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Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012)

Sea change & other choral works

The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter (conductor) Detailed performer information
Download only
Label: Collegium
Recording details: August 2004
LSO St Luke's, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Handley
Engineered by Tim Handley
Release date: March 2013
Total duration: 72 minutes 29 seconds

Cover artwork: Collage by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012)
Private Collection

Taking advantage of the latest advances in audio technology, this re-release of the first recorded survey of choral music the composer Richard Rodney Bennett is presented in a new stereo mix for the first time, in a spirit of tribute to his long and distinguished career.

The album spans a period of over thirty years from the Five Carols written in 1967 through to A Farewell to Arms written in 2001. The disc also includes his virtuosic Sea Change, a luminous and visionary setting of various dreamlike texts; A Good Night, composed in 1999 for the ‘Garland for Linda’ project in memory of Linda McCartney and the Missa Brevis, his only piece of liturgical music, composed in 1990 for Canterbury Cathedral Choir.

Bennett’s choral pieces are all possessed of a gift for heart-melting, memorable and quintessentially English melody—and an instinctive lyric responsiveness to English poetry. Poetry always mattered intensely to Bennett and in his choral writing we find him setting some of the very greatest—Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell and Spenser—alongside slighter but exquisite lyrics by such poets as Herrick, Quarles and the medieval ‘anon’s.


'There is much to enjoy, especially in Bennett’s contribution to contemporary Christmas music' (The Scotsman)» More

'This is an essential album for all those who love the work of Richard Rodney Bennett, and should be heard by others too. The singing is as impeccable as one might expect, even when lamenting the lack of clarity of diction. The presentation is superlative, and as a record of Bennett’s works for a cappella chorus this is a worthy memorial to his art' (MusicWeb International)

'A fine disc in every way' (MusicWeb International)» More
Sea change
(composed in 1983 for the Donald Hunt Singers, premièred by them at the 1984 Three Choirs Festival)
The opportunity to write for a virtuoso chamber choir called forth perhaps the most ambitious of Bennett’s unaccompanied choral works, one which explored new sound worlds to extraordinary and evocative effect. As well as a maritime theme, the texts all share a dreamlike quality of fantasy and illusion, Shakespeare’s Tempest texts fairly obviously so, Marvell’s and Spenser’s more obliquely. Marvell’s The Bermudas recounts the experience of a party of sailors shipwrecked in 1609 on Bermuda while en route from England to Virginia. Believed drowned, the sailors survived several months on the island and eventually continued on to Jamestown where their miraculous story caused widespread amazement, promptly inspiring Shakespeare’s The Tempest and later, Marvell’s poem. Spenser’s text, from Book II of The Faerie Queene, concerns the allegorical voyage (modelled on Odysseus’s) of the knight Guyon and the terrifying sea monsters he encounters during a storm.

These four texts make for a satisfying musical whole. The cycle begins and ends in dreaming, conjured up with a distant bell, multi-divided voices and the use of strange ‘artificial’ scales which generate eerie bitonal harmonies. Bennett’s Full fathom five was, curiously, anticipated in these techniques by the aged Vaughan Williams in his similarly luminous and visionary setting of the same words in 1950. The inner movements offer sharp and effective contrasts. The Bermudas (Bennett’s second setting of this poem, unrelated to an earlier one for chorus and orchestra) is framed by haunting unaccompanied solos, for tenor and baritone respectively. Adjoining these are two hymn-like passages built on plain chords, sung by the thankful mariners, the first of them tranquil, the second more exalted; these in turn frame a flowing, melodious central section, marked Allegretto amabile, detailing the abundant bounties of the island. The shape of the whole movement is thus an arch-like ABCBA. The third movement, The waves come rolling, is the most startling—a kind of sprechgesang scherzo in which pitches are indicated as being approximate, and the composer directs that ‘the widest vocal and dynamic range is to be used and the maximum (melo)dramatic effect aimed for’. The mood is violent and nightmarish, and it was a dramatic masterstroke to follow this with the calm, timeless dreaming of Full fathom five.

