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Nicholas Maw is a dominant force in contemporary British music. His Violin Concerto won for Joshua Bell the Mercury Music Prize for Classical Album of the Year in 2000, while his latest opera, Sophie’s Choice—a Covent Garden commission setting William Styron’s harrowing tale of Auschwitz and its aftermath—is currently receiving its American premieres.
Throughout his long career Maw has periodically found time amidst his predominantly orchestral and operatic output to craft some inimitable choral works. This new recording by Schola Cantorum of Oxford present many first recordings and gives a broad overview of Maw’s choral achievements.
Swelling organ accompaniment opens the programme with the Three Hymns; Maw’s reponses to these metaphysical texts are innovative and effective. Two cycles of five miniatures, Epigrams and Irish Songs, show a very different complexion. From the ribald humour of On a noisy polemic to the intense lyricism of Ringleted youth of my love Maw puts his singers to the test, with results that are at once entertaining and moving.
The programme is completed by five carol settings and One foot in Eden, commissioned by King’s College Cambridge as part of their 500th anniversary celebrations in 1990. It demonstrates a composer in total command of his medium and is impressive in its varied choral writing and striking use of harmony and melody.
Performances by Oxford University’s crack chamber choir, Schola Cantorum, under their director Mark Shepherd, are taut and responsive, the perfect vehicle for this music which deserves the opportunity to reach a wider public.
All works except for One foot in Eden still, I stand and Balulalow are here recorded for the first time.
Maw’s music may be viewed as an attempt to reconnect with the Romantic tradition that was broken with the onset of Modernism. Early influences on his music were Richard Strauss, Berg and, from the British twentieth-century tradition, Britten and Tippett. Melody is at its heart, combined with harmony that exploits serial and tonal tensions in a highly personal and distinctive manner. Since 1984 Maw has lived in the USA, where he has held several academic positions; currently he is professor of composition at the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore.
Maw’s choral output is spread across his career; mostly it is small in scale. On a larger dimension are The Ruin (1980), a virtuoso work for double chorus and solo horn, written for the BBC Singers, and Hymnus (1995–6) for chorus and orchestra. Much of his choral music has been conceived for amateur forces; of it Maw has said that it ‘is modest in size and scope. My aim has usually been the entertainment of performers and audience alike.’ Nevertheless his choral writing still allows challenges for the performers, and even when he is working with restricted musical material his imagination has not been compromised. Use of imitative contrapuntal devices is a common aspect and he has a predilection for twinning voices to create two-part writing, often itself in canon. Within works he exploits varieties of textural colour, for instance, creating choral accompaniments using words or syllables that may be unrelated to the texts; also particular words or phrases that suggest musical imagery are relished.
The Three Hymns (1989) were commissioned by the Lichfield Festival and were first performed by the Choir of Lichfield Cathedral, conducted by Jonathan Rees-Williams, on 9 July 1989. Maw found the texts in the Oxford Book of Christian Verse and was attracted to them first by their quality, but also because they all belonged to the seventeenth century and thus provided a textural unity. Throughout the organ is prominent and shares the development of ideas with the voices.
In Joseph Beaumont’s ‘Morning Hymn’, the poet speaks of his determination, despite human failings, to walk in the ways of Christ. At first the music is affirmative, but a section follows in which it mirrors the struggle of the poet to find the ‘living light’ of Christ. Gradually the music, to a florid organ accompaniment, becomes increasingly jubilant, culminating in a determined melodic phrase at ‘For Thy ways cannot be shown’.
John Hall’s ‘Pastoral Hymn’ is set to nimble, airy music with a gracefully flowing organ accompaniment in triplets which are taken up by the voices in their evocation of the ‘Happy choristers of air’ wheeling around the throne of God in incessant praise. A fine example of Maw’s musical word-painting occurs when the ‘lazy snails’ are portrayed in a slithering, ponderous phrase. The carolling returns for the last verse in which the poet sees the hand of God in all creation.
The emotional weight of the work falls on ‘Evening Hymn’, a rapt setting of Sir Thomas Browne’s meditation on sleep and death. Out of a somnolent chordal cluster, created by a stepwise descent that will subsequently haunt the hymn, sopranos emerge with a tranquil melody, which is answered, chant-like by the other voices. Solos for two sopranos and alto lead to a solemn moment at ‘sleep is a death’, followed closely after by a section of two-part imitative writing. After a rich chord change at ‘sleep again’, the music rises to an emphatic climax as the poet finds assurance through faith.
