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The choral music of Kenneth Leighton is beloved of cathedral and collegiate choirs across the land: immersion in the Anglican tradition dates back to the composer’s earliest years as a boy chorister and combines with a unique adult musical language to create a world at once radical and traditional. And who better to perform it than the musicians of the next generation—Trinity College Choir Cambridge under their director Stephen Layton.
If this gory and meticulous detail disturbs us, good. The inspiration for so careful and horrifying a picture comes from Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who recommended the imaginative scrutiny of this scene as a devotional exercise; this particular meditation, he wrote, is designed to deny us ‘any joyful thoughts, even though they are good and holy’, but rather rouses us to ‘sorrow, suffering, and deep pain’. This scene, perhaps the most recognizable in the Christian story, is charged with a new, graphic horror. We might have thought we knew what the crucifixion looked like; but Carey would have us think again, think harder, and see the minute particulars of Christ’s thought-defying pain. The more we shudder, the more the exercise is working; and, as a result, the more we feel our own wretchedness. ‘Why, oh, why suffered he?’, the picture of such pain compels us to exclaim. And the answer swings back on us. ‘Thou’, the text points out of the page, ‘thou didst make / Him all those torments bear’.
This strain of emotionally charged meditation is perhaps what attracted Kenneth Leighton to the poem, what made him seek it out with such diligence. ‘I find in religious / mystical/visionary ideas’, he wrote once, ‘the most exciting stimulus for composition.’ The ideas to which he responded ranged from the traditional liturgy of the Anglican Church to Carey and the English metaphysical poets, who, he commented, ‘have been such a constant source of inspiration to British composers’. On the opposite side of the early-modern religious spectrum from Carey’s Ignatian exercises, we find a similar burning imagination in What love is this of thine? by the devout Puritan Edward Taylor, which Leighton set in 1985, three years before his death. The poem’s first stanza is a pair of knotted questions on the mysterious subject of the Incarnation, an attempt to untie the Gordian paradox of ‘Infinity, and finity conjoined’. What sort of love could possibly drive the Godhead to ally himself with frail flesh, marrying himself to our manhood? The answer is both joyous and terrifying: a ‘matchless love’, which fills Heaven, then the world, then hell, by which time it is an unstoppable tide of blood gushing from Christ’s veins, our blood pouring ‘through thy person’. The joy of that exclamation, ‘Oh, matchless love!’, quickly curdles to horror.
Leighton’s setting more than matches the poem in its burning intensity. This knotty text is broken up and given to different voices at different times; no single part gets the whole story. Frequently, just one voice will continue the strand of thought, which can easily be concealed by the fervour in the other lines. Saving certain lines from being drowned out in performance is a constant challenge: in What love is this of thine?, God’s elect—who appear only in the soprano and tenor melody—can easily be washed away in the ‘mighty tide’ of overflowing love.
There are moments in many of the pieces on this album where the text spirals into a whirl of sound. In the Magnificat of the ‘Magdalen Service’ (‘Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense’), ‘world without end’ rings out from five different parts in a growing wave of sound, before the final unison ‘Amen’. Likewise, in Leighton’s 1957 setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s God’s grandeur, the thudding monosyllables ‘have trod’ clash against each other in every voice part, treading the text firmly into Hopkins’s mud.
