‘A one-time member of the BBC Singers, Bingham possesses the enviable gift of writing music of uncompromising integrity, resourcefulness and questing spirit that both consistently ignites the imagination and engages directly with the listener’ (Gramophone)
Under the inspirational direction of Matthew Owens, Wells Cathedral Choir has made a speciality of the performance of contemporary sacred music, and has commissioned works from many composers including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Bingham herself. This album features first recordings of a number of Bingham’s sacred choral works. The living relationship between the composer and the musicians is clear from the vivid, committed performances given by the children and gentlemen of the choir.
Also included is an extensive work for solo organ, Christmas Past.
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For a composer who knows her art form’s history and craft in fine detail, Judith Bingham is notably free from the burden of the past. Her language is authentic in and of itself: those looking to play spot the musical influence should turn elsewhere for their sport. And yet nothing comes from nothing. Memories, personal and collective, and their reflection in the distorting mirror of time, are shaping forces in Bingham’s music. Her broad experience as a professional singer and empathy for what singers paid and unpaid can do—and sometimes struggle to do—also inform the freedom and clarity of her writing for voices. Bingham’s anthems, services and other sacred pieces are embedded within a great tradition, each alive and of this world yet connected to a long thread of theology mediated through music. The works recorded here arise with strength from rich cultural and spiritual soil while challenging the often cosy and conservative tastes of Choral Evensong addicts. Above all, they connect directly with the ritual of the Anglican liturgy and, beyond that, the vast mythos of Christian communal worship, encompassing the particular qualities of the buildings and choirs for which they were written and deepening the universal tradition of music as sounded symbol.
The Wells Service began with a commission from Wells Cathedral for settings of the so-called alternative canticles for Anglican Evensong, Cantate Domino and Deus misereatur, Psalms 98 and 67 respectively. Familiar images of the psalmist’s harp influenced Bingham’s extensive use of spread chords and arpeggios in the organ part to Cantate Domino (‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’). The strategy creates multi-layered tonal and textural combinations of voices and instrument, carefully developed to reflect subtle shifts in the canticle’s text: extrovert jubilation here gives way to deep contemplation of God’s equanimity and mercy elsewhere. Deus misereatur (‘God be merciful unto us, and bless us’) grows out of anxiety, present in the composition’s harmonic ambiguity and breathless rhythmic insistence. The psalmist’s universal plea for mercy and enlightenment opens out into a confident song of praise, herald of something altogether more penitent and mysterious at ‘God shall bless us’ and for the doxology ‘Glory be to the Father’. The Wells Service was first performed by Wells Cathedral Choir, Jonathan Vaughn and Matthew Owens during Choral Evensong at Wells Cathedral on 13 June 2010.
Harvest was commissioned to celebrate Philip Brunelle’s fortieth year as choirmaster and organist of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Brunelle first introduced Bingham’s music to the United States in the 1980s, establishing a lasting friendship between composer, conductor and his various choirs. The essence of Harvest, first heard at Plymouth Congregational Church in November 2008, is distilled in its rapt setting of ‘These things, these things were here, and but the beholder / Wanting’: ‘Christ is there, if you just look’, suggests Bingham. The full title of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, Hurrahing in Harvest, and its teeming references to landscape and the natural world, celebrate the presence of Christ (‘physical and muscular’ in Bingham’s view) in all created things. Late summer’s heat and languor condition the style of the work’s opening, its sultry atmosphere gradually offset by music of great rhythmic vitality and transcended by choir and organ in their radiant apotheosis: ‘The heart rears wings’.
