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The BBC Singers, led by David Hill, are the UK's only full-time professional chamber choir, and their repertoire and virtuosic versatility are almost boundless. The BBC Singers regularly work with the BBC's own orchestras as well as a number of period instrument and contemporary ensembles both in concert and in the recording studio.
This disc features the compositional talent of one of the BBC Singer's former members, Judith Bingham. Bingham is considered a talented all-round composer, having written for a variety of different ensembles including symphonic wind ensembles, brass bands and solo instrumentalists, Despite this she is best known for her choral work, in which she has been commissioned by such ensembles as The King's Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and King's College Choir, Cambridge, She has won numerous awards including the Barlow Prize for a cappela music and three British Composer awards.
Gleams however, slightly predates those and was influenced by a singing job I did with the Schütz Choir, travelling round the Dolomites. Views of the mountains straddling different countries gave me the idea for having the Shelley words ‘sleep and death’ echoing in different languages, and so a solo quartet sings ‘sonno e morte’ and ‘schlaf und tod’ distantly. In this recording, we took advantage of the space in St Paul’s church and placed the soloists behind the main body of the choir. The Alpine influence has been a constant in my composing life, as it has embraced other themes as well, in particular Shelley (and, just lately, Byron) and Turner. The watercolour views of chasms on Mont Blanc had an effect also on Vorarlberg, a guitar duet written just after Gleams. In Gleams I tried to give a mystical sense of height and depth as well as the feeling that snow falling is like the ‘veil of life and death’ that Shelley talks of in Mont Blanc. Shifting weather gives different aspects on the landscape.
The Shepheardes Calender (2006)
I have had an enjoyable creative relationship with the St Louis Chamber Choir for several years now, thanks to Richard Rodney Bennett, who introduced us. Their conductor, Philip Barnes, concocts wonderful themed concerts and has commissioned many composers over the years. Both for the SLCC and Philip’s other choirs in Missouri I have written five pieces—Aquileia (of which more anon), two settings of God be in my Head, and most recently The Shepheardes Calendar. Most commissions start with a brief, but one of the briefest and strangest ones was for this piece, in that I should include the word ‘rams’. The dedicatee of the piece Linda Ryder, the Executive Director of the choir, is a supporter of the St Louis Rams, their baseball team. She was not to know how difficult it would be to find a poem with that word in it! I asked a friend of mine, John Rowlands Pritchard, who is an expert on all things English, for his advice, and he immediately thought of the Somerset folk song One Man shall Mow my Meadow with the words ‘shall shear my lambs and ewes and rams’ in it. Intrigued by the tune, I decided I would use it as the basis for the piece. He also pointed me in the direction of Edmund Spenser and The Shepheardes Calender.
I thought I would write a piece that was an allegory for sin and forgiveness, and so the movements move from winter to autumn, cruel weather to a good harvest. In the first movement, Winter, the rhythms are stilted and jagged, describing a vicious winter with the sheep and cows(and their herdsmen) standing frozen and shivering. With the cold comes Death. Spenser warns that you may think yourself invincible, but a freezing winter can carry you off! In the middle movement, Spring, I wanted to give the impression of the mysterious and magical arrival of the first shoots, pushing up through the cold earth. The words are ‘The Lord to me a Shepherd is’, from the 1651 Bay Psalm Book, because I liked the idea of linking the rich English of Spenser with the first art of the Puritan Americans. In the lastmovement, Autumn, the shepherd saves a sheep from the wolf and a beautiful description of autumn ‘all in yellow clad’ follows. The folk song is finally heard in its entirety, like a Morris, ushering in warm weather and redemption. For this recording a small group from the choir walked, while singing, from the west end of the nave up to the choir and back again, a somewhat shorter distance than in the Cathedral-Basilica of St Louis!