In fact, despite his exceptional breadth of reading and keen sensitivity for poetry, Leighton often treats the words he sets with less deference than some other composers of church music. His style does not take for granted the primacy of the texts; even the rigid formalities of the liturgy are not always left unaltered. In the Magnificat of the ‘Magdalen Service’ the sopranos introduce a miniature piece of contrapuntal imitation on the phrase ‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’, which is picked up by the altos and basses; when the tenors join, singing the same line as the top sopranos an octave lower, the line has been condensed, to ‘he hath magnified me’. This entry appears, accented, on the offbeat of the bar, and the heavy alliteration of Leighton’s version, ‘he hath’, punches through the texture of the piece. The fierce counterpoint of these bars, the jagged syncopation, the twisting melisma of ‘magnified’—all of these are regular features of Leighton’s choral writing; so regular, perhaps, that we take them for granted. What they have in common is that they disturb the words of the text. This is what makes Leighton’s settings so oddly brilliant, so highly charged. He is not content to leave the words as they are, to let them speak for themselves. Instead, he will disrupt the natural rhythm of a line, jolting it with his syncopation, bending syllables in extended melismas. There is an unsettling way in which he subjects even the most familiar words of the Anglican liturgy to ceaseless scrutiny by showing them in different aspects, where a melisma or a rhythmic accent voices a phrase in a new or forgotten way. By summoning up a swirling storm of music, Leighton demands that we look and listen to the words with greater attention, to examine them more closely.
These are qualities that mark Kenneth Leighton out from the larger tradition of Anglican choral music. In fact, to think of his music as part of the lineage of this tradition is not wholly fair. He was not exclusively, or even perhaps primarily, a composer of religious music—he might have been horrified by the very idea. He was a prolific writer of orchestral and instrumental works; but there is a tendency to treat this aspect of his career as separate, to chart different preoccupations and influences. There is no denying the tremendous impact of the choral tradition on Leighton. He had begun his musical life as a boy chorister at Wakefield Cathedral, singing there from 1937 to 1942. The legacy of this total immersion in the Anglican repertoire, he reflected in later life, ran deep: ‘Early experiences are of immense and fundamental importance in musical as in all other kinds of development and I therefore speak as one who comes from inside the church.’
But to draw a rigid distinction between his choral and orchestral work does Leighton a disservice, and risks misunderstanding both sides of his career. Not only do strands of religious traditions make their way into his orchestral work—like his second symphony, the ‘Sinfonia mistica’, which he described as a ‘requiem’ for his mother—but the rich seam of preoccupations apparent in his orchestral writing can be found in his religious compositions. Leighton was an excellent keyboard player, a fact which shines through in his two settings of the Canticles. Organists enjoy playing these, and it is easy to see why. Leighton’s organ parts don’t just accompany. There is, for example, a genuine parity between organ and choir in the brilliant, motorized semiquavers, the quick runs of thirds, in the ‘Magdalen Service’.
In The Second Service the independence of the organ part is striking; it has its own musical material to play with beneath the texture of the choir. The detail with which it is annotated and developed feels like a kind of homage to Brian Runnett, the virtuosic organist of Norwich Cathedral, who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1970 as he was driving back from a recital in Westminster Abbey; it was in Runnett’s memory that the Cathedral Organists’ Association commissioned the piece from Leighton. This same independence is true of Crucifixus pro nobis too. David Lumsden, for whom it was composed, remembers the ominous first performance of the work, which he gave with the Choir of New College, Oxford: ‘After the organ introduction to the first movement there was a loud knocking on the chapel door. For some reason Gerald English (our tenor that evening) had been locked out, necessitating another start.’ A curious demonstration of how independent organ and vocal lines can be.
There are more influences at work in Leighton’s choral music than we might think. In 1951 Leighton won the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which allowed him to spend a year in Rome studying under the Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. The marks of Petrassi’s stern serialism, and the range of influences Leighton encountered in Italy, are visible in the murky harmonic language of pieces like God’s grandeur. This work opens with a loud, unison cry, which quickly fragments; the chords grow fiercer and more dissonant until the climax, ‘the grandeur of God’. This last word, ‘God’, arrives on a chord of D, a harmonic progression one might expect after the piece’s opening in G. But ‘God’ is not in D minor, or D major, but both: the tenor F sharp jars against the soprano F natural. For Leighton, God’s grandeur is a great and terrifying thing (as it was for Hopkins). Hopkins’s poem is a sonnet, and one way of reading the poem would be as a turn (a volta) from despair at human conduct to the prevailing power of nature and grace. Leighton’s setting is more subtle in its analysis: not only is ‘nature’ a more jagged and uncomfortable force, but God remains locked in that bitter-sweet chord of D minor/major. This is Leighton’s God: a harmonically ambiguous, unsettling combination of major and minor, joy and pain. Leighton sometimes speaks as someone from inside the church; but his relentless analysis of the familiar patterns of worship show him speaking, just as often, as someone from outside it too.
