choral

James MacMillan – St John Passion

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The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 and premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest and trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion and death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches and the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.

Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own and others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (and religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting and striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi and wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating and awkwardly comic. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Royal Banners Forward Go

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As Lent moves into Holy Week, a hymn regularly sung is “The Royal Banners Forward Go”, composed as far back as 569 by the then bishop of Poitiers, Venantius Fortunatus. The text commemorates the crucifixion, opening in strikingly vivid fashion:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

It’s not a text that seems to have appealed to many composers down the ages, a notable exception being Franz Liszt, whose Via Crucis (discussed briefly in 2009) opens with a fortissimo rendition of this hymn. Much more recently, in 2003 Jonathan Harvey composed a new setting using the English translation by J. M. Neale.

Despite lasting barely four minutes, Harvey creates an atmosphere both intense and mysterious, the men and women answering each other in stately rising fifths. Only gradually do they move out of reverential shadow, drawn out by the descriptive references to Christ on the cross; the forced tutti Harvey creates captures well the ambivalence of Holy Week, its ultimate tone of celebration violently militated against by the preceding downward spiral into suffering and death. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – The Lord’s Prayer

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Settings of the Lord’s Prayer rarely work; they tend either to play it safe so as to preserve the solemn nature of the text (sung, as it invariably is, as a prayer during the service of Evensong), resulting in rather wan, characterless music, or go all out in an indulgement of vivid word-painting that loses sight of the function of the piece, becoming showy and egotistical. It’s a delicate balance, but the setting by Gabriel Jackson, composed in 2006, gets it just right. The style is simple, built upon a drone, over which melodic lines continually meander away and return to a bare open fifth; they’re characterised by grace notes that repeatedly give the melody a kick (a device also used in choral pieces by James MacMillan), thereby bringing them off the page, making them very much more than just a series of beautiful, mellifluous overlapping lines. The drone ceases when the text passes to the lower voices, although the harmony is sufficiently static that it almost continues by implication. In a rather brave move, Jackson breaks the intense petitionary tone of the music for the doxology; with an abrupt shift to the major key, the full choir joins together in a diatonic but richly-coloured chorale of praise that’s borderline unseemly after such humbly-delivered orisons. But, nonetheless, it does fit, and in any case subsides quickly, the closing “Amen” returning to the simpler manner from before. Read more

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Giacinto Scelsi – Tre Canti Sacri

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Composed in 1958, Giacinto Scelsi‘s Tre Canti Sacri (Three Sacred Songs) is one of his most well-known and frequently performed vocal works. The three songs—’Angelus’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Gloria’—draw on texts associated with the Annunciation, the Mass for the dead, and the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Thematically, these texts are somewhat disparate, but the specific choices could be said to be arbitrary, as in each case Scelsi explodes the texts, often focusing on fragments and individual words rather than immediately comprehensible phrases. Furthermore, despite drawing on Christian texts, Scelsi again distances himself from their specific nature, diffusing the religious content. It’s an approach that i think sits well within the present season, seeking as it does something undeniably spiritual (these are, after all, sacred songs), yet casting off the trappings of familiarity and comfort.

‘Angelus’ is the most overtly melodic of the the three, and the most textually and stylistically clear, alluding to conventions of choral counterpoint. However, Scelsi matches this with abrupt dynamic shifts and microtonal inflections, sometimes combined violently and protruding outwards as harsh, beating dissonances. Read more

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Richard Baker – To Keep a True Lent

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My Lent series continues with a very short choral piece by Richard Baker, setting Robert Herrick’s well-known poem To Keep a True Lent. Herrick’s text draws heavily on the sentiments of Isaiah chapter 58 (words traditionally read at the start of Lent), drawing stark contrasts between superficial and genuine acts of humility and fasting.

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; ’tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Read more

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James MacMillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première)

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i’ll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season. To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan‘s anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, and also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless. The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain – heard three times – focuses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:

Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
(“Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.”)

MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple). The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right. There are two episodes, and both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force. Read more

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Tansy Davies – Christmas Eve (World Première)

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It’s Boxing Day, so as usual on 5:4 here’s music from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

The highlight was this year’s commissioned carol, composed by Tansy Davies, setting Christina Rossetti’s poem Christmas Eve. Considering Tansy’s previous output, which consists largely of hard-edged, punchy instrumental works, it was hard to know quite what to expect. On the one hand, Christmas Eve is a definite stylistic departure, but on the other, it’s a seriously beguiling one. In parallel with the text, the piece blows hot and cold through the opening stanza, exploring some intriguing and paradoxical contrasts: “Christmas hath a darkness/Brighter than the blazing noon”. In the first line of each phrase, Tansy establishes a series of winding, independent strands, lingering over the words (finally – a composer unafraid to repeat whole lines of text!); these strands are then pulled together, creating some marvellous chords, before the choir erupts with the answering line. Read more

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