A Farewell to Arms
(composed in 2001 for VocalEssence, Minneapolis USA, premièred by them in 2002)
This, the last to be composed of the works on the album, juxtaposes two related poems, one Jacobean, the other Elizabethan (inscribed ‘to Queen Elizabeth’), on the theme of the old soldier recalling past wars and his present role in time of peaceful retirement—surely relevant in the 1950s when Bennett first encountered these poems as a schoolboy. Peele’s helmet-as-beehive image seems to have sparked off Knevet’s imaginative catalogue of further examples of swords-into-ploughshares, and whether by design or not the two poems complement each other well: Knevet focuses on the instruments of war, Peele on the soldier himself.

In Bennett’s setting a solo cello suggests the central character of the sturdy old soldier looking back over past battles, reflecting on the passing of time and the transience of military glory, youth, and life itself. Solo instrumental writing always appealed to Bennett, and in A Farewell to Arms he successfully integrates an eloquent, romantic cello part—Walton’s string concertos made an early and deep impression on him—with almost madrigalian vocal writing. There are appropriately retrospective touches: archaic Burgundian cadence figures with their sharpened fourths, echoes of Dowland’s lute songs, Purcellian scotch-snap rhythms on the word ‘Goddess’. The tightest of motivic unity holds this rich variety of elements together, until the final dying cello pizzicatos seem to tell us that the faithful old warrior has drawn his last breath.

A Good-Night
(composed in 1999 for the ‘Garland for Linda’ project, premièred the same year by The Joyful Company of Singers at Charterhouse School)
This touching little part-song was one of nine short choral pieces commissioned from different British composers in memory of Linda McCartney, late wife of former Beatle Paul McCartney. Bennett said of his piece: ‘I felt at ease with Linda who was always warm and spontaneous. I wanted my work to be a gentle goodbye to a remarkable woman.’

(composed in 1964, premièred the same year by the London Recital Group)
Among the earliest of Bennett’s choral pieces, these three Donne settings are short without being slight, and many of the elements of his choral style are already evident. The music is carefully and sensitively fitted to the words (a note warns that ‘the bar-lines in No 1 should not interfere with the natural rhythm of the words’); each voice part is shaped with a sure sense of line; clarity of texture sometimes conceals artifice, as with the effortless canonic writing in Nos 1 and 2; and the sense of the text is eloquently conveyed—all this within a framework of ‘reborn tonality’ which respects the long tradition of choral music without suggesting pastiche.

Missa brevis
(composed in 1990 for Canterbury Cathedral Choir)
The aptness and attractiveness of this, Bennett’s only piece of liturgical music, leads one to wonder why he was not prevailed upon to write more of it. In its concision, motivic integration, and in the rhythmic energy of its Gloria, his Missa brevis owes something to Britten’s, yet if there is a precedent for his fresh, pristine invention, it lies more with the church music of Poulenc and his French contemporaries. Canterbury, after all, is closer to France than it is to London. Like Poulenc, Bennett was capable of abrupt mood changes, most notably in the Sanctus movement which, at the Hosanna, unexpectedly launches into a cheeky, rather secular two-four tune which the boy choristers might well whistle, after a solemn opening section which swings slowly back and forth in nine-eight rhythm like a priest’s censer. Yet, when the text calls for it, the music breathes an air of intense devotion, as in the fine Agnus Dei where the choir splits into two antiphonal halves to telling effect.

Five Carols
(composed in 1967 for Michael Nicholas and the Choir of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton)
No survey of Bennett’s choral music can overlook his contribution to the repertoire of Christmas carols. Like Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Walton, and numerous other English composers, he had a clear affection for this, the oldest genre of vernacular choral music, not least because of the many lovely texts it offers for musical setting. The Five Carols quickly found a place in the repertoire of choirs everywhere, and they have stood the text of time uncommonly well because of their freshness, simplicity, and fidelity to their beautifully-chosen texts.