Water Lilies (1999)
Water Lilies was commissioned in 1998 to be part of ‘A Garland for Linda’, a compendium of eight anthems about the healing power of music. The previous year I had been to Kleinwalsertal on holiday and had swum in a warm lake, high up in the Allgäuer Alps. There had been rafts of flowering water lilies, which twined round my legs as I got out. It reminded me not so much of Monet as of the morbid eroticism of John Waterhouse’s painting of Hylas, lured to his death by Pre-Raphaelite nymphs in a pool of water lilies. The following winter in Austria was very harsh and I wondered what happened to the lilies, whether they could survive being frozen. I looked it up and found that the buds for next year’s flower form in the summer under water and often freeze in winter. This struck me as a wonderful symbol for surviving serious illness and I decided to write my own poem for the Garland. This took a long time, and may have been the reason why I only took two weeks to write the anthem itself.
The idea was to create a tapestry of sound, multi-dividing the choir and having lots of tiny solos which would further thin out the texture. This was something akin to dots of impressionistic paint. The work opens in a dream-like way where the word ‘nympheas’ rises from the texture like sirens calling. The sound is warm and dreamy but gradually becomes more worrying. In the middle section all is ice with tiny staccato chords and long high melodic lines. Finally the summer returns, ecstatically, and the water lilies flower.
Irish Tenebrae (1990, revised 1992 and 2007)
Irish folk song settings are one of those staples of choral music: I had thought of doing a set for some time, but it was never going to be a simple, nostalgic response to beautiful melodies. Irish folk music has a complex resonance for me: it reminds me of my mother’s family, the McGowans from Armagh, and especially of my grandparents whose terraced house in Nottingham I remembered and loved better than my own family home. And from when I arrived in London in 1970, my life, like everyone else’s, was coloured by the Irish ‘Troubles’; I was several times very close to bomb incidents—unforgettable experiences.
At some point I must have been singing in a Maundy Thursday service and made a mental note to set the Tenebrae when the opportunity arose, and in that mysterious way in which piecesdevelop in the peri-compositional stage, this idea and the idea of Irish folk song settings came together. The Tenebrae have powerful overtones of violent revenge, and their mood typified for me the cycle of blame that made the Irish situation (and so many others) so addictive to its protagonists. Gradually a drama unfolded, in which a solo female singer acts like a commentator, a witness to a violent event. I was really influenced by an old LP of Irish folk music sung by an anonymous woman, recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her singing, with its roulades of decoration, was somehow reminiscent of Indian music—the Celtic sailors’ link.
In the first song My Lagan Love, the words are by Yeats, summoning the listener to a strange, ancient, arcane place, on a starlit night. He asks ‘who can distinguish darkness from the soul?’. The folk song is divided between the soprano and the violin, playing in a gypsy-like way. This piece is very much about duality: sacred and profane (organ and violin), male and female (male choir and solo soprano), church and army (organ and percussion), their meeting places, their huge gulfs. In the second movement The Road to Sligo, the unique sound of the bodhrans ushers in the men, talking of grievances: ‘Remember O Lord what is come upon us: our inheritance is turned to strangers’. The atmosphere is heightened, sinister. The men are unable to contemplate forgiveness (‘only the dead can be forgiven’) and the organ solo at the end of the movement seems to move the action into the church. In The Crying of the Women at the Slaughter I set part of Seamus Heaney’s great poem Casualty. The solo soprano is a witness at the funeral of 13 men: the percussion, the constant drizzling rain, the Sanctus bell, the shots fired over the coffins. The voice keens in anguish. But the camera seems to pan away with the mourners to the pub, for in movement four, Round the House and Mind the Dresser, the men are plotting revenge drunkenly, the words of the Tenebrae mixed with words by Maurice Craig: ‘it’s to hell with the future and let’s live on the past’. The bodhrans and the wild violin are both pub music and a demonic edge. Then, in the little shanty movement I Have a Secret to Tell, the men are staggering home, some of them to the docks. The organ is a squeeze box, someone whistles the tune, a ship’s bell sounds. The soprano and tenor duet is the Irish voice of the sea, the ancient bard Cormac, and the following movement, I Know my Love, continues this theme of the sea, except that the soprano challenges Christ to mend his ravelled nets that cannot catch her shining soul. This beautiful poem by Mary Lavin, with its imagery of tiny shiny fishes evading the strictures of the fisherman offers a different way from the terrible dark world of the men, locked into their hatreds and vendettas. In the final movement The Sailor Boy, we are back in that world, where the men are brooding on perceived injustice. Using the spaces of St Paul’s again, on this recording the men are at a distance. There are echoes of the church, and the bass drum is both an omen and a blustery rainy wind. In the middle, the soprano and violin hear in ‘an old dream’ an ancient and forgotten truth, an old peace that is ‘crying to come back again’. But the word ‘remember’ seems to hold a darker and more ambiguous meaning, maybe one that can never be fully relinquished.
