Bristol Bach Choir

I heard a voice from heaven

St Mary Redcliffe
Saturday 29th March 2008

“With such a strong, definite conductor as P[eter] Leech at the helm this choir is hardly in need of extra incentive to give of their best. However, such an incentive was on hand for this concert with three of the four composers represented on the programme sitting in the audience.”   (Gerry Parker - BRISTOL EVENING POST - 31.03.08)

Herbert Howells  Requiem
Howard Blake  Festival Mass for Double Choir
Bryan Kelly  Crucifixion
Michael Stimpson   The Ninth Hour: Four Latin Motets (World Premiere)*

* Special thanks to EEF Western, The Bliss Trust and The Bristol Bach Choir Foundation for sponsoring the Michael Stimpson commission

Peter Leech Conductor
Alison Smart  Soprano
Joseph Cornwell  Tenor
Nigel Nash  Organ
Kirsten Graham and Jeremy Little  Percussion

For biographies and further information on the soloists, orchestra and conductor, click the relevant name above.

Programme notes

Howard Blake (b.1938)  Festival Mass for double choir

Composer's note: In 1987 Three Choirs Festival scheduled a performance of my dramatic oratorio ‘Benedictus’ in Worcester. The cathedral choir was in particularly fine form with a wide vocal range and advanced standard and the musical director Dr. Donald Hunt, who knew that I was coming down for the performance, asked if I would be interested to compose a new setting of the communion service for the ambitious medium of a cappella (unaccompanied) double choir. I asked the Dean if the work should be in English or Latin but he said he would leave the decision to me. Several nights later I virtually ‘dreamed’ the intense opening Kyrie in Latin and this decided me. The four further movements followed soon after - an ambitious virtuosic ‘Gloria’, a solemn antiphonic ‘Sanctus’, a flowing contrapuntal ‘Benedictus’ in eight really separate parts (of which I'm particularly fond) and a minor key ‘Agnus Dei’ of great sadness which is redeemed by a move to the major only in the last four bars on the words dona nobis pacem. ‘Festival Mass’ was commissioned for Three Choirs Festival with financial assistance from West Midland Arts and given its first performance at the opening service of the festival in Worcester Cathedral on August 5 1987 by the Cathedral Choir trained and conducted by Donald Hunt.

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Bryan Kelly (b.1934)  Crucifixion (1993)

Bryan Kelly was born in Oxford and has subsequently maintained strong links with many of the choirs and other musical institutions in that city. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Herbert Howells and Gordon Jacob (author of an iconic student textbook on orchestration) and later joined the staff at the RCM as professor of theory and composition. Kelly is one of the most prolific British composers of choral music from the last 40 years and his various settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for Evensong have been performed by Anglican choirs throughout the world. During the 1980s Kelly had been President of the City of Oxford Choir, which honoured this association with two performances of Crucifixion under the successive batons of Carolyn Brock and Peter Leech, the latter having also performed several of Kelly's canticles, carols and London Songs. Crucifixion was originally composed for Simon Williams (Organist of St.George's, Hanover Square since 2000) and the Chiltern Choir and was first performed on 13 March 1993. It has since become an established part of the repertoire and has been recorded by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. The text was devised and part-written by the well-known Oxford poet Anne Ridler, with additional material (Whither, O Whither by the poet, divine and hymn-writer George Herbert (1593-1633) and verses for sections 7, 13 and 18 from The Shield of Achilles by W H Auden.

