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Anthems for the 21st century

Vasari Singers, Jeremy Backhouse (conductor)
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Recording details: February 2005
Tonbridge School Chapel, Kent, United Kingdom
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Limo Hearn
Release date: May 2005
Total duration: 68 minutes 52 seconds

Signum Classics are proud to release the second disc from the Vasari Singers Anthems for the 21st Century.

To celebrate its first twenty-five years of vibrant music making, the Vasari Singers commissioned ten composers to each write an anthem that would in their eyes reflect the state of the world at the start of the new millennium.

The brief indicated that each work should be suitable as an anthem in an Anglican cathedral Evensong, and that it could also look beyond any constraints of Liturgy or formal religious doctrine to embrace a wider, ecumenical audience. Perhaps something more humanistic that would have a voice in the multi-cultural, multi-faith societies of the new 21st century world?

To celebrate its first twenty-five years of vibrant music making, the Vasari Singers commissioned ten composers each to write an anthem that might reflect the state of our world at the start of the new millennium. My brief further suggested that their work should be able to sit comfortably within the context of a cathedral Evensong, but that it could also look beyond any constraints of Liturgy or formal religious doctrine to embrace a wider, more ecumenical audience; something more humanistic perhaps, that might connect more relevantly with multi-cultural, multi-faith societies of the world in the 21st century. To our great delight, what we received was a group of pieces of immense breadth and scope.

All the composers commissioned have musical connections either with the choir or me: Stephen Barlow I have known and admired as a musician since our paths crossed as choristers at Canterbury Cathedral under the hugely influential and expert guidance of Allan Wicks; the Canterbury connection also linked us with Gabriel Jackson, Philip Moore (Assistant Organist during my time there) whose choral music Vasari recorded on CD; Barrie Bignold was introduced to us by a member of the choir and played jazz piano on our best-selling CD of close harmony songs, 'Deep Purple'; Richard Blackford has been an ardent supporter of the choir and we had long talked about him writing something for the choir; Humphrey Clucas is perhaps the longest standing friend of Vasari and has written us numerous works, some of which we have recorded; Jeremy Filsell has been associated with the choir for many years as the choir's most regular and inspiring accompanist in concert and on CD; Ward Swingle, personal friend for many years, is the Patron of Vasari Singers and remains one of its closest colleagues; Will Todd was introduced to the choir through one of our members and will feature strongly in our programmes in coming years.

Our commission from Francis Pott, who has featured regularly in Vasari Singers' programmes over recent years, grew into a much more substantial work so has not been included on this CD. The Vasari Singers will give the premiere of this major choral work, The Cloud of Unknowing, in 2006.

In addition to our commissions, we have included on this CD three gems by composers at the cutting edge of contemporary choral music: Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan and Jonathan Rathbone. Together these twelve anthems constitute a fascinating musical document, rich in stylistic diversity.

The texts themselves are as richly varied and striking in impact: there are verses from contemporary poets (including two specially written by Bob Cassidy and Tony Vincent Isaacs), traditional Psalms, a translation of a Sufi mystic and an adaptation of a Welsh hymn (by the present Archbishop of Canterbury), Mediaeval texts, William Blake, even just the vowels from the one word 'Hosanna'.

For the Vasari Singers, this set of anthems represents a celebration of our achievements over the last 25 years through the music of some of those who have travelled with us along the way; it also looks to the future, strengthening our commitment, our responsibility, to be a channel for the creation of new music. We have been thrilled that every one of the pieces written for us (and also the non-commissioned numbers) has a powerful message to convey. Getting to the heart of the music and communicating it to our audiences is something for which the choir has become renowned over the years and we relish the challenge of bringing the soul of these glorious new works to life.

Bless the Lord, O my soul
Bless the Lord, O my soul was commissioned by a group of people whose early lives were dedicated to choral singing (Eton College Old Choristers' Association). I wanted their millennium anthem to be a celebration of song, and Psalm 104 provided a wonderful sequence of expansive imagery. The organ part is quite virtuosic, beginning with a flourishing fanfare suggesting a heavenly vision, which provokes the choir into a wordless cry of wonder; in contrast, their first words are hushed, awe-struck. The organ creates a backdrop of twinkling stars for 'who coverest thyself with light' and a calm sea for 'who layest the beams of his chambers in the waters'. The hushed 'bless the Lord' returns, but now fast and loud, ushering in the most dramatic imagery: the chariot of clouds, the wings of the wind, and finally the depiction of God's ministers as a 'flaming fire'.