Unpredictable but Providential (1992, revised 2007)
This piece is a take on those Elizabethan bird song pieces, with their ‘jug-jug, peewit’ refrains. The subtitle is ‘the arrival of a few summer migrants,’ and the text is a list of birds interspersed with a few words by Auden—‘Spring with its thrusting leaves and its jargling birds is here again’ (jargling is an archaic word often used to describe the sound of bells ringing). The music attempts, not too seriously, to imitate the songs of birds such as the spotted fly-catcher and the corncrake, in the latter case using a comb as a percussion instrument. The piece was commissioned by the Britten Singers for their inaugural concert in April 1991, and is dedicated to their conductor Stephen Wilkinson.
Beneath these Alien Stars (2001)
This little anthem was written on the 15th of September 2001, as a way of releasing my pent-up feelings of bleakness and despair after 9/11. I looked around for an American poem and found a work called Pioneer Woman by Vesta Pierce Crawford (1899-1983), a Mormon poet who was to figure much larger in my life a few years later. Thewords describe, as a lot of her poetry does, the feeling of being overwhelmed by a vast and inhospitable landscape. It is written for upper voices and organ, and has simple melodic lines which echo each other, accompanied by a limping, almost Baroque organ part.
Ghost Towns of the American West (2005)
In 2004 I saw an advert for a competition called the Barlow Prize, offered every year in a different genre by Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I had just written Aquileia for the Saint Louis Chamber Choir and thought I would submit it for the prize. I was surprised and very pleased to win, as the prize was a commission to write a choral piece for performance by three choirs—the University of Utah Singers, VocalEssence in Minneapolis and the BBC Singers. It also gave me the opportunity to go to Utah and work with singers, composers and choral conductors there.
From the start, I wanted to try and find an American text that would also have a more universal theme of impermanence. The image of ghost towns came to mind and the huge open spaces of Utah. I remembered the words by Vesta Pierce Crawford that I’d used for Beneath these Alien Stars and wondered what else she had written. I managed to buy an out-of-print volume of her verse on the web for $1 and when it arrived it was a signed first edition of Short Grass Woman. I discovered that she had taught at the University of Utah and her parents had been Mormon pioneers. This strange serendipity was irresistible, and I chose several extracts from her poems to be the text. She writes very vividly of a huge bright landscape in which Man is small and vulnerable, and describes the hopes and sometimes desperate lives of the people who sought their fortune there. It was very moving that her grandchildren came to the Utah performance in April 2007.
The first movement describes how the landscape quickly re-asserts itself when man has left—‘his covenant with earth, fervent and brief.’ Against stark word setting, some voices whisper the names of Utah ghost towns, some of them unsettling, some hopeful, ‘Death Canyon, Peerless, Joy, Silver City.’ The second movement describes a miner returning to his cabin in the mountains after a day digging in vain. Against a hummed background, a tenor solo sings a folksy tune. At the end I included ‘Home Sweet Home,’ originally an American song. The third movement ‘Where are the Voices of the Multitude?’ talks of people being a short interlude in the eternities of time. The poet says that her ancestral voices will come from the seed of grass scattered in stormrather than from a fallen house or her father’s grave. The huge bright landscape dominates and triumphs.
Judith Bingham © 2008