For both performers and listeners there is a difficult path to trace between the clarity of the text and the sometimes frightening intensity of the music. Moreover, the dramatic drive of some of these works derives from the music’s careful rhythms of pacing. The Magnificat of The Second Service, for example, begins with a slow, quiet organ passage, where the dotted crotchet is about 44 beats per minute. A few bars later, the soprano melody tentatively makes its entrance. Then the tenors join, in the same melismatic shimmer, a few bars later. Then, introducing a new line of text with a more insistently syllabic setting, come the altos and basses; and for the next page and a half the music grows steadily firmer and more defined, until finally—as the natural climax of the whole opening—it lands on the word ‘blessed’. Yet this initial metronome marking remains precisely the same; the momentum of this taut, seamless passage is achieved without any actual increase in tempo. Even after that ‘blessed’, where the quaver becomes a crotchet, that same marking of 44 beats per minute persists. And in spite of all the twitching syncopation of the organ part, all the ebbs and swells of the choir, that beat continues. Against this constant pulse, Leighton achieves a stunning range of different moods; from the fierceness of ‘the imagination of their hearts’, to the aching beauty of ‘He remembering his mercy’.
Often in Leighton’s music, the subtler the contrasts are, the clearer the shades of meaning that emerge. There is a restless, searching quality; and this marks a deeper aspect of Leighton’s painstakingly thoughtful settings of religious texts. What attracted him in religious writing was not a facile dogmatic certainty; it was the pain, the anxiety, the difficulty of poems like Crucifixus pro nobis. Just as Patrick Carey takes the image of the crucifixion and makes it new, concentrating on its detail to refresh the sheer horror of the scene, so Leighton concentrates on the detail of his texts to give a new and disconcerting view of the struggles of religion. The common feature of all the settings on this recording is their power to disconcert: whether the texts are as obscure as Carey’s Crucifixus, or as well known as the patterns of the liturgy. Leighton’s music forces us to think again about even the most familiar scenes.
The drama of this rethinking feels more important to him than any promised rest at the end. Take, for instance, his setting of Isaac Watts’s 1709 poem, Give me the wings of faith. Watts imagines the triumph of the saints above, imagining ‘how great their joys, / How bright their glories be’. But in Leighton’s setting, the angular chromaticism and the ticking beat of the organ’s minims allow little time for basking in glory. The organ shrinks down to a pianissimo, before it drops out altogether; and in a whispered hush the choir recalls that, for all their triumph now, ‘Once they were mourning here below, / And wet their couch with tears’. The perfect, saintly life is not devoid of restlessness; it is devoted to it. It is a road full of torments, marked out by ‘Our glorious Leader’ Christ himself, who offers his own example for imitation. The poem’s climax imagines that saintly path to heaven; yet there is something abrupt and peremptory about Leighton’s setting. After the harmonic movement—the piece has travelled through all sorts of harmonic centres, suggesting all sorts of tonalities—the piece simply lands on a fortissimo B major chord. Leighton was a composer who could chart minutely the harmonic swell and decay of a piece; the fact that he didn’t here looks like another aspect to his distinctive musical theology. By the close of the piece, not one step has been taken on the ‘path to heav’n’; what we see attested by the ‘long cloud of witnesses’ is how long and arduous that path is.
For Leighton, such struggles do not stand in the way of faith; they are faith. In the Magnificat of the ‘Magdalen Service’, after the violent ease with which the proud are scattered, the jagged accents with which the rich are sent empty away, comes the moment ‘He remembering his mercy’. The phrase appears with a sudden tenderness as the choir floats, with no accent at all, over the running quavers in the organ.