Bromley Parish Church stands as a symbol of timeless stability in an urban landscape otherwise dominated by multi-storey car parks and the disposable trappings of modern consumerism. Its permanence, as with all things, is more illusion than reality: the medieval appearance of St Peter and St Paul’s masks the story of how ancient masonry was destroyed in April 1941 by the force of one German high explosive bomb and replaced post-war by a new church, albeit incorporating its predecessor’s original flintwork and tower. Bingham’s third Missa brevis setting (subtitled ‘Awake my soul’) and her anthem The Shepherd were created in 2007 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the phoenix building’s consecration. ‘I wanted the dramatic progression of the Mass to be about rebuilding’, notes the composer. The work’s Kyrie, she continues, evokes ‘walking amid the ruins of the church, desolation, despair’. Its Gloria unfolds from the ‘decision to rebuild—a sense of renewed hope’, while the Sanctus enshrines the solemnity of the new church’s consecration. The Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’), observes Bingham, turns to ‘the forgiveness of enemies’, a process led by the rebuilding of trust and recognition of mankind’s mutual interdependence.
Austere modal harmony and a fear-filled tritone conjure up images of a wasteland in the Kyrie, brief in duration but fathomless in its survey of life undermined by death. The Gloria retrieves material from a hazy world of medieval number symbolism to confront earthly imperfection in the form of a brassy march with the perfection of the Holy Trinity, the latter articulated by the organ’s long chains of triplet quavers and commingled in the rhythmic shifts and syncopations of the choral writing. Repetition is key to the affect established and maintained throughout the Sanctus. Bingham’s conception is tuned to the infinite grace implied by the word ‘Holy’, rather than to the projection of shining visions of the ‘God of power and might’ or of ecstatic ‘Hosannas’. The organ falls silent in ‘Lamb of God’: forgiveness is work for women and men, not machines.
The Shepherd, like the Sanctus of Bingham’s Bromley Missa brevis, addresses God with humility, seeking the soul’s liberation (and perhaps the liberation of all souls) from self-repression and fear. The visionary words of William Blake, from his Songs of Innocence and Experience, tell of the good shepherd attending watchfully to his wayward flock, a Christian metaphor for the fully engaged God, polar opposite of James Joyce’s indifferent creator spirit, ‘refined out of existence … paring his fingernails’. Bingham reinforces her engagement with Blake’s text by incorporating material from the hymn tune ‘Awake, my soul’, especially fragments of the bell-like descending scale of its second phrase. She was drawn to the hymn by its words, written by Thomas Ken (Bishop of Bath and Wells) in the 1670s, which speak of dedication to the Christian path and liberation from ‘dull sloth’. The anthem quotes the hymn’s familiar doxology, ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow’, fully stated towards the composition’s close.
Human suffering, endured in all its forms by Jesus, occupies the compassionate heart of Ave verum corpus. The late medieval text is most closely associated with the Catholic sacrament of Eucharist and the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during Mass. It has also found a place in the Protestant ordinance of Holy Communion as an expression of fidelity to Christ. Bingham’s setting, written within the span of two days in April 2002, suffuses rapt reverence with intimations of life’s pain and its part in reconciliation with God. Repeated rhythmic motifs in the organ and choral writing suggest the weary tread of Jesus on the road to the cross, casting a long shadow of penitence, briefly cleared by luminous chordal settings of ‘O clemens, o pie’.
The old Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, among the richest monastic complexes in pre-Reformation England, invested much of its wealth in religious art and artefacts. One of its star craftsmen, known to history as Master Hugo, may have carved the cross of walrus ivory now housed in The Cloisters in New York City. Scenes from the ornate sacred relic were brought to life in Bingham’s dance-drama The Ivory Tree (2002–4), commissioned to celebrate the addition of a new tower to St Edmundsbury Cathedral. The composer returned to the work’s fourth motet, Jesum quaeritis Nazarenum, refashioning it for boy treble and organ especially for this recording. Here the lone voice reports the words of the risen Christ from within the tomb, their significance burnished in Bingham’s setting by subtle harmonic modulations, which in turn are anchored to the stable foundations of a repeated ground bass.
Repetition’s rhetorical power and affecting melodic emblems find common cause in Bingham’s sublime Corpus Christi Carol, commissioned for inclusion in The Choirbook for the Queen, a collection of contemporary anthems published in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II. The text, arguably the most famous and among the finest of all late medieval lyrics, has been read as everything from a political allegory ‘on the displacement of Catherine of Aragon from the affections of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn, whose heraldic badge … was a white falcon’ to a song informed by the story of King Arthur and the perpetually wounded Fisher King, protector of the Holy Grail.
