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Roderick Williams is one of the finest singers of today, widely acclaimed for the naturally expressive nature of his voice. His award-winning compositions have a similarly fresh honesty, something clearly relished by the Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir (ORNCTLCC, for not that short) and their conductor Ralph Allwood.
I find most often that the choice of text will suggest a musical style and I will express myself within that framework. This is not so much a lesson in compositional pastiche, more that the musical inspiration usually comes to me as I read the words and I am happy to compose in whatever style results. I am also a practising and practical musician, aware that my commissions can be for choirs of different standards, amateur or professional, and I try to tailor the demands of the piece to suit the brief. I realise that it is certainly important to me that choir members enjoy singing my music, even if they can sometimes find it initially challenging.
I am hugely grateful to Ralph Allwood, a significant figure in my singing career since I first attended one of his choral courses in my teens, and to the Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir for honouring me with a whole disc of my music. Several of these pieces here I had never heard before, as my performing schedule often prevents me from attending premières, and others I have not heard for decades. The dedication which Ralph, the whole choir and its administrative support have shown has been very moving for me to witness. Likewise the Signum recording team, headed by the ever-wise Adrian Peacock, has made music out of my youthful scribbles. Without the efforts of all these musicians, technicians and staff, my music would remain dormant, just a figment of my memory.
I am deeply grateful to all of you who have made this disc possible.
Let nothing trouble you & O guiding night
Let nothing trouble you and O guiding night were both commissioned by the Genesis Project for a recording by The Sixteen. Director of the choir Harry Christophers and project commissioner John Studyzinski are passionate about adding practical contemporary music to the everyday repertoire of Catholic Worship. They were specific in their brief that these new works be appealing and approachable both for regular church choirs and for their congregations. John proposed the texts, providing mystical prayers that have particular personal resonance for him. Let nothing trouble you is written for unaccompanied four-part choir with as little division in the parts as possible. O guiding night is written for choir with organ or piano and also utilises frequent homophony to convey the text as well as interplay between the voice parts to give an feeling of barely suppressed, ecstatic energy.
A good friend of mine from my university days has since spent most of his professional life as a journalist for the Financial Times. His wife, also a good friend and supporter from those days, caught up with me at a weak moment during a party and wondered if I might be able to write a Christmas carol for an annual charity appeal run by the newspaper. Each year a new carol is printed in the paper and broadcast on YouTube. I assured her that I still had time to provide her with something and, fortunately, soon came across this Longfellow poem. I had it in mind that many modern Christmas carols tend towards the slow and atmospheric so I especially wanted to write something with a bit of energy. I also felt that the poem reflected some of the dark times in the world which the FT is duty bound to report, even if the poem’s final message is one of hope.
And a little Child shall lead them
Only a few years after graduating from university, a friend of mine from college days, Julian McNamara, contacted me through his position as choir master for the English Church in Geneva. He kindly asked me to write a piece for the choir, adding that one of the altos had a particularly fine voice. This was most likely my first proper choral commission and although I remember wrestling with it for quite some time, I was pleased to be able to deliver the piece in good time for the choir to rehearse and perform it. Julian will remember from our student days that this hadn’t always been the case previously.
Love bade me welcome
George Herbert’s poem was one of the earliest songs I ever wrote for my solo baritone voice, accompanied by my younger brother on classical guitar. I had found a volume of Herbert’s poems in my father’s study and became quite obsessed with the metaphysical poetry. Later I encountered many iconic settings of this particular poem, not least the one by Ralph Vaughan Williams from the Five Mystical Songs. And yet I have always found room for further readings of the text. When looking for a suitable anthem for the Jazz Matins, I came back to these lyrics once again. My intention was to contrast the anxiety and wretchedness of the soul with the infinite compassion of Love.
Dedicated to my brother-in-law and his bride on their wedding day, I chose a French text to reflect the bride’s dual nationality and this in turn suggested a lyrical, French style for composition. The choir on the wedding day was made up of many friends and relatives who dealt with the technical demands of the piece on a single rehearsal with great panache.
Holy Father, great Creator
Occasionally I am approached to write music for singers or choirs with whom I have no personal connection. This commission came out of the blue from a choir in North Leigh and my intention was to write a flexible piece that could be performed with or without organ and would be demanding yet practical for a regular church choir.
Quare fremuerunt gentes?