Lullay mine liking
(composed in 1984 for Edward Heath and the Broadstairs Choir)
A composition can be a token of friendship (many of Bennett’s pieces were written for friends), and his generosity of spirit is exemplified in this truly lovely little carol, a worthy heir to the tradition of Holst and Warlock. Its dedication to Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister and conductor of an annual Christmas concert in Broadstairs, shows its composer’s willingness to write for relatively humble amateurs as well as for skilled professionals. Heath, like Bennett, was born in Broadstairs.

What sweeter music
(composed in 1968 for Edward Heath and the Broadstairs Choir)
This, an earlier Edward Heath commission, typifies Bennett’s care and skill in seeking out good and sometimes little-known texts—characteristic also of Vaughan Williams and Britten. Herrick’s poem is extracted from A Caroll for New Yeares Day, a masque for Charles I with music (now lost) by William Lawes, and it perfectly sums up what carols are about.

Puer nobis
(composed in 1980 for the Marchioness of Aberdeen and the Haddo House Choral Society)
June Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen, was a dedicated amateur conductor, and Haddo House, her home, was the setting for many musical performances. Puer nobis, written at her request for a carol concert, is frankly retrospective in style, recalling with warmth and fondness the best of Stanford’s part-songs but still bearing Bennett’s own distinctive stamp.

Collegium Records © 2005

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s musical career was so many-sided and prodigious in different genres—concert music, opera, ballet, jazz, and film music—that it is easy to overlook the importance and quality of his choral music. Astonishingly, the present album was the first recorded survey, inevitably only partial, of an outstandingly varied, imaginative and attractive body of work spanning a period of almost forty years.

Born in Kent in 1936 to a writer father and a composer mother, Bennett’s precocious gifts as composer and pianist were quickly recognized, leading to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London and private study with Pierre Boulez in Paris. His was a remarkable generation of British composers, including Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Goehr and (by adoption) Williamson, but, like Les Six, they are often misleadingly grouped together despite being very different. Bennett was always possessed of a gift for heart-melting, memorable and quintessentially English melody—which found little outlet in 1960s serialism—and an instinctive lyric responsiveness to English poetry (ditto). Perhaps fortunately for the world of choral music, he rather uniquely managed to maintain parallel styles for different genres throughout his career (as did Bach): even when his concert music was serial, his choral pieces were always tonal and tuneful.

To understand the roots of all this, we must look back a decade earlier than the turbulent and much-discussed 1960s. 1953, the year Bennett entered the Royal Academy of Music, was Coronation year, the dawn of the new Elizabethan age. Britons saw in their young queen a reflection of the first Elizabeth, in whose reign the courtly arts of poetry and music so notably flourished. It was hoped that a new golden age was on the way, with latter-day Shakespeares, Byrds and Dowlands to add lustre to a drab post-war nation. The 1951 Festival of Britain heralded a brief period when the ‘high’ arts were widely encouraged in education; after the horrors of World War II many felt that the greatness of a civilization lay as much in its poets as in its politicians—a view doubtless fostered at Leighton Park, the Quaker school which Bennett attended as a teenager. Poetry always mattered intensely to Bennett, and in his choral writing we find him setting some of the very greatest—Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell and Spenser—alongside slighter but exquisite lyrics by such poets as Herrick, Quarles and the medieval ‘anon’s. As with so many English composers, poetry was the mainspring of Bennett’s vocal and choral music, placing it in a long and honourable tradition from Dunstable to Britten and beyond. Bennett was a successful, formidably skilled cosmopolitan and a master of many styles and sounds—yet, despite having made New York his home in 1979, he never forgot his national roots.

What made him so quintessentially English, and so instantly recognizable, a composer? Two traits: his profound sense of poetry, in the broadest sense…and, allied to this, a quality of melodic wistfulness, tinged with yearning for a lost golden age (you can hear it in the cello writing of A Farewell to Arms) which, without being explicitly sad, brings a tear to the eye. Once confined to his choral and film music, these Bennett fingerprints became apparent all over his later work. Anthony Burton wrote of his final phase: ‘Bennett seems confident and relaxed enough to have settled into a freely tonal idiom…this is clearly the music he wants to write now’. Parallel lines can converge.

John Rutter © 2005

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