Peter Leech Conductor
This celebration concert formed the heart of our anniversary year and featured a wide variety of music spanning five centuries. Some pieces were chosen purely for fun, but most were examples of repertoire the choir has enjoyed performing over the last 40 years.
‘When soft voices die,’ so Shelley tells us, the sound
‘vibrates in the memory.’ Certainly the sounds – and words – of some beautiful
composer-poet partnerships are still resonating through many of the minds of audience and choir.
Particularly memorable were John Clare’s homage to the evening primrose
perfectly captured by Benjamin Britten and Elgar’s setting of
Tennyson’s opening stanza of The Song of the Lotus-Eaters.
Scratch beneath the surface of both of these apparently simple paeans and you will quickly discover ominous
reminders of life’s brevity.
The concert, like the flower, might have wiled the time away ‘shunning the light’ had not the programme changed tack to encompass some Bach (a forty-year celebration of the Bach choir could hardly be without it) and the mood changed from evocative to declamatory with ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ (‘Rage, rage, rage, world, and break; I stand here and sing in absolutely certain peace!’)
Then, perhaps to test forty years of team-spirit, the choir left the stage to stand in a single line circling the hall from the balcony, separating into eight choirs and forty parts to perform Tallis’ Spem in Alium. The work starts with a single voice and grows voice by voice, choir by choir until all forty voices resound. The effect, given the evident appreciation of the audience, was electric.
The concert returned to its English summer theme in the second half, with conductor and tenor, Peter Leech, and accompanist Nigel Nash, performing some of the little-known Bristolian composer and child prodigy William Sydney Pratten ‘Calmly pass, O Breeze’, ‘Waltz’ and ‘I’m saddest when I sing’.
And then there was Gershwin…
(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)
|Arthur Sullivan||The long day closes|
|Benjamin Britten||The evening primrose|
|C V Stanford||The blue bird|
|C H Parry||Music, when soft voices die|
|J S Bach||Jesu meine freude BWV 227|
|Thomas Tallis||Spem in alium|
|Edward Elgar||As torrents in summer
My love dwelt in a Northern land
There is sweet music
|Claude Debussy|| (from Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans:
Dieu qu’il la fait bon regarder
Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain
|Robert Pearsall||In dulci jubilo|
|Peter Leech (tenor) with Nigel Nash (piano)|
|William Sydney Pratten||Calmly pass, O breeze (1852)
I’m saddest when I sing (1843)
|Robert Pearsall||Lay a Garland|
|Cole Porter||Begin the Beguine (arr. Andrew Carter)
Let’s do it (arr. David Blackwell)
|George & Ira Gershwin||‘S wonderful (arr. David Blackwell)|
|Joe Garland||In the mood (arr. Peter Gritton)|
Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) The long day closes
Sullivan had achieved some success as a musician before the first of his successful operetta with W S Gilbert, Trial by Jury, in 1876. He studied at Leipzig, and his graduation exercise, music for The Tempest, immediately brought him fame, if not fortune. As Elgar was to do later, he won commissions from the provincial oratorio circuit, and he was appointed principal of the Ntional Training School for Music. The long day closes dates from 1868 and was one of a froup of seven songs for male voices. The words are by Henry Chorley, one of the leading musical journalists of the day, who had favoured the young Sullivan. The version for mixed voices appeared after his death, in 1902. It is...... a typical image of Victorian words and music...... even if this is not as Sullivan composed it.
Benjamin Britten (1913-76) The evening primrose
Throughout his life, vocal music was central to Britten's work. One of his most distinctive early works, A Boy Was Born (1930) is a set of choral variations of great originality. In his operas, the emphasis is chiefly on the solo voice (though there is magnificent choral writing in Peter Grimes), but he returned to the vocal ensemble in his last illness for Sacred and Profane. He had a fine taste in poetry - not surprising for a close friend of W H Auden - and his Five Flower Songs of 1950 sets poems by Herrick, Crabbe, Clare and Anon.
John Clare spent the first half of his life in Helpston, a small village in Northamptonshire; he had considerable success with his first book of poems in 1820, but returned to rural life (he had worked as a gardener and farm labourer) and spent much of the rest of his life in asylums.
Britten's songs were written for the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who had bought the run-down Dartington estate in Devon in the 1920s and had restored it to be a place of beauty and the home of a progressive school; the music summer school came later (1953). They were generous patrons of Britten's English Opera Group.
