In beauty may I walk [3'42]
Into thy hands [7'02]
Jonathan Dove’s beautiful choral works have made him into a household name among professional and amateur singers alike. His writing is eminently approachable yet highly original. His music appears on cathedral music lists frequently around the UK, his distinctive voice and imaginative choice of texts creating inspirational works suitable for many different liturgical occasions.
The Missa brevis is the most recent work to be recorded here and was commissioned by the Cathedral Organists’ Association for their conference in Wells Cathedral in May 2009 and first performed by the cathedral choir under Matthew Owens’ direction. The same forces have recorded it here along with a delectable selection of Dove’s anthems.
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Jonathan Dove (b1959) is a hugely versatile composer who is perhaps best known for his remarkable canon of operas which range from the hugely successful comic opera Flight, based on a group of people trapped together in an airport for twenty-four hours, to works written especially for television, community operas and a series of works scored for period instruments. In an interview for Time Out in November 2009 he said: ‘I remember in my early teens reading The Hobbit and playing along with it on the piano, translating it into music … Around that time I also built model theatres of increasing sophistication—the last one used up all of my Meccano set and had ultraviolet lights and a hydraulic revolving stage.’ It is hardly surprising, then, if this instinct for the dramatic also informs his church music at every turn. He has written a great deal of choral music and the works selected for this recording show the range and versatility of his imagination and his response to varied texts.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the work which opens this disc, Bless the Lord, O my soul, a setting of Psalm 104. It was commissioned by the Eton Old Choristers’ Association to celebrate the choristers’ part in the school’s life from its foundation by Henry VI in 1440 until the choir school’s closure in 1968. This piece is a paean of praise which is characterized by the opening flourishes on the organ and the outburst of joyful, canonic, wordless singing (to ‘Ah’) which forms the choir’s first entry. The music then moves backwards and forwards between the piano staccato chords which accompany the choir’s first line of text, more organ filigree work from the opening, and big forte chords with the choir’s wordless canon. The second section (‘who coverest thyself with light’) has the choir imitating the trebles’ first phrase in another extended canonic progression under which the organ develops the filigree figure from the start into a moto perpetuo. The opening returns with what Dove has almost now made into a mantra of the first words ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’. The final section increases in volume, intensity and excitement to bring the anthem to a dazzling conclusion.
The Missa brevis is the most recent work to be recorded here and was commissioned by the Cathedral Organists’ Association for their conference in Wells Cathedral in May 2009 and first performed by the cathedral choir under Matthew Owens’s direction. There were various stipulations which Dove was required to address: the music should be challenging, but not be out of the reach of a good church choir; it should be interesting but accessible; it should be economical in its proportions; and it should be in Latin accompanied by organ. At the first performance it was immediately recognized that Dove had judged the work perfectly. (As stipulated by the commission, the composer had not published a liturgical Mass before.) Twenty-five cathedral organists signed up at the conference to perform the new work and many joined their number soon afterwards.
The Kyrie is rather different from Dove’s normal practice. There is more linear development, more polyphony and a greater development to a moment of climax close to the end. The organ part is minimal and uses the sustained-chord device to bind the short vocal phrases together. The effective cluster chords and their formation are reminiscent of Kenneth Leighton’s organ writing. The Gloria is something of a moto perpetuo with the organ setting up a rhythmically dancing figure in the opening bars. The choir sings short phrases in a variety of dynamics which don’t let up on the rhythmic excitement until the words ‘Agnus Dei, Filius Patris. Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis’ allow the tension to relax even though the organ keeps up the constant motion underneath. A spectacular climax is reached at ‘Jesu Christe’ (at the words ‘Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe’), where Dove brilliantly throws the music into D flat major, from an A major tonality, after which the movement dances to a brilliant ending. The Sanctus & Benedictus carries on the dance in a 5/8 ‘spirited’ setting. There are some similarities with Britten’s Missa brevis in the way the organ chords build up before the choral entry. However, where Britten leads straight into bell-like writing, Dove begins with a chordal outburst for the word ‘Sanctus’ and reserves his bell-like choral writing for the words ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’. The Hosanna at the end brings back the opening chords of the movement. The Agnus Dei is formed over an organ pedal point with a held low E and A which moves only twice during the movement, cleverly ratcheting up the tension with minimal fuss but maximum effect. After six bars of organ introduction (a short figure played by the right hand prepares us for the choral entry) the choir sings short chordal phrases. The introductory organ material is reduced to four bars for the next choral entry and the first pedal point move. After this the organ’s material is reduced further to two bars and the climactic pedal point shift to C and G with the choir singing the final ‘Agnus Dei’ strongly before subsiding into a mantra-like repetition of the words ‘dona nobis pacem’. It is a most beautiful and effective movement.