‘I’d always wanted to set the text’, recalls Bingham, who interprets the carol as a late fifteenth-century lament for the heavy loss of life unleashed by the Wars of the Roses. ‘A knight, always bleeding, lies in a chapel, a young woman weeping at his side. The chapel is decked out in funereal colours and at the side of the knight are written the words Corpus Christi [the body of Christ], as if the crucifixion is being played out over and over again. The music is a series of canons which overlap—and the atmosphere of the music is like a sunny and fresh English landscape that gradually clouds over. More than anything I wanted to create an intensely atmospheric sound.’ Wisps of Bingham’s dark ‘clouds’ emerge early in the piece, suggested by the sighing melody of ‘the falcon’ and the soprano part’s slow descending setting of ‘Lulley, lulla’.
The adult composer’s reflections on childhood Christmases are wired into the collective consciousness of shared hope, expectation, joy and disappointments in her Christmas Past, originally conceived in 1989 as a set of children’s piano pieces and revised for organ in 2012. The music’s fabric contains references to other Bingham works and fleeting lines and rhythmic motifs from evergreen Christmas carols.
Epiphany evokes the space of primal consciousness supposedly open to mystics of most religions, wherein lies the paradox of ‘dazzling darkness’. The anthem follows a journey, both temporal and spiritual, charting a steady course away from gentle peace towards a striking vision of God’s transcendent power. ‘The poem places the journey of the Magi in a fiercely cold English winter landscape’, the composer observes. ‘The star in their hearts leads them, full of doubt and fear, to the deepest, darkest heart of winter, where they encounter the dazzling atavistic force of God. The final rising organ melisma is the new life, buried yet growing in the hard life.’ When David Hill, then organist and director of music at Winchester Cathedral, asked Bingham to write a work for the enthronement on 6 January 1996 of Bishop Michael Scott-Joynt, she forged a text for the occasion out of a line from Henry Vaughan’s ‘Ode to Night’.
Bingham’s Edington Service—her second setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, made for the fiftieth Edington Festival of Music within the Liturgy in 2005—involves an imaginative leap back to the first Christian congregations. The composer chose the Latin text for her Edington Service as a vehicle to return to the distant past. ‘The Magnificat only has an organ pedal accompaniment, a repeated rhythmic motif’, she observes. ‘I wanted to make both movements sound arcane, as if evoking worshippers of two thousand years ago. The Nunc dimittis seems to be wafting down the airways from a long time ago.’
God be in my head, commissioned by Philip Barnes for Holy Communion Episcopal Church in St Louis, Missouri, presented a challenge to Judith Bingham. The setting by Henry Walford Davies was firmly ensconced in the composer’s head, an abiding legacy of her life as a singer. ‘I got round the problem by using the famous opening five notes of the Walford Davies as the accompaniment to a rocking, lullaby-like setting.’
Wells Cathedral first introduced girl choristers to the ranks of its resident choir in 1994. Our faith is a light was commissioned to mark the initiative’s tenth anniversary. Bingham chose for her text words from Revelations of Divine Love by the fourteenth-century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich. The imaginary landscape of her work is also furnished with details from the early history of the present Wells Cathedral, which grew up in the late twelfth century to the north of a Middle Saxon cemetery. ‘It was over the dead that that mighty façade rose … with its hymn to [the] Madonna: Regina caeli laetare, alleluia’, recalled Edward Hutton in his Highways and Byways in Somerset of 1912, whose work also notes the daily singing of a Mass to the Blessed Virgin at Wells. ‘Thinking back to the twelfth century when work began on the cathedral led me to another blend of composer and female voices—Hildegard of Bingen and her nuns’, observes Bingham. ‘This anthem is in some ways my homage to Hildegard’s ecstatic melody. To suggest the stretching out of nearly a thousand years, the organ often has rising or falling staccato chords, ticking like the cathedral’s famous medieval clock.’
Andrew Stewart © 2013