C V Stanford (1852-1924) The blue bird
Stanford was the conductor of The Bach Choir in London from 1885 to 1902. The choir had been formed in 1875 to give the first performance of Bach's Mass in B minor. Its instigator was a lawyer and amateur singer, a great-nephew of the author of Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, Arthur Duke Coleridge (Duke is a name, not a title). His daughter Mary [who wrote the words] was extremely well educated and had considerable gifts as a poet; after her death her friend Sir Henry Bewbolt published 237 of her poems. L'oiseau bleu is assigned to 1894 by Theresa Whistler, the editor of The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (London, 1954).
C H Parry (1848-1918) Music, when soft voices die
Parry came from an affluent background. After reading law and history at Oxford, he became an underwriter at Lloyds, but in 1877 was sufficiently confident of his musical abilities to abandon his career. By the 1890s he was a leading figure in many branches of music - musicologist, administrator, composer - and in 1898 he was knighted. He was highly regarded as a teacher by composers such as Vaughan Williams, but his compositions have fared less well. His anthem I was glad was sung at all twentieth-century British coronations; a tune from his oratorio Judith became popular as a hymn tune ('Dear Lord and Father of mankind') and his setting of William Blake's Jerusalem has won favour as a patriotic song with the Women's Institute and the Promenade Concerts. His Songs of Farewell, although not church music, are more appropriate for a volume of sacred music.
J S Bach (1685-1750) Jesu, meine Freude BWV 227
Several of the motets of Johann Sebastian Bach have been an important part of the repertory of the choir of St.Thomas's, Leipzig, from the time they were first composed to the present day. Mozart apparently encountered Singet dem Herrn whilst travelling through Leipzig and was said to have been significantly influenced by the experience. By the 1790's the fame of the motets had spread to Berlin where Carl Friedrich Fasch brought them to the attention of the Sing-Akademie and only a few years later they appeared in the first printed editions by Breitkopf & Hartel in 1802-3. Nineteenth century researchers were unsure of the exact origin of the motets. It was not until 1912 that the German musicologist Bernhard Richter established that they were not written as training pieces for young members of the St.Thomas' or for the Sunday services there, but commissions for specific occasions.
Jesu, meine Freude was composed no later than 1735 for a funeral or memorial service. The text comes from Romans 8:1, 2,9-11 and the main 'chorale' hymn tune used is 'Jesu, meine Freude' by Johann Crüger, published in 1653.
Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) Spem in alium
This extraordinary motet, perhaps one of the greatest musical works in the history of western music, is a grand ceremonial piece, the origins of which are still unclear despite the investigations of several scholars. The 40th birthdays of Mary I in 1556 and of Elizabeth I in 1573 may have provided pretexts for using 40 voices, though on stylistic grounds 1573 is the more probable date. It has also been argued that Spem may have been associated with celebrations for the doomed marriage of Mary I with Phillip II of Spain. There may also have been a connection with the household of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. An account of 1611 (reported by Denis Stevens) claims that Howard commissioned the work from Tallis in 1571 as an answer to Striggio's 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem.
With Spem in alium Tallis seems to move away from native practices towards a more dramatic style 'cultivated on the Continent but rare in English music' (Brett). The voices enter successively on points of imitation at the outset, but Tallis quickly relishes the chance to exploit antiphonal effects, alternating contrapuntal sections with broad homophonic statements. The sound moves initially around the line of choirs from left to right, which suggests that Tallis had a half-circle in mind, but as this is a difficult formation to maintain in this church with doubled parts, we have opted for an arrangement which complements the sequential passing of sound as well as antiphony.
Spem in alium nunquam habui, praeter in te, Deus Israel, qui irasceris, et propitius eris: et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis.
Domine Deus, Creator caeli et terrae, respice humilitatem nostram.
I have never founded my hope on any other than you, O God of Israel, who will be angry, and yet gracious: and who dismisses all the sins of suffering mankind.
Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth, be mindful of our lowliness.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Elgar, the 150th anniversary of whose birth we celebrate this year, was born near Worcester, the son of a piano tuner. He spent much of his life in the area, and was particularly attached to the Malvern Hills. His career began as a jobbing freelance violinist. he composed an enormous amount, at first with only local success, but his ambition was encouraged by the determination of his wife (he married above his station in 1889). He achieved some popularity during the 1890s with a series of secular cantatas, then suddenly achieved success with the Enigma Variations in 1899.