One of the methods of development used by contemporary ‘minimalists’ is the use of a motif which is then repeated again and again with a ‘binding’ feature such as a melody leading it into different pitches and tonal areas. Contrast in these pieces is usually provided by the introduction of a different repeated motif in another mood and dynamic. This is the pattern for I am the day, an unaccompanied work setting a brief Advent text from Revelation chapter 22 describing the promise of the coming of Jesus. It was a Spitalfields Festival commission, first performed in December 1999 by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. The key elements are the stillness of the opening bars, marked to be sung ‘with mystery’, and the following scherzo-like music which is ‘dancing and playful’. The second section maintains the melodic element of the first section sung by the basses while the upper voices sing short phrases taken from the Advent hymn O come, O come Emmanuel. This is highly effective as it acts almost like a distant memory of the hymn—something in the mind which one is trying to remember but, like a folk song learned in the cradle, the whole melody refuses to yield itself fully. The two contrasting elements return before a reflective ending has the trebles and altos gently wafting skywards like rising incense.
Wellcome, all wonders in one sight! was written for South Wilts A Cappella (a choir from South Wilts Grammar School) to sing in Salisbury Cathedral. It is an unaccompanied setting of a section of an extended poem called ‘An Hymne of the Nativity, sung as by the shepherds’ by the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw. This poem has a chorus of shepherds who encourage the two principal characters (also shepherds), Tityrus and Thyrsis, to tell what they saw at Christ’s birth. Dove uses a very small section of the chorus and part of a verse when both Tityrus and Thyrsis speak together (‘We saw thee in thy balmy nest’). Dove has written of Crashaw’s paradoxical imagery which spoke strongly to him: ‘Eternity shut up in a span. Summer in winter, day in night’, which, with remarkable economy, conveys the power of this miraculous event.
Dove’s setting uses the constant repetition of the words ‘wellcome wonder’ as an accompanimental motif which rocks like the cradle and perhaps also suggests the hushed awe of the shepherds. Around this, first the trebles, then the first basses, and later still the tenors, sing the full text in beautifully lyrical lines which Dove instructs to be sung ‘with awe’. Coming to the end of the first section, which returns in the middle and near the end, Dove produces a wonderful coup de théâtre at the words ‘God in man’, which temporarily interrupts the flow and has all voices high and in a remote key from what has immediately preceded it—a magical effect.
The Star-Song is another piece for Christmas which, like Wellcome, all wonders, uses different characters to create a little drama. In this case it is a dialogue between the star in the east and a chorus (perhaps representing the shepherds). The poem is by Robert Herrick (1591–1674) and he colourfully has the chorus asking where Christ is to be found. The assumption is that he will be laid in lily-banks or in ‘some ark of flowers’ or ‘in the morning’s blushing cheek’ and so on. The star replies emphatically ‘No’, and tells them that he is simply at his mother’s breast. The chorus then replies ecstatically that ‘He’s seen, He’s seen!’ and that they will give him ‘wassailing’ and ‘choose Him King, and make His mother Queen’. It is a wonderfully upbeat poem and Dove’s response to it is simple and effective. The organ part creates a ‘bright and twinkling’ star effect which continues throughout as another moto perpetuo. The tenors and basses are the chorus and the upper voices represent the star. When the moment of recognition comes the whole choir sings together. The use of a constant 7/8 metre keeps the excitement buzzing, and the ending simply flies into the air.
The Three Kings was commissioned by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge for its annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the year 2000. For the text Dove chose a fascinating poem by Dorothy L Sayers called ‘The Three Kings’. It is written in a quasi-medieval style with an ‘O balow, balow la lay, / Gifts for a baby King, O’ refrain. Sayers portrays her three kings in the three ages of man—young, in the prime of life, and very old. With perhaps an unexpected twist and a departure from received imagery Sayers portrays the young king as doleful and bringing myrrh; the prime-of-life king is a solemn priest who brings incense, ‘sad and sweet’, and it is the very old king who brings the handfuls of gold which are not money but gaud, baubles and glittering toys for a baby boy. Dove simply reflects these different personalities. The first is sung by two soprano soloists accompanied by the choir singing the words of the refrain. For the second king the speed increases a little but upper voices still sing the descriptive text whilst the choir sings the refrain words as accompaniment. The third king is introduced mysteriously but, out of the blue, Dove throws the music into an energetic scherzo as he describes the golden baubles and the excitement of the child’s response in receiving them. The piece ends in quiet reflection.