Described as a cantata and designed much like Lutheran baroque works in the same genre, Crucifixion includes chorales, interspersed between main movements as epithetical reflections upon important elements of the main text. At the first performance the audience sang these with the choir. The powerful opening sequence In those days, in which the ascending slow march of the organ, perhaps reminiscent of the procession to Calvary and the darkness of Golgotha, utilizes percussion accompaniment to great effect (the original full scoring included string orchestra but the reduced version for organ and percussion is authorized). A brooding bass drum roll underpins brittle choral dissonances built from juxtaposed block major and minor keys where the desperate tension is maintained until resolution into A flat minor at the word light. Kelly's harmonic language is rich in polytonality, always in keeping with the inherent drama of the text and never just for the sake of effect. A common technique is the gradual re-building of choral harmonies after a unison note, such as at these are the beginnings, the parts subsequently unfolding into a movingly beautiful four-part texture. The additional feature of tenor and soprano soloists, the former a quasi-Evangelist illustrating the salient elements of the Crucifixion narrative, the latter also representative of Mary and her sorrows, provides several opportunities for high drama. Rhythmic contrasts are varied and numerous, whether as running semiquavers depicting Christ's disciples fleeing in panic, agitated accented quavers initiated by the basses at Crucify him or the typical uncertainty of 5/8 meter used at Whither, O whither art thou fled my Lord, my Love?. Perhaps the most moving sequence is the final chorus where the soloists hover above the choral passage Ended, all is ended with the text Now I see a new heaven, a new earth, where opposing tonalities (initially E minor and E flat minor) are skillfully blended, followed by a return to the marching figure from the opening chorus which underpins the final utterance and closes with same chord as the opening phrase of the first movement.

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Michael Stimpson (b.1947)  The Ninth Hour: Four Latin Motets

Composer's note: "These four short Latin texts, originally set for unaccompanied choir by Francis Poulenc, capture the essence of the conflicts surrounding the crucifixion. In such brevity, we see the fear, the uncertainty, and of course, the anguish; but equally evident is the trust, reflection, and faith in ultimate resolution.
These conflicting elements play an important role in this setting and in particular I have acknowledged the swiftness with which the phrases move between the emotive elements - the colours and feelings readily interchange.
Thus, the first motet begins with quite tense, close harmony for the choir (‘Timor et tremor venerunt super me - Fear and trembling have come upon me), clashing between the octave plus or minus a semitone. But nothing lasts for long in these texts and the mood changes through ‘miserere mei Domine quoniam - have mercy on me’ to the more exultant 'Exaudi Deus deprecationem meam - Hear my prayer’ and the more meditative ‘Domine invocavi te - Lord, I call upon you’.
Perhaps the least emotive of the texts is the second one, and I have therefore lifted the tempo and given some of the direct speech to the tenors, which in these settings at times take on the role of Jesus. I have given an angelic quality to ‘ego te plantavi - I planted you’ but intensified it for 'ut me crucifigeres - you crucify me’.
I have reversed the order of the last two texts to preserve the logic of the account, the third motet now beginning gently with ‘Tristis est anima mea usque ad mortem - My soul is sorrowful even unto death’. But this is a much more dramatic part, and the music therefore intensifies to the final line ‘et Filius hominis tradetur in manus peccatorum - and the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of wickedness’.
Low, divided male voices set the opening imagery of the final motet ‘Tenebrae factae sunt - Darkness fell on the earth’. Central within this last text is ‘Deus meus, ut quid me dereliquisti? - My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to which I have given a sorrowful, somewhat lonely character. Finally, despite the strength of ‘Exclamans Jesus voce magna - Jesus crying out in a loud voice’ I have closed the work with a calmer feel, ‘Et inclinato capite emisit spiritum - and bending his head, he gave up the spirit’. The closing cadence both raises a question, and concedes that death resolves, whatever one's beliefs."

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Herbert Howells (1892-1983) - Requiem