As torrents in summer is an independent partsong in Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op.30, written for the North Staffordshire Musical Festival, October 1896. Longfellow's poem was adapted by a neighbour of the Elgars, Harry Acworth. The story is complicated: a genealogical table showing how the characters are related has nearly forty names. Fortunately, this metaphorical chorus from Olaf's death scene needs no context to justify it, and indeed Elgar was anticipating that it might be published separately while he was correcting the proofs of the vocal score in May 1896.
My love dwelt in a Northern land is among Elgar's earliest partsongs, written in 1890 to a poem by Andrew Lang published in the Century Magazine in May 1882. It was the first work of Elgar to be published by the leading English publisher of choral music, Novello. Elgar got 100 free copies but no fee, and had to pay the poet a guinea for his permission, which was granted reluctantly on the third request. Elgar wrote of it to his friend Jaeger ('Nimrod') in 1908: 'Now a stock piece for superior poetic choirs; then  it was said to be crude, ill-written for the voices, laid out without knowledge of the capabilities of the human voice, etc etc!!'
There is sweet music belongs to a set of four partsongs written in Rome at the end of 1907 and early 1908. The set shows Elgar at his most ambitious in this form. This is the first of the set and is the least-often sung, chiefly because it looks so difficult; but despite the separate key signatures for the each choir [the women's voices sing in A flat, the men in G major] the difficulty is primarily for the rehearsal pianist. Elgar wrote: 'No 1 is, of course, written as it is for convenience', and stresses that 'a modern partsong is to be listened to and not read'. The words are from Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters. It was dedicated to Canon Gorton, Rector of Morecambe, who organised a local competitive choral festival; Elgar had visited him in Morecambe in 1903 and had conducted a specially written partsong to an audience of 6000.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) (from Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans )
During the first two decades of the twentieth century the two leading French composers of the impressionist school were undoubtedly Debussy and Ravel. By 1908, the year in which Debussy published his Trois Chansons, he had earned wide acclaim amongst progressive artists as the composer of the cantata L'Enfant prodigue (1884), Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1903) and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), the last of which aroused the scorn of many critics because of its alleged 'formlessness'.
From an early age Debussy had been attracted to the love poetry of Prince Charles Duc d'Orléans, nephew of King Charles VI (1380-1422). At the Battle of Agincourt Charles d'Orléans was captured and held prisoner by the English for twenty-five years, during which time he wrote a large number of love poems. In 1898 Debussy set Chansons 1 and 3 to d'Orléans' poems for a small amateur choir which the composer conducted at Passy. A third chanson was added in 1908 and No.3 was substantially revised at the same time. All three were premiered in Paris in 1909 at the Concerts Colonne.
Harmonically speaking, the first song, Dieu! qu'il la fait bon regarder, has been compared with Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, having similarly rich sonorities.
Dieu! qu'il la fait bon regarder,
La gracieuse bonne et belle;
Pour les grans biens que sont en elle
Chascun est prest de la loüer.
Qui se pourroit d’elle lasser?
Tousjours sa beauté renouvelle.
Par de ça, ne de là, la mer
Ne scay dame ne damoiselle
Qui soit en tous bien parfais telle.
C’est ung songe que d’i penser:
Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder.
God! what a vision she is,
this gracious, good and beautiful lady;
for all the great virtues that are hers
everyone is quick to praise her.
Who could tire of her?
Her beauty constantly renews itself.
On neither side of the sea
do I know any lady or damsel
who is so perfect in all virtues.
It’s a dream even to think of her;
God, what a vision she is.
In the last song, 'Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain', Debussy enjoys juxtaposing major and minor tonalities; the former (combined with old-fashioned counterpoint) illustrating summer, the latter depicting the cruel harshness of winter.
Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain!
Esté est plaisant et gentil,
En témoing de may et d’avril
Qui l’accompaignent soir et main.
Esté revet champs bois et fleurs
De sa livrée de verdure
Et de maintes autres couleurs,
Par l’ordonnance de nature.
Mais vous, Yver, trop estes plein
De nège, vent, pluye et grézil.
On vous deust banir en éxil.
Sans point flater je parle plein:
Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain!
Winter, you’re nothing but a villain!
Summer is pleasant and kind,
as we see from May and April
which accompany it evening and morning.
Summer clothes the fields, woods, and flowers with its livery of green
and many other colours,
by nature’s command.
But you, Winter, are too full
of snow, wind, rain, and sleet.
You should be banished!
Without exaggerating, I speak plainly—
Winter, you’re nothing but a villain!