This most recent commission from Ralph Allwood and the Choir of The Old Naval Chapel, Greenwich was written in turbulent political times, both in the UK and around the world. Added to that were images of war, terror and destruction both in the Middle East and on the streets of any major city around the world; each morning the television news seemed to broadcast another unspeakable atrocity from near and far. As a choral singer I have spent a great deal of my time singing for or about the idea of peace. It would seem these prayers may more often than not ring a little hollow.
O saviour of the world
Similar in a sense to Suzi Digby’s William Byrd project (see Ave verum corpus re-imagined), I was asked by conductor Eamonn Dougan to respond to Thomas Tallis’ Salvator mundi in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Thomas Tallis Society. I was inspired to use the same scoring and also the melodic outline of Tallis’ original but refracted through twenty-first-century eyes. I felt it was particularly important that the anguish behind this text be apparent.
Jeffrey Skidmore, director of Ex Cathedra, planned to celebrate the millennium with a project of O Antiphons, commissioning a range of composers to provide specific music for the choir’s famous advent sequences at St Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham. I met Jeffrey at the church and he described to me how the choral sequences often begin by candlelight, with the choir at the back of this beautiful, Georgian church, sometimes even upstairs in the gallery, and how the event gradually transforms into light as the choir processes to the front. By the end of our meeting, the shape and sound world of this piece were clear in my mind, inspired by the building and his description. The sopranos improvise on a small fragment of the text led by a soloist, positioned in the upper gallery like angels, imitating each other almost like birdsong. The rest of the choir is placed downstairs, behind the congregation if possible, representing the people, anxious in their supplication. They have more of the text but not all of it. Only the celebrant, a solo voice, has the full text, and this is sung right out in plain view of everyone.
Mary had a baby & Children, go where I send thee
These spiritual arrangements are two of several that were commissioned by Oxford University Press for their Spirituals for Choirs volumes. Although they have an optional piano part, they were also specifically designed to be sung unaccompanied, as desired. The idea was to give all the voice parts a decent crack at the melodies and, hopefully, to be great fun to sing.
La Trinité qui ne change jamais
A year or two after I had written And a little Child shall lead them, I had an enquiry from Paul Spicer for a piece to celebrate an occasion when three Anglican Church choirs located in mainland Europe would be meeting to perform together. I decided that a French text would be suitable for the occasion even though I had very little experience at that time of singing or writing in French. Nonetheless, the sprung rhythms of Tippett meet with the harmonies of Duruflé in this energetic piece, which opens out into an optional three-choir canon in the closing Alleluia section.
Ave verum corpus re-imagined Suzi Digby with the choir ORA approached me as one of several composers for a project to write new music to reflect on earlier choral masterpieces. She chose William Byrd as her first subject for a recording which juxtaposes performances of Byrd anthems and motets alongside their contemporary counterparts. I was very fortunate to be allotted Ave verum corpus, a favourite piece of mine from my treble days. I still remember how eagerly I used to wait for the false relations in the final miserere section. This love of clashing harmonies suggested to my adult self a piece that preserves all my fondest moments of the original and expands on Byrd’s sound world in between.
The Lord’s Prayer
While still a university student, I discovered a disc of Russian Orthodox Music as recorded by The Tallis Scholars. It made a great impression on me and I was especially struck by a beautiful double-choir Lord’s Prayer by Rachmaninov from his Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. I wondered what it might be like to create something in its image that would be suitable for use in Anglican Choral Evensong. So I wrote a set of verses and responses for double choir in the spirit of this Russian tradition and this prayer is a representative excerpt.
This is the work of Christ
The Choir of Wellington College, Berkshire chose to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the school chapel with this Introit. In my treble days I remember being particularly in awe of Bruckner’s unaccompanied motets and I suspect some of his choral and harmonic techniques have found their way into this piece.
Roderick Williams © 2017
It is extraordinary how varied in style his music is. He told me that whenever he is working on an opera or a performance of any sort, he gets so immersed in the style of that composer that ideas for choral music in the same idiom occur to him; and he writes. I am grateful to him for his enthusiasm for the project. He even wrote a new piece for him to sing with us. I imagined a nice gentle lyrical piece with ooos and ahs and him singing lyrically and perhaps a little cheesily above a rich but gentle choral texture. How wrong can one be?
Ralph Allwood © 2017