Herbert Howells was born in Lydney, near Gloucester on the River Severn, just a few miles north-east of Bristol. Across the river to the east lie the Cotswolds, the stamping ground of the young Howells, from which he drew inspiration for many of his compositions. To many people Howell's choral works in particular represent a quintessential English twentieth century sound, conjuring up images of the English countryside as it changes from season to season. His majestic melodies might reflect the rich, fertile energy and abundance of an English summer, or the angular architectural lines of the medieval stonework in an English Cathedral, but his darker harmonies might also evoke the bleak atmosphere of a winter morning mist, or of weak sunlight caught briefly by ice-covered puddles before they crack beneath the feet of an unsuspecting walker. Whatever influences there may have been upon the young Howells, there is no doubt that his music was often shaped by early experiences and memories which stayed with him throughout his life.
After graduating from the local Church of England primary school Howells won a scholarship to Lydney Grammar. During this period he sang as a choirboy and served as an assistant organist in the local Parish Church. In 1905 Charles Bathurst, the local Squire, offered to pay for Howells to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for piano lessons with the organist Herbert Brewer. Although Howells seems initially not to have cared for this tuition, he did develop a long-lasting musical relationship with Brewer, who later accepted Howells as a pupil at the Cathedral for piano, organ, theory, harmony and counterpoint. Whilst studying at Gloucester Howells gained his first regular employment as organist at Aylburton Church, at the same time keeping in contact with musical activity at the Cathedral which, he later admitted, changed his life profoundly.
At the 1907 Three Choirs Festival Howells heard Handel's Messiah for the first time, and at the 1910 Festival he heard Delius' Sea Drift and the premiere of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams. Howells claimed that these two events in particular helped shape his thinking about music but also encouraged him to search for further inspiration. He inevitably grew tired of studies with Brewer and began searching for other avenues. In 1911 he received a letter from a former Gloucester classmate, Ivor Novello (brought more recently into prominence in Robert Altman's film Gosford Park) who had gone to London to study composition with Stanford at the RCM. Novello, a descendent of the famous Italian émigré publishing family, spoke so highly of Stanford to Howells that the latter was persuaded to apply for a position at the RCM. He submitted a selection of music and won an open scholarship in 1912. Howells studied music history and literature with Charles Hubert Parry, composition with Stanford, harmony and counterpoint with Charles Wood, organ performance with Walter Parratt and choral techniques with Walford Davies. It seems that Stanford ultimately had the greatest influence and Howells won several awards for composition during this period. The success of his early Mass in the Dorian Mode led to a performance by the Westminster Cathedral Choir and in 1916 he received a Carnegie Trust grant for his Pianoforte Quartet in A minor, Op. 21, the only chamber work approved by the jury that year.
In March 1917 Howells was offered a post as an organist at Salisbury Cathedral but after six months he was forced to abandon work due to being diagnosed with Graves' Disease or exophthalmic goitre, a condition which prevented him from serving in British forces during World War I. It was regarded by contemporary medical authorities (who gave Howells six months to live) as terminal, but the composer took the chance to participate in an experimental cure and after two years of weekly travel to St. Thomas' Hospital for radium injections he made a full recovery and lived to be 90. After treatment Howells' career continued to prosper. From 1936 to 1962 he was Director of Music at St. Paul's Girls' School in London, as successor to Gustav Holst. In 1937, he received his Doctorate of Music from Oxford and ten years later became an Honorary Member of The Royal Academy of Music. He was made Honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music in 1956 and an Honorary Fellow of The Royal School of Church Music in 1963.
Howells&ap[os; Requiem (1936) is scored for mixed unaccompanied chorus which sometimes divides into two choirs for up to ten parts. The manuscript included an organ part which the composer suggested for use in performance only if absolutely necessary. In 1935, after a short battle with spinal meningitis, Howells' son Michael died. Whilst it has never been claimed that the Requiem was a direct result of this tragedy, the fact that it emerged shortly afterwards, alongside several other powerful emotional works, cannot be considered mere coincidence. Howells never revealed the precise origins of the work and, for personal reasons, did not release it for performance until 1980.
Following neither the traditional Catholic form of obsequies, nor the Office of the Dead as it appears in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Requiem is a blend of liturgical influences drawn from both traditions. It opens with Salvator Mundi (O saviour of the world - originally a Matins antiphon for the Exaltation of the Cross) followed by Psalm 23 in English, Requiem aeternam (a fragment of the Latin Mass), Psalm 121, a second setting of the Requiem text, and finally I heard a voice from heaven (Revelations XIV), with soprano, tenor, baritone solos and six-part chorus. The order of movements, according to Brent Miller (1994), seems to have been fashioned after Walford Davies' Short Requiem in D Major, in memory of those fallen in the war (1915).
Compared with other choral works of the period Howell's harmonies are advanced and complex. His melodies, though always fluid, are woven into the texture whilst clashing frequently with chord clusters and dark, brooding dissonances which are pleasingly resolved at poignant moments. Tonal foci are frequently ambiguous, and in the Latin movements Howells experiments with poly-tonality, juxtaposing major and minor keys and related chord clusters, sometimes with terrifying effect. Conversely, in the Psalm-settings the language is relatively simple and direct, especially as the energy of the homophonic (block chord) structures is derived from the inherent speech-rhythms in the text. There can be no doubt that this extraordinary Requiem sits as one of the great settings, not only of its type in English repertoire, but amongst all choral obsequies that have come from Western musical traditions of the last 400 years.