Jonathan Dove © 2005

Absolon, my son
Absolon, my son was written for the choir of Girton College, Cambridge, during the term when I was their stand-in musical director. We performed a concert which included When David heard by Tomkins. I had always found this, and the Weelkes setting, to be very powerful pieces. Both were written in the first half of the 17th century. The words are as powerful as ever, and I wanted to make a more contemporary version, with a slightly more romantic approach and using more powerful harmonies which were not at the disposal of either Weelkes or Tomkins (well, not if they wanted to keep their jobs!).

The loss of a child must be devastating. David's army had won a great victory in battle, yet he could not even congratulate them, being preoccupied by the loss of his own son. He went away and wept. I have tried to paint a picture of his emotions during this outpouring. First of all, quietly as he takes the news in—then gradually the full impact of it hits him and he gets more and more distraught and angry; he cries out that he wishes he himself had died in Absolon's place. Finally, after this tirade, I picture him in the corner of the room—his energy spent—he can do no more than repeat the words 'Absolon, my son'.

Jonathan Rathbone © 2005

Angel Song II
Angel Song II is inspired by the idea of angels singing on Christmas night. The music weaves a gentle melody over the aleatoric textures of the accompanying voices. The text is designed to create the echo of the word 'Hosanna', but with no consonants, so that the music feels as if it comes from 'on high'. It is hoped that this movement might one day form part of a larger choral work inspired by the idea of voices from heaven.

Will Todd © 2005

Mysterium Christi
The inspiration to use the poetry of nineteenth-century poet Alice Meynell (1847-1922) in Mysterium Christi came initially from the Dean of Windsor, the Very Revd David Conner (a co-dedicatee of the piece), who based a sermon in St George's Chapel in June 2004 on her poem 'The Unknown God'.

The poet finds herself in church, observing a stranger approach the altar rail, receive communion and return to his place to pray. David Conner, in his sermon, spoke of Meynell's vision of Christ within another human being, in a neighbour, a stranger or a friend. Through this particular stranger, the poet recognizes Christ's presence and perceives within him, humanity's struggle for spiritual liberation. He represents the locus found in us all of Christ's struggle to be born within us: the identity of the human spirit straining for expression and release.

For Meynell, the stranger becomes a source of blessing: 'From that secret place, And from that separate dwelling, give me grace!', seen, no less than the eucharistic bread and wine so recently consumed, as a means of grace and a sacramental presence. The poem awakens an acknowledgement that all people through whom Christ struggles for expression are the means by which a healing, restorative and redeeming power can be mediated. Even the stranger here forms the channel through which a profound sense of human solidarity is communicated and shared.

The musical setting opens in mysterious dissonance, a strong sense of tonality only emerging at the first appearance of the motto chordal idea 'O Christ in this man's life'. The second verse is set in animated fashion with the organ's toccata figurations underpinning fugal and syncopated vocal writing above. The gathered momentum is suddenly interrupted by verse 3's harmonic stasis and the motto idea returns at 'Christ in his unknown heart' (verse 4). The evocations successively of 'battle' and 'peace' in the fourth verse are set in musically characteristic antithesis before an affirmatory passage incorporates the motto chordal idea once again (verse 5). The predominantly rhythmic countenance of this music dissipates to recall the earlier-heard tri-tonal falling 'peace' phrase ('Christ in his mystery') and a coda recalls both the atmosphere and music of the opening.

Jeremy Filsell © 2005

Hear my crying, O God
Hear my crying, O God is scored for eight-part unaccompanied choir, though the full eight parts are not employed all the time. Certain ideas recur, the Scotch snap and the rising and falling scales of the opening, for instance. Almost throughout, there is simultaneous crotchet and quaver movement. It is a piece full ot fear; the concluding 'Praise the Lord' is distinctly muted. It is an attempt to contain a deal of drama in a rather small space.

Humphrey Clucas © 2005

When I see on rood
There is something about this anonymous 13th/14th-century poem that seems timeless, and dramatically highly evocative. Its concision belies undercurrents of powerful emotion, mixing ritual with a very human outpouring of shock, pain and grief. The language itself seems achingly beautiful to me, the words resonate, the vowel sounds invite a sense of lyricism. I was particularly drawn to the idea of a crowd reaction, a unified response to an image that draws from all of us at the very least a deep rooted personal revulsion, and a shudder of responsibility. It is certainly an immaculately conceived poem, encapsulating a piercingly painful recognition of what makes us human.