Run, shepherds, run! is a completely different conception and underlines Dove’s preoccupation with and feel for drama and the dramatic. This was another Spitalfields Festival commission, this time celebrating the life of Christopher Robert Vaughan, who died in his late thirties. Vaughan was a local resident in Spitalfields and Patron of the Festival who left part of his estate to funding the Festival’s ‘Learning and Participation’ programme. (This was not the only work commissioned from Jonathan Dove in memory of Vaughan as he was also asked to write a community cantata On Spital Fields to celebrate Vaughan’s life.) The poem—‘The Angel’s Song’ by William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649), from a collection called Flowers of Sion—is energetic and ideal for Dove’s purposes. The music was written to be performed with audience participation and they need to be taught their ‘refrain’ before the performance. In fact the music is quite complex as the audience part is divided up as the piece progresses, first into two parts and then into four parts, all of whom sing with a section of the choir. As Dove writes in his preface: ‘The four-part division presents the audience with quite a challenge: it may result in a degree of happy chaos, but this is all part of the fun.’ Wells Cathedral Choir take no such risks on this recording; the highly trained Wells Cathedral School Chapel Choir act as the ‘audience’ and all is well!
The main theme that runs throughout is also taken by the audience. Dove treats it in a number of different ways and, imaginatively (and helpfully), before the audience’s first entries their phrases are sung strongly by the choir, which they then imitate. The model for much of this piece is Britten’s A Boy was Born in which he has a constantly repeated energetic figure passed around the vocal parts over which is sung a binding longer-note melody (sung by the boys’ choir in Britten’s case). The result is very exciting and strongly energized.
Ralph Allwood is well known for his influential summer choral courses at Eton College. He commissioned Dove to write an anthem for the 1997 course at Eton and Dove responded with Ecce beatam lucem, a setting of words which, in a prefatory note, Dove says were possibly written by Alessandro Striggio (1540–1592). Striggio wrote a forty-part motet setting these words which is often coupled with the more famous one by Tallis. It is an ecstatic poem in praise of light and its source from the sun, the moon and the stars which are all created by God. The music is underpinned by a series of fast-moving and constantly repeated keyboard figures on the organ as the choir moves between slower-moving lyrical phrases and quickly imitative figures thrown from voice to voice. The final section (‘O mel et dulce nectar’), in a slower, reflective mood, leads to the final beautiful bars, which Dove marks to be ‘slow and serene.’
In beauty may I walk was composed as a leaving present for Anthony Whitworth Jones, a great supporter of Dove’s who commissioned him to compose numerous works for the Glyndebourne Festival including the opera Flight, on his departure from Glyndebourne in August 1998. This is a short and simple setting of anonymous words from the Navajo translated by the American poet Jerome K Rothenberg, who made a remarkable job of the almost untranslatable. The Navajo is a huge tribe of North American Indians whose reservation (mostly in Arizona) is the largest in the United States. The Navajos have never stopped speaking their native Athabaskan language which is spoken only on the Navajo reservation. Until recently it was an unwritten language. It has no alphabet or symbols and is purely reflective of their way of life. Although the language is complex for outsiders to understand the imagery can be simple and fresh as Rothenberg’s translation shows. Dove’s response is equally simple and uses a chant-like phrase which the basses sing at the start as an endlessly repeated figure which seems to reflect both primitivism and a kind of religious fervour. A second section marked ‘more alert’ and to be sung in a ‘bird-like’ manner has the upper voices pecking at the words ‘Beautifully joyful’. The tenors and basses join and longer-note phrases bring back a feel of the chant which is properly reintroduced in the final section. This builds to a big climax and a quiet ending.
Of Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995) Dove has written that ‘the theme of light, and starlight in particular, is an endless source of inspiration for composers’. The anthem was commissioned by the Friends of the Royal Academy of Arts for their annual service in St James’s Church, Piccadilly in London, and Dove thought that these images would also have a special meaning for visual artists. The organ part creates a musical image of the night sky with its twinkling stars which he says ‘sets the choir wondering who made them. The refrain “Seek him” starts in devotional longing but is eventually released into a joyful dance, finally coming to rest in serenity.’
Into thy hands was commissioned by Salisbury Cathedral to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the canonization of St Edmund of Abingdon (1175–1240), who was Canon Treasurer of Salisbury before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Dove was asked for an anthem which set words of St Edmund (he actually set two prayers) which would be sung in Pontigny Abbey in France where St Edmund is buried. Of the work Dove has written: ‘Knowing that it was a very resonant building, I imagined that the echo would be part of the piece, and set the first prayer spaciously, allowing for the sound of each phrase to reverberate. The second prayer talks of pilgrimage and eternity, and the music reflects this in a calm processional which does not reach an ending, but simply, in trust, surrenders itself.’
Paul Spicer © 2010