Remembrance Part 2

When Benjamin Britten was asked to write a piece for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral he chose to combine the words of the Requiem with poems by Wilfred Owen. For his soloists he wanted 3 of the warring nations to be represented – Russia, England and Germany.

Space restricts me to making just 2 points from the text – the common humanity of enemy nations and a bitter comment on the slaughter.

We are all made in God’s image is something we learn from Genesis. In the Britten this comes through the choice of Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ – a dialogue between a dead soldier and the one who killed him, featuring the words ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’.

In the Vaughan Williams movement ‘Reconciliation’ we find Whitman’s words “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead”

Where the requiem text refers to God’s promise to Abraham, Britten intersperses an Owen poem about Abraham and Isaac with a twist at the end, suggesting that nations’ pride lay behind the slaughter.
“When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Finally, I refer to the setting of the Housman poem ‘is my team ploughing?’ by George Butterworth who died at the Somme. Set as a question and answer dialogue between 2 friends, the opening pairs of verses deal with work and football, the later ones with more personal matters until it becomes clear that the responder has married the dead man’s sweetheart.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

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Remembrance (part 1)

I’ve written two short articles for the Church notice sheet. Space was limited – I could have said more – and I am very much addressing non-specialist readers.

If you listen to Classic FM especially late at night you will regularly hear ‘the lark ascending’, ‘fantasia on greensleeves’, ‘fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis’. All are deemed to be gentle, relaxing and suitable for bedtime listening. Earlier in the day you may hear the more energetic ‘seventeen come Sunday’ from the English Folk Song Suite.

Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in rural Gloucestershire, son of a vicar. His mother, Margaret, was a great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood and niece of Charles Darwin.

War began in 1914 and aged 42 he volunteered and became an ambulance driver. It is believed that like so many he never forgot those experiences of war. They found expression in many pieces including in 1936 ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ which I sang in a workshop last Saturday. The title is the closing words of the Latin Mass and is translated ‘Grant us peace’. Coming only 3 years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the piece is seen as both prescient and a warning. A warning that is valid for us today.
The text combines those words, poetry by Walt Whitman about the American Civil War, words of the Quaker MP John Bright spoken in 1855 in opposition to the Crimean War* and biblical selections concerning the coming of peace and a new heaven. It is a work of beauty and horror. The last section is largely triumphant and although a rollicking good sing I question whether it is a bit forced as to me it does not follow logically and unavoidably from what’s come before. As with the Verdi Requiem the last page brings everything to rest as we and the soprano soloist repeat the words ‘dona nobis pacem’.

For a church notice I must mention that he edited the English Hymnal between 1904 and 1906, writing the tunes Down Ampney for ‘Come down, O Love divine’, Sine nomine for ‘For all the saints’ and for the words ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ he harmonised a folk tune named Kingsfold after the village in Sussex where he heard it. This tune is also known as ‘Dives and Lazarus’.
In spite of writing music for the church and music with biblical themes, he was described by the second wife as having ‘drifted [from atheism] into a cheerful agnosticism’. He died in 1958 aged 85.

If you wish to explore more of Vaughan Williams, try youtube or spotify and look for ‘A Sea Symphony – words by Walt Whitman again’, ‘Serenade to Music – words by Shakespeare’, ‘Symphony No 5’, ‘Mass in G minor – the influence of Tudor church music again’

* John Bright’s words were “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.”

Seven Favourite Christmas Moments for Organists

As ever a personal list and excluding some of the choral repertoire that I sing or listen to.

7. Of the Father’s Love Begotten

I did not know this in my childhood. I came across it when it was a regular feature of our college’s Advent carol service.

Powerful words and a swinging tune. It was a pleasant surprise to have it chosen by the rector for our Midnight Mass.

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6. Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland from the Orgelbüchlein

I love the way the harmony builds from the lower parts. If I didn’t know the title and liturgical use, would I still identify a sense of longing? I hope so.

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5. Hark the Herald – what a crunch

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4. Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (from ‘the 18’)

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I’ve selected another ‘crunch’ – C in the bass, D suspended in the tenor and Eb at the top.

The piece starts with a walking bass, the tenor and alto pick out the shape of the choral and then the solo crowns it all. There is such logic to the inner voices – always a delight to play.

3. O come, o come Emmanuel

I aim for seamless and fluid playing. Another one to enjoy the words and the longing for a brighter future. I think of the difficult situations in the world and the lives of my family and friends and pour my feelings into my playing or singing.

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2. O little town – that E flat 

Is it because the tune and harmony are relatively restrained and verse 3 is often done quietly or unaccompanied because of the words (‘how silently’), but the descant certainly lifts it to another plane and we know that moment is coming in the last line.

It really has been rather ridiculous ranking these. On another day the order could be completely different.

1. Word of the Father

I want to call this the ‘chord of Christmas’ and judging by Twitter it is a favourite for many, made especially poignant in 2015 the year of Sir David Willcocks’ death.

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there is something rather marvellous about having to wait another 11 months to hear these again. I’m sure they’d lose their impact if we heard them throughout the year.

Now what would we think of strawberries if they were only available in June and July?

Recitative and Aria is not dead

A pupil asked to listen to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you‘.

I could barely remember how it went but I recognised an introduction over simple chords with free vocals before the main body of the song in a different tempo and I thought ‘recitative and aria’.

The first classical example to occur to me was ‘Behold I tell you a mystery…’. I’m sure there’s others I could have referred to.

And another pop example (one of my favourites) is Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive.

Bach’s Writing for Voices

This could be a big subject – well beyond my experience and knowledge. I confine myself to a simple observation.

The other day I found myself singing this – the opening of the Art of Fugue

Bach Art of Fugue

This was not completely random. It had been on the radio that morning. I just thought how delightfully singable it was in

contrast to some of Bach’s vocal lines which feel very instrumental. There can be nowhere to breath, they can be virtuosic and difficult to sing for reasons of speed or melodic shape. Here’s the first example that came to mind.

Bach Cum Sancto 1Bach Cum Sancto 2

In spite of what I’ve said, just looking at it makes me want to listen to it or sing it (with orchestra and choir)

A word or two about the Durufle Requiem

Our choir performed the Durufle Requiem last Saturday. I had been wanting to sing it again for many years – not least because this would be with a more proficient choir. In fact my two previous performances were either side of 30 years ago.

This time it was the version with solo organ accompaniment. Durufle left us with a full orchestral version and a reduced one for organ,strings, trumpets and timpani – the latter being the one on my CD. The trumpets and timps are especially thrilling in the Sanctus.

Had I not been singing it would have been fantastic to study our organist. He was amazing and I am totally in awe of someone who can play the notes, manage the stop changes and follow a conductor with the inevitable pulling about of tempo that happens. Sadly he had a typical English romantic instrument of approximately 100 years ago. Oh for some French reeds and stronger upperwork to give more definition to the ‘libera eas de ore leonis’ section. On reflection that’s a little harsh as everything else was very effective – the diapason tone, the quiet string stops, the clarinet and nazard.

The organ accompaniment is idiomatic and works well. It’s the only work I know of where the score has exactly what the organist should play. Other works (or individual choruses) which are often performed with organ accompaniment (Zadok the priest, How lovely are thy dwellings, Faure’s Requiem, Messiah, the heavens are telling) require the organist to re-arrange a piano accompaniment as he or she plays – something that has largely been beyond me.

At the risk of being thought a teenager I’ll quote the last line up to that final chord with 6 RH notes to be played by 5 fingers and then the start of the Sanctus with its rippling or bubbling LH sextuplets. Durufle - last line

Durufle - sanctus