The Missa brevis, too, dwells on the concept of mercy. The imitative entries of the ‘Agnus Dei’, each voice speaking over the others, draw together into an unexpected resolution on the word ‘mercy’. The same word, ‘mercy’, lies at the heart of the opening ‘Kyrie’, repeated over and over, swelling and diminishing in volume. These repetitions probe at the meaning of the word, as if each time it appears, we see it in a different light; but they also express the visceral urgency of the prayer, more insistent with each iteration. Leighton does not stop probing and questioning concepts like mercy, but he does not stop asking for them either.
Kenneth Leighton was by no means a devoted and pious religious acolyte. His relationship with the church was at times indifferent, at times tortured and charged with difficulty. His music, nevertheless, has something to say about the nature of faith and devotion, and says it by responding to the words he sets. To limit what he has to say to the Anglican Church alone is, again, to underestimate the sheer range of Leighton’s reading and thought. His eye never rested on one period, one denomination, one church; he could read the Jesuitical Patrick Carey alongside the fiercely Puritan Edward Taylor, and see some common element to bring them together.
The breadth of these ideas stretched well beyond the Anglican Church. The dazzlingly virtuosic Ite, missa est stands as the final movement of his Missa de Gloria, Op 82, commissioned by the Dublin International Organ Festival in 1980; and, as fits its first performance in St Patrick’s Cathedral, the centre of Catholic worship in Dublin, it takes for its inspiration the medieval plainchant for Easter Day. The simplicity of this plainchant is subjected to the same degree of contrapuntal and dissonant scrutiny as the texts Leighton chose to set. His point in doing this, though, is not to obscure that original simple beauty, but to enhance it. What lies behind Leighton’s musical complexity is a compulsive desire to see further, and to make us see further than we might otherwise. This desire marks the affinity between Leighton and the poets he chooses to set.
Leighton’s settings, then, are critical meditations on the words set. In this way his examination performs the same style of devotional attention as Patrick Carey’s self-analysis in Crucifixus pro nobis. In that work, ‘Many look on’ at the torture of Christ, but only John and Mary are moved to sigh and weep. The poem invites us to join them in their suffering; but ends on this open invitation:
If then his love
Do thy soul move,
Sigh out a groan, weep down a melting tear.
Leighton then shows the invitation accepted. He appends to this trio a fourth poem, by Phineas Fletcher; which he calls, simply, ‘Hymn’, but which is better known by its first line, ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’. The change of poetic voice is matched by a change in style: the biting mordents of the organ fade out, leaving an unaccompanied choir. Leighton thus provides the tears Carey calls for, first drop by drop, then pouring in floods, like the ‘showers’ of Christ’s blood. This hymn, though, shares none of the previous movements’ tearing angst. For the choir, responding to the image of Christ crucified, this hymn offers a certain consolation precisely through its suffering; in Fletcher’s text, Christ will see human sin through our tears, mitigated by weeping. If Leighton’s music demands that we confront the difficulties of faith—with its searching and suffering—it finds, in that concentrated meditation, a peace of its own.
Ted Tregear © 2015
soprano: Rachel Ambrose Evans, Catriona Casha, Anna Cavaliero, Hannah King, Elisabeth Krizek, Bethany Partridge, Hannah Partridge, Mary Price, Julia St Clair, Lucy Taylor, Faith Waddell, Georgia Way, Catherine White
alto: Helen Charlston, Helen Daniels, Michael Hamway, Guy James, Amy Lyddon-Towl, Lucy Prendergast, Ted Tregear
tenor: Hiroshi Amako, Archie Bott, Alexander Gebhard, Samuel Hewitt, David Knappett, Cameron Richardson-Eames, Jamie Roberts
bass: Michael Craddock, Christopher Howarth, Brian Lee, Joel Nulsen, Jonathan Pacey, Laurence Williams, William Winning, Anthony Woodman
organ scholars: Jeremy Cole, Eleanor Kornas
Hyperion Records Ltd ©