Robert Pearsall (1795-1856) In dulci jubilo
Pearsall was a lawyer who moved to Germany in 1825 for the sake of his health. He had become interested in discovering early music, and is best know for this arrangement of In dulci jubilo. Pearsall's own notes state:
'The original melody, employed as a Cantus firmus, is to be found in an old German book of 1570 which, from its title and contents, appears to have contained the ritual of the Protestant congregations of Zweibrueken and Neuburg. Even there it is called "a very ancient song (uraltes Lied) for Christmas Eve" so that there can be no doubt that it is one of those old Roman Catholic melodies that Luther, on account of their beauty, retained in the Protestant service. It is still sung in remote parts of Germany in the processions which take place on Christmas Eve.
'The words are rather remarkable, being written half in Latin and half in the upper German dialect. I have translated them to fit the music, and endeavoured to preserve, as much as I could, the simplicity of the original. The music.....was written for the Choral Society at Carlsruhe and was performed there in the Autumn of 1834.'
William Sydney Pratten (1820-1882) Calmly pass, O breeze (1852)
I’m saddest when I sing (1843)
Like many provincial centres, Bristol had a vibrant musical life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The city’s mercantile strength supported a rich tradition of concert performances, opera and sacred music which reached its apogee during the 1830s and 1840s, a period which saw the building of the Great Western Railway, Colston Hall and Clifton Suspension Bridge. Concerts at Bristol Cathedral, Hotwells and Clifton featured leading national and international performers who attracted large audiences. There were also biennial music festivals. Musical families such as the Wesleys and Broderips had been prominent in eighteenth-century Bristol, and in the nineteenth century Robert Pearsall and others would succeed them, but many important figures have languished in obscurity.
William Sidney Pratten, the son of William Pratten senior, a music teacher and flautist in the orchestra of the Bristol Theatre Royal, was born on 18 March 1820. He began learning the piano in 1830 and appeared in a public concert at Clifton Assembly Rooms two years later. In December 1832 he joined his brothers Frederick (who later became a virtuoso double-bassist) and Robert (later to establish a solo career as a flautist in London) on the stage and in March 1833 returned for a solo appearance which Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal reported as ‘proof of his extraordinary genius’ which ‘astonished’ the audience. Pratten became a celebrated child prodigy and from 1833 onwards he appeared regularly in Bristol and other provincial centres, performing with visiting stars from London and abroad. The critics at the Bristol Mirror noted that the city had ‘seldom seen a lad of more promise’. Pratten soon began composing and further concert engagements featuring his own works took place in Dublin and elsewhere. By the late 1830s Pratten’s fame as a player, composer, singer and conductor was at its height. However, it seems that as he grew older the novelty of his concerts began to diminish. In 1840 he was appointed organist of the Lord Mayor’s Chapel and although his concert appearances continued, they did not generate the same excitement as those of his youth. In the late 1840s Pratten enrolled at St.Bee’s theological college (Cumbria) and in 1852 left Bristol for London where he spent the rest of his life as a parish priest, though he continued to compose when time allowed. Although some of his songs were published, the bulk of his compositions seem to have been lost. However, in 1999 an autograph volume of 57 songs and a Waltz for piano was discovered by Peter Leech in an Oxford second-hand bookshop. This collection, spanning the period 1842-1875, is probably one of the more important fragments of a Bristol composer’s work to have been discovered in recent times. The majority of songs are light-hearted affairs designed for evening entertainment, but some are highly interesting and certainly worthy of more widespread exposure as elements of a genre – early Victorian parlour music – which is only now gaining some recognition.
Robert Pearsall Lay a Garland
Pearsall's imitations of Morley's madrigals were performed by the new Bristol Madrigal Society, which was set up in 1837 while he had returned from Germany to sort out the family estate at Willsbridge.
Madrigal singers find Lay a garland the most effective of the nineteenth century partsongs, its relationship to earlier styles not being so self-conscious as in some of Pearsall's other music. It was written in 1840 to words taken from Beaumont and Fletcher's play The Maid's Tragedy, though changed from first to third person. Dating from around 1610, the play was performed fairly regularly until the Victorian period, so Pearsall could well have seen it. It is one of those gory tragedies in which everyone finishes up dead, though 'happily ever after' adaptations diminished the play's original gloom. The chief performance problem of Pearsall's setting is tempo. It is usually sung by small choirs used to the current style of singing early music, who probably take it faster than Pearsall would have done. Listeners too are used to faster tempi for music of the Renaissance, and performing it too slowly may emphasise its origin in the 1830s and separate it from the style to which it relates.
Notes on J S Bach, Tomas Tallis and W S Pratten © Peter Leech 2007
Other notes courtesy of Oxford University Press
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