Judith Bingham – Evening Canticles, Collegium Regale

by 5:4

Today’s Advent Calendar offering is an unusual setting of the familiar evening canticles by British composer Judith Bingham. The Anglican service of Choral Evensong is one of the driest and dustiest places for new music to exist in, but whereas the majority of new works written for it fully conform to its overwhelming weight of tradition and expectation, Bingham’s 1995 setting, composed for King’s College, Cambridge, goes somewhere a lot more interesting in terms of both drama and musical / emotional invention.

It would be pushing it to describe them as radical, but the opening bars of the Magnificat certainly indicate a more heightened musical environment. The organ initiates a staccato idea that remains persistent throughout (and reappears in the Nunc dimittis too), underpinned far below by slow, undulating pedal notes. Of itself, it’s an idea that sounds cheerful, even playful – and for an upbeat text like the Magnificat why wouldn’t it? – yet in combination with the pedals there’s something not exactly ominous but unsettling about it. Whether or not this is borne out in the way the choir begins is a judgement call: are their harmonies and their manner elated or anguished? Both? It’s a collision of emotional possibilities that makes the Magnificat so compelling, offering a nuanced response to these words of ostensibly straightforward glorification. Perhaps the best word would simply be “excruciating” – one way and/or the other, there’s a profound, almost painful intensity at the heart of each and every phrase. Bingham’s chords don’t conventionally resolve (could almost be said not to conventionally progress, at times suggesting stasis), their inner notes crunching and beating against each other in weird blocks of wonderfully diverse colour and clarity. This is contrasted by occasions when the voices break apart, either to unleash soaring individual lines (“For, behold, from henceforth”) or to articulate a more awestruck response to “fear” and “strength”. They become practically dance-like briefly at “the rich he hath sent empty away”, contrasted by a rich, rising radiance at the reference to “Abraham and his seed for ever”. But the music is at its most telling when the choir acts as one, reprising the opening in the doxology, those scrunchy chords even more intense and powerful second time around; the concluding “Amen” is just amazing, like a blazing streak of focused fire.

More contrasts with convention come in the Nunc dimittis, a text that usually gets subjected to dismal music of tired sobriety. Bingham immediately whisks the organ, and soon after the voices, far up into the stratosphere, falling quickly back down to earth in a deep affirmation of “thy word”. It’s an undulating contour that’s echoed in the following lines, settling into a lyrical back and forth between upper and lower voices. And then comes the fire again: “to be a light”, immediately refocusing everything into a simmering column. The doxology is not a repeat from before but an elaborated, much more muscular take on it that, in keeping with the start of the Nunc, keeps pushing upward, only stabilising in its closing “Amen”, now projected as an arpeggiated, multi-layered heat.

This performance took place at King’s College, Cambridge, on International Women’s Day 2015, with the choir conducted by Stephen Cleobury.


Text
Magnificat

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden:
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel:
As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Nunc dimittis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.


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