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This album presents a selection of works commissioned by The Clerks over the last decade, and is their first devoted entirely to contemporary music. The impulse behind each commission was different, as was the context in which they were first performed; so necessarily this is an eclectic anthology. The works were designed to suit the forces of the group and their ranges and timbres, but more than that, they each represent a fascinating and innocative engagement with the compositional techniques, genres and motivations of late Medieval and Renaissance music—the repertoire on which The Clerks have cut their teeth.
The Five Motets describe an outward journey (a voyage of departure) and a return (in the sense of fulfilment) and emanating from this overall idea and its manifestation regarding the texts set, each piece in the set addresses the technical issue of writing for a 9-voice choir in a specific way. The journey is thus circular but, as in the Biblical narrative, the ‘return’ is not literal; life changes and nothing remains the same. The motets, as a sequence, both technically and expressively, mirror and illustrate this voyage.
The first motet sets the Latin Vulgate (St Jerome) translation (from Hebrew) of the passage from Genesis describing Abram and Sara’s outward journey from Ur, in modern-day Iraq, to Canaan, and God’s promise of the land to them and their descendants. The setting, which sets out from Taverner’s In Nomine melody, is in 9-voice ‘equal’ polyphony, the choir thus being used as one body of sound, and the music progresses from E to a multiple octave A.
This note begins the second motet, which is the first of the settings of my own texts (in English) and acts as a ‘retrospective’ commentary on the first piece. The choir is divided into two groups, the first representing the present and the second choir the past—the original voyage of departure. The music leads from its initial A to E flat, the uninvertible tritone being symbolic of distance, in this case, the span of four thousand years.
The third motet departs from Biblical chronology, setting the well-known description in Exodus of another outward journey: that of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea (or, more correctly, Sea of Reeds). It is a choral dance describing the women on the shore, led by Moses and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, as they celebrate freedom. This is an important passage, as it is believed to be the first description of non-mythical women being allotted the leading role in Western literature. The texture is in stratified counterpoint, the female voices and male altos singing a poem of freedom (action) in English, while the lower male voices sing the Biblical text (description) in Latin. The pitch centre is B flat.
The fourth motet acts as ‘pre’-commentary to the fifth, and is a setting, in English, of another poem of mine, this time about Jacob’s dream, an episode which occurred at Haran, the place at which his grandparents (Abram and Sara) had arrived on their outward journey two generations earlier and, in his vision Jacob, too, realises the holiness of the place where he lays his head to sleep. The lower male voices, singing in homophony, meditate on this while the upper voices sing a prayer of Hope and Light. The pitch centre is ‘prophetically’ A flat.
The fifth motet reverts to Genesis, and sets the Biblical text, in Latin, describing Jacob’s dream of the ladder reaching to Heaven. The choir begins the piece with imitative polyphony in double canon before the music is ‘released’ to ascend ‘towards heaven’.
The close returns to the initial E from the beginning of the first motet, but now the minor third of the In Nomine has become the major third, the prominent A flat from both the fourth motet and the first part of the fifth enharmonically becoming a tierce de picardie above the bass note E.
Thou wast present as on this day (Antony Pitts)
Thou wast present as on this day is a motet for three pairs of voices and was commissioned as part of In Memoria—a live electro-acoustic concert programme devised by Antony Pitts and Edward Wickham for The Clerks and subsequently remixed and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 for the Between the Ears strand. The text is for Holy Saturday or Easter Eve and has its origins in the Orthodox liturgy; the music builds directly on two sources: a Messianic theme from the composer’s oratorio Jerusalem-Yerushalayim and Josquin des Prez’s Nymphes des bois. Josquin’s memorial motet is, in turn, the central source for the sound collage which threads through In Memoria, evoking a dialogue between our own synthetic age and the deep music of memory represented by the greatest late-mediaeval and early-Renaissance composers. Thou wast present as on this day celebrates and mourns the past, the present, and eternity together: the text is heard three times—in three different places, as it were—and the three pairs of voices weave an increasingly intricate texture around a luminous major triad.