In Five Epigrams (1960), Maws succeeds effortlessly in accomplishing his aims when composing for amateur singers. The set was written shortly after he had finished his composition studies, and at this point in his career he was keen to write something for a choir. When he came across these pithy epigrams by Robert Burns, he felt that they ‘provided somewhat different kind of texts than usual in choral music’. In addition he was also ‘attracted by the brevity of the poems, as that would mean short musical settings, which I assumed would be more attractive to choirs, since this was the work of a young, so far, unknown composer’. The work was dedicated to Kenneth Roberton and The London Scottish Choir, who gave the premiere in 1961.
‘On a noisy polemic’ is enhanced by a choral accompaniment to the folksong-like melody. Vocal glissandi and shouted speech wittily emphasize the word ‘bitch’, and more humour occurs at the words ‘O Death, it’s my opinion’ where, to the marking Andante religioso, the phrase is set to a mocking plagal cadence. In ‘On the death of Robert Ruisseaux’ Maw pairs the voices (latterly as a stark two-part canon) to create a sombre elegy.
With its swift pace and gradual crescendo, ‘On a henpecked country squire’ gives a vivid portrayal of the husband literally nagged to death. Altos and sopranos chase each other in imitation, then basses and tenors follow suit. The ‘lady famed for her caprice’ finds her ephemeral character evoked through the word-painting of the word ‘butterfly’; and equally her want of ‘goodness’ as the second syllable of the word lands on a biting dissonance.
Clearly Burns did not like the eponymous ‘Andrew Turner’! The epigram recounts that the Devil planned to ‘mak’ a swine’, but changing his mind he ‘shaped it something like a man / And ca’d it Andrew Turner’. Maw tells the tale to a rollicking tune with tattoo-like accompaniment.
In the early sixties Maw had the idea of writing a carol each year which he hoped would be performed at Christmas. If they did not appear quite as planned on an annual basis, Maw nevertheless wrote four attractive contributions for the Christmastide season during the decade and these, together with a later example, now follow. The angel Gabriel (1963) is an arrangement of the well-known old Basque melody. Here Maw creates a variety of choral textures including a two-part setting of the second verse and a leaping figure that accompanies the melody and which bursts out ecstatically on the word ‘Gloria’ for the final verse.
Our Lady’s song (1961) was commissioned for the Novello carol collection Sing Nowell and also appeared as the musical supplement of the September edition of The Musical Times in 1962. The Elizabethan Singers, conducted by Louis Halsey, gave the premiere on 26 October the same year at St Clement Danes. Maw was drawn to set medieval texts for his carols, because ‘I have always been interested in such old poems as I thought they were very genuine expressions of religious feeling of that time’. In this anonymous fourteenth-century poem, the Virgin’s lament to the baby Christ that he has been born merely in a lowly stable, amidst animals, and without clothes to be wrapped in, is set starkly throughout in two parts that at times imitate each other.
Balulalow (1964) was commissioned for the Oxford University Press anthology Carols of Today (to which several of Maw’s contemporaries also contributed, including Peter Maxwell Davies, Gordon Crosse and William Mathias). The words are from Ane Sang of the birth of Christ, a poem from Ane Compendious Buik of Godly and Spirituall Sangis (1567), by the brothers James, John and Robert Wedderburn. This poem itself was a translation of the Christmas Eve carol ‘Von Himmel Hoch’ written by Martin Luther for his son Hans, first published in his Geistliche Lieder (1535). Maw sets the words as a lilting lullaby and employs his familiar device of creating a choral texture around the main melody. The title itself ‘Balulalow’ provides the decorative opportunity, which, at the close is set to a luminous cadence.
Maw’s arrangement of the Corpus Christi Carol (1964) for sopranos with descant and piano, was commissioned for The Cambridge Hymnal; the words and melody were collected by Vaughan Williams in Derbyshire. In this performance a wider use of the choral forces of Schola Cantorum of Oxford are employed. Particularly effective is the rocking, gently syncopated and dissonant accompaniment that underlies the second and fourth verses.