Programme notes © Peter Leech 2008

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ALISON SMART (soprano) took a degree in Classics at Clare College, Cambridge, where she was a Choral Scholar. She then sang with The Sixteen and other Early Music groups before taking diplomas at the Royal Northern College of Music and Trinity College of Music, London.
Since then she has sung as soloist with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hanover Band and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under conductors such as Stephen Cleobury, Sir Andrew Davis, Jane Glover and Sir Roger Norrington.
Alison's passion for - and great understanding of - new works is reflected in her discography, which includes Peripheral Visions: British Music for voice and piano since 1970 (selected by the Sunday Times as their disc of the week) and New French Song (twenty newly commissioned songs by British composers), both for MSV.
Alison's operatic roles include Celia in Iolanthe at the BBC Proms; Third Herd Girl (Peer Gynt) at the Salzburg Festival and Mary Magdelene in Jonathan Harvey's Passion and Resurrection (now available on CD). Her recordings further include Messiah with the English Symphony Orchestra (Nimbus CD).

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JOSEPH CORNWELL (tenor) studied music at York University and singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His career began with The Consort of Musicke and the Taverner Consort. Singing under conductors such as William Christie, Harry Christophers, Eric Ericson, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Gabriel Garrido, Hervé Niquet and Andrew Parrott, his international engagements have taken him thoughout Europe and to North America and the Far East as well as throughout the UK.
Operatic rôles have included Snout in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Teatro di San Carlo, Naples), Mitridate in Il Pompeo Magno (Varazdin Festival), Polimone in Il Tito (Opéra du Rhin), Il conte in Le nozze di Dorina (Musikfestpiele Potsdam Sanssouci), Pilade in Oreste (English Bach Festival), Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (Boston Early Music Festival, Capella Cracoviensis), Giove in Il ritorno d'Ulisse and King Arthur (Lisbon), Eumete in Il ritorno d'Ulisse (Aix-en-Provence Festival), Thespis / Mercure in Platée (TCC Productions, Lisbon), and Tamese in Arsilda, Regina di Ponto (Barga Festival).
Joseph Cornwell's recordings include St Matthew Passion with the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble, Boyce's Peleus & Thetis with Opera Restor'd, Israel in Babylon with the Kantorei Saarlouis, Messiah with the Taverner Consort, Acis & Galatea and Mozart Mass in C Minor with Les Arts Florissants, Monteverdi Vespers 1610 with the Gabrieli Consort, King Arthur (Gramophone CD of the Month) with Le Concert Spirituel, Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle with Jos van Immerseel (BBC Radio 3 Building a Library Choice), Arsilda, Regina di Ponto with Modo Antiquo and Fairest Isle with the Parley of Instruments.

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JEREMY LITTLE (percussion) was born and grew up in Kenya. He studied Psychology and Zoology at Bristol University and percussion with Diggory Seacome, Jayne Obradovic, Graham Johns and Michael Skinner. He now teaches percussion at Millfield School and plays with many orchestras and ensembles including Welsh National Opera, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, The London Gala Orchestra, English National Ballet, Bath Philharmonia, the Brunel Ensemble, English Touring Opera, and the Emerald Ensemble. He regularly records for film and television.

KIRSTEN GRAHAM (percussion) studied music at Bristol University completing an MA in Advanced Musical Studies. She studied percussion with Diggory Seacome and John O'Hara. Kirsten teaches in Bristol, directs children's choirs and enjoys playing with local orchestras. She also sings alto with Bristol Bach Choir.

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