The armed man (Gabriel Jackson)
Much of my work is about other music, and in several of my pieces for ‘early music’ ensembles I have tried to engage with some aspect of what what one might call their core repertoire. So The armed man is written on a cantus firmus and reworks some of the principles of the diminution motet. The piece is bi-textual, as were so many medieval motets (both sacred and secular), juxtaposing the belligerent 15th Century Burgundian chanson L’homme armé with a poem by Robert Palmer, second son of the second Earl of Selborne, who was killed at the Battle of Umm-Al-Hamal in Mesopotamia on January 21st 1916. The poem, sent home in a letter, was first published in The Times on October 15th 1915.
After an initial lusty statement of the original chanson, the main body of the piece is divided into three sections. Each is underpinned by material derived from the L’homme armé melody (still with its original words) which is heard first in the bass part, then the tenor, and finally the alto, in progressively (proportionally) shorter note values; in each section it is treated differently—in the first, as a succession of drones, in the second as part of a homorhythmic chorale and finally as the basis of a nervous, quasi-hocketing texture. Above this the sopranos (and altos in the first section) weave a freely composed, more subjective, setting of the Robert Palmer poem.
The armed man was commissioned by The Clerks with funds provided by the Jerwood Foundation and first performed by them at the Wigmore Hall on April 30th, 2000.
A spousal verse (Christopher Fox)
A spousal verse was written in 2004 for The Clerks in lieu of a subscription to their Friends Scheme and was premiered by them in The Temple Church, London on 17th February 2005.
20 Ways to improve your life (Christopher Fox)
20 Ways to improve your life was written for The Clerks, at the suggestion of their director, Edward Wickham. For some time Edward had been talking to me about the possibility of a 21st Century answer to the ‘Cries of London’ of the early 1600s and one day in February 2007, sitting on a Northern Line train and scanning the small ads in a discarded copy of the London Lite free-sheet, I realised that I was looking at the beginning of that answer. ‘Don’t talk, just listen’ was the first to be written, on 2nd April, and over the next months I gathered many more texts, small ads, spam email and billboard slogans; the piece was finished on 25th September 2007.
20 Ways to improve your life is dedicated to Edward Wickham and was first heard in part in an open rehearsal at St Ethelburga’s, London on 28th September 2007 and then on The Verb (BBC Radio 3, 19th October 2007). The premiere was given by The Clerks in Shoreditch Parish Church, London, as part of the Spitalfields Festival on 14th June 2008.
These three works are the first in a projected ‘songbook’ of contrafacta—new texts adapted to old songs. The technique of contrafactum is as old as texted music itself—indeed, the genre of the motet grew out of the composition of new texts to formally textless organum in the 12th and 13th centuries. The three contrafacta presented here take a more and less liberal approach to adaptation. Ian Duhig’s version of Post missarum sollempnia—a motet of likely English provenance which exhorts the people at Mass to go about their daily duties with probity and piety—is an ingenious semi-translation of the Latin original. My own version of So ys emprentid barely alters Frye’s text, but provides an excuse for us to re-visit this exquisite ballade, previously recorded by us on an earlier Signum album. Ian McMillan’s outrageous re-working of the 14th Century caccia Se je chant is certainly the most ‘contra’ of the ‘facta’—the original cries and howls of a hunting party turned into the pained exclamations of a man spilling his soup.
Te Deum (Gabriel Jackson)
My Te Deum was commissioned by The Clerks in 2004 (with funds provided by the RVW trust) to provide a coda to their innovative staging of the 12th Century Play of Daniel. The piece brings together the performing forces of Edward Wickham’s edition of the drama—a plainchant choir who sing the Te Deum chant in octaves (in Latin), and a consort of five solo voices who weave an ornate tapestry around them in English. The chant is in even notes throughout, which gives the piece a ritualistic unrelenting quality as the singers breathlessly wind their way through the long-limbed text. The unchanging modality and repeated melodic formulae of the chant are frequently subverted by odd harmonic sidesteps and at the last moment, after much minor key harmony, the piece moves triumphantly into A major.
Signum Classics © 2008
Edward Wickham © 2008