Swete Jesu (1992) was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for the 1992 Service of Nine Lessons and Carols and first performed by King’s College Choir conducted by Stephen Cleobury on 24 December that year. The anonymous words date from the thirteenth century, Maw considering them a ‘very genuine and personal expression towards Jesus’. After the soothing warmth of the homophonic opening, the tenors take over the melodic line to the accompaniment of vocal melismas. Various voices then share phrases of melody, before the music comes full circle with the return of the opening.
The Five Irish Songs (1972) were commissioned by Lady Mayer for the 1973 Cork International Choral Festival and first performed on 4 May that year by the RTÉ Singers conducted by H W Rosen. Maw has commented: ‘I wanted to set Irish texts for this occasion and chose most of these poems from the Oxford Book of Irish Verse. As usual, I chose a poem for a particular point in the set for which I could write a suitable character of music appropriate to that moment in the work.’ Of these, the first, second and fourth are settings of Irish folk poems that have been freely translated into English verse by Douglas Hyde (Nos 1 and 4) and Samuel Ferguson (No 2) respectively, whilst the third is a popular anonymous Anglo-Irish ballad of the nineteenth century, and the last a poem by C Day Lewis.
‘I shall not die for thee’ is a diatribe by a man determined not to fall for a particular woman’s beauty and charms. The music features suitably severe harmony and musical imagery in the melodic lines, for instance, the spiky quavers at ‘sharp wit’ and florid evocation of her ‘blue eye’. ‘Dear dark head’ is a passionate love song, featuring a tenor solo aching with ardour and sensuous harmony to heighten words, for instance, at ‘mouth of honey’.
‘Popular song’ has a swinging folksong-like melody, with a jaunty underlying choral accompaniment, as the would-be lover tries to steal a kiss from the object of his desire. Maw later discovered that this ballad ‘had a charming tune of its own that bears a strong rhythmic resemblance to mine, as well as several more verses that deal with the young man’s unrequited love for a girl from Bunclody and subsequent decision to emigrate to America. Who would have guessed such an outcome from this blithe opening?’
‘Ringleted youth of my love’ is another love song in which the lover laments that his beloved is absent in tender and caressing music. The last song, ‘Jig’, Maw suggests, ‘introduces a note of urban sophistication into the praise of country life and love and the changing seasons.’ It provides a light-hearted finale, setting words laced with wry wit to a winning tune that is passed around the voices.
Maw’s motet One foot in Eden still, I stand (1990) is a setting of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir which Maw discovered in The New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1950. It was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge to mark the 500th anniversary of the founding of the college and first performed by King’s College Choir, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, in King’s College chapel on 18 September 1990. Scored for mixed choir and soloists, as well as optional organ (omitted on this recording), it demonstrates a composer in total command of his medium and is impressive in its varied choral writing and striking use of harmony and melody in response to the text.
Muir’s poetry is riven with the recurring image of mankind’s Fall in the Garden of Eden, and the subsequent loss of innocence. From his personal perspective, his own enactment of the Fall took place when, after an idyllic Orkney childhood, he moved with his family at the age of fourteen to the urban ‘Hell’ of Glasgow; it was a change that proved traumatic for him. In this poem Muir posits the view that mankind’s acquisition of knowledge at the Fall brought evil but also good so that ‘nothing now can separate / The corn and tares compactly grown’.
The peaceful opening for the solo quartet, almost chanted like a prayer, is exquisite in its serene beauty and is quietly answered by the full choir in unison. This alternation of voices sets much of the pattern for the work. A melody with expressive leaps for the sopranos is taken up by the tenor solo, before a climax occurs at ‘Evil and good stand thick around’. The first section ends with a hushed, lush cadence at ‘lead our harvest in’, out of which the music of the opening is magically recalled by the quartet.
A memorable, agitated musical image occurs at the words ‘Scattered along the winter way’ and a solo for the alto takes up the jagged rhythm of ‘scattered’. The music rises to an intense climax at the crux of the poem ‘What had Eden ever to say / Of hope and faith and pity and love’ and again at ‘buried all its day’. Only at the very end of the poem is a resolution achieved, as reflected in the concord of the music in the final bars.
Andrew Burn © 2007