of the choir.
William Byrd (1540-1623): Mass for 5 voices, and Laudibus in sanctis
One of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, Byrd wrote a lot of both vocal and instrumental music. Although he wrote music for Anglican services, Byrd was a devout Catholic. The three mass settings Byrd wrote were published between 1592 and 1596 and they have retrospective features of the earlier Tudor mass style. In Elizabethan England of course, performance of any Catholic works was banned and Byrd had to be very careful, often writing for sympathetic Catholic families with secret performances in country houses.
The motet Laudibus in sanctis is an ambitious, lively work for five voices running in a single span of 182 bars. It has many off-beat rhythms and Byrd uses some nice word-painting at phrases such as ‘resonantia tympana’ and ‘cymbala laudes’, where the sounds of both drums and cymbals are evoked.
Eric Whitacre (b. 1970): Sleep, and This Marriage
The American contemporary composer Eric Whitacre is now one of the most popular and well performed composers in the world. This choir has been performing his pieces since they first became available in the UK and are a key part of our repertoire. Whitacre brings highly unusual note-clusters and wonderfully fresh sonorities.
Sleep with words by Charles Silvestri illustrates beautifully the process of falling asleep, while ‘This Marriage’ to words by Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī is a straight-forward celebration of a good marriage.