Stephen Barlow © 2005

Now I have known, O Lord
For this very special commission I wanted to write a piece that reflected the particular character of the Vasari Singers—transparent, refined and meticulous, but also possessed of great fervour and virtuosity. Jeremy Backhouse proposed a text that was sacred, but not liturgical, which led me to the great Sufi mystic Al-Junaid. Couched in language that is as erotic as it is spiritual, the text seemed to demand a setting of great inwardness. The piece is largely restrained and intimate; intertwined melismatic tendrils of melody alternate with hushed homophony and self-communing murmurings, rising to a climax of fierce brightness and intensity before sinking back to the meditative calm of the opening.

Gabriel Jackson © 2005

This carol/anthem sets powerful verses by the contemporary poet Michael Symmons Roberts, a frequent collaborator with James MacMillan (most recently Parthenogenesis, also in collaboration with Archbishop Rowan Williams). The bleakness of the opening section reflects the Virgin Mary's lonely nocturnal doubts over whether she could really be carrying the infant Christ. Blazing and glorious reassurance comes with the rising sun as the fruit of the womb makes His presence felt. Meanwhile, in the fields Joseph wanders, himself a lonely figure, tending his fruit whilst repeating the question: 'Why was my chosen one chosen?'

I saw him standing
The words of I saw him standing are a translation, by Rowan Williams, of a Welsh hymn by Anne Griffiths. She was a farmer's wife without formal education, who died in 1805. She wrote a small number of hymns that are remarkable for their bold and extravagant imagery and sustained emotional density. The translation is not literal but is instead an attempt to create something of the energy of the original.

The words fall naturally into three sections and this is reflected in the music; the first and third sections are slow and sustained, while the middle section is fast and energetic. In the first section there is dialogue between the tenor and basses, and the altos. The sopranos' first entry is delayed until the words 'It will be Oh, such a daybreak.' The central section of the work is generally less chordal and more contrapuntal, with sometimes fairly thin textures.

Philip Moore © 2005

On another's sorrow
I wrote On another's sorrow on September 2nd 2004, the day after the school siege in Beslan in North Ossetia. Broadcast images of terrified children fleeing to escape Chechen gunmen influenced my perception of Blake's simple song of innocence and gave it deeper significance. It became for me a poem about compassion, about our ability to feel the suffering of others, to be willing to cry 'Never, never can it be' should we become uncaring. How God could allow such suffering then and after the recent tsunami disaster also made me wonder about Blake's serene acceptance of God's presence at times of sorrow. The Archbishop of Canterbury's response, that 'we must focus on a passionate engagement with the lives that are left' seemed to be the best of what we are capable.

My setting starts with a unison chromatic theme in uneasy alternating 7/8 and 5/4. Call and response of sopranos and altos with tenors and basses lead to the first outburst of 'No, never, never can it be.' The material develops and climaxes on the second 'O! never'. The final contemplation of God's presence is hushed and returns to the original theme, but with altered intervals. The final 'O! he gives to us his joy' is sung pianissimo in sustained harmony before returning to the unison of the opening.

Richard Blackford © 2005

This motet is all about the poem. Any temptation I might have had to show off was subjugated by the power and simplicity of Peace, which I commissioned from my old friend, film editor, poet and general Renaissance Man, Bob Cassidy. It poses many questions about spirituality, religion and identity in the 21st century. The setting is simple but emotionally engaged, the soloists used as much for verbal clarity as for the symbolism of their being often locked in octaves, but physically as far apart as possible. The piece offers a resolution of sorts, but even then with a wry sting in the tail: 'Let your wounded angels sleep in new-built holy houses'.

Barrie Bignold © 2005

Give us this day
I was lucky to have a poem written for the occasion by Tony Vincent Isaacs. Tony had previously put words to the music of Scott Joplin for the Swingle Singers 'Rags and all that Jazz' album. For this new poem, called Give us this day, I've written a very simple four-part setting so that the words (and their important message} are quickly understood.

Ward Swingle © 2005

Jeremy Backhouse 2005

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