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Finding harmony

The King's Singers Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2019
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker & Nigel Short
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Tom Mungall
Release date: January 2020
Total duration: 69 minutes 30 seconds

A fascinating new programme from The King's Singers documenting some of the countless moments in history when songs—some now well known and others barely remembered—have united nations, cultures or causes.

It has been a labour of love for us to research, commission, rehearse and record the music that we’ve chosen to represent Finding harmony. This project has been designed to explore particular songs from throughout history which have either brought communities together behind a common cause, or helped to give identity to people whose culture or language have been threatened in some way. The album looks at different episodes from around the world where singing together has played a key part in the course of history, or continues to shape it today.

One of the most iconic of these episodes explores the American civil rights movement of the twentieth century, where a fearless campaign led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr fought for equal rights for black Americans in civil society at a time of segregation and oppression. Songs such as African American spirituals, church gospel music, jazz and blues played a huge role in the fight for equal rights, and were at different times used for motivation, celebration or mourning in the turbulence of their struggle. The arranger of This little light of mine, Strange fruit and If I can help somebody, Stacey V Gibbs (b1962), grew up in the USA when the civil rights movement was at fever pitch in the 1960s and early 70s. This little light of mine shares a peaceful and positive message which suited perfectly the non-violent methods of of Martin Luther King and his followers. This peaceful message stood in stark contrast to the violent racism which had pervaded the south of America for centuries prior. Strange fruit is a song inspired by a widely circulated photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana. The text was written by Abel Meeropol and the song made famous by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. If I can help somebody is an old hymn, made most famous by the ‘Queen of Gospel’, Mahalia Jackson, whose singing became the soundtrack to the civil rights campaign. She sung at the rally immediately before Martin Luther King gave his iconic speech ‘I have a dream’, and during the pre-amble to the speech she was heard to shout 'Tell them about the dream, Martin!', prompting one of the greatest pieces of oratory of the last hundred years. She sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King in April 1968, just days before The King’s Singers gave their debut concert in London. Martin Luther King had been named after another revolutionary figure who fought for justice many centuries earlier, and whose story is also explored in Finding harmony.

The Protestant Reformation was first set in motion by Martin Luther (1483-1546) in 1517. Luther’s movement developed an alternative Christian church, which disparaged the spiritual monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged people to worship in their own language, without payment of extortionate church taxes, and with a simpler, less ornate liturgy. Instead of complicated polyphonic motets sung in latin, Lutheran church services would instead feature simple hymns in German, which the whole congregation could learn and sing. These hymns—or chorales—became the musical centrepiece of the early protestant church, and Luther’s very own hymn, Ein feste burg, became something of an anthem for the Protestant movement, spreading far and wide as a message of defiance to the strong forces which sought to crush this upstart new branch of the Christian faith. One of the Protestant church’s new homes would be England, when Henry VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England in 1534. As this new church took root later in the century, one of its greatest defenders would be Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, who through her reign clamped down on secret pockets of Catholic worship. William Byrd (1543-1623) was a composer who belonged to one such underground ‘recusant’ Catholic community, who worshipped in secret despite Elizabeth’s increasingly strict admonitions. Byrd wrote some of his most emotionally-charged music for use in these secret Catholic services, and Ne irascaris, Domine is a very thinly veiled protest at the persecution of Catholics at the time, ‘Jerusalem desolata est’ (‘Jerusalem has been laid waste’) is thought to draw a parallel with England which, for the Catholics, seemed to have been abandoned by God. For the Catholics who worshipped hurriedly and secretly, with whom this motet was extremely popular, the meaning of Byrd’s reference in 'Civitas sancti tui' would have been crystal clear—their shared experience of persecution and religious fear under Elizabeth I would have left little doubt as to its meaning.

Another episode in Finding harmony looks at a more recent battle for freedom which ultimately succeeded in 1991. It took place in the Baltic states, predominantly Estonia, and is now referred to as the ‘Singing Revolution’. This is a phrase used to describe the non-violent, and largely musical, revolution in the late 1980s, which helped to eject the occupying Soviet communist forces in the early 1990s, as the USSR collapsed. The singing of nationally-known songs in public came to symbolise the power of the people, who could literally not be silenced when they began to sing en masse, despite attempts at censorship by Soviet authorities. No single event epitomises the Singing Revolution quite as well as the Laulupidu national song festival of July 1960, where the song Mu isamaa on minu arm was banned from being sung, by Soviet censors who were worried it would encourage nationalism as it defied the ‘official’ language of Russian. At the end of the festival, the audience of tens of thousands began to sing the song spontaneously and the authorities were powerless to stop the singing. Since that moment this song has come to represent the peaceful and musical protest which regained Estonia its independence, and which has enabled the flourishing of Estonian music ever since. Less than two months after that famous Laulupidu in 1960, a man was born who would become one of Estonia’s best-loved choral composers. This man is Urmas Sisask (b1960), who studied composition at Tallinn State Conservatoire at the time the Singing Revolution was taking hold, and whose song Heliseb väljadel is a prayer to the Virgin Mary, reflecting the composer’s Catholic faith.

In the winter of 1991-2, as the Soviet Union was dissolved and Estonia prepared to declare its independence after the Singing Revolution, thousands of miles away in South Africa talks began which started dismantling the cruel Apartheid which had divided South Africa into white and black for the previous forty years. Many years of fighting, campaigning and protesting had led to these talks, and singing was a key tool in this campaign. When Nelson Mandela was first sentenced to jail in 1962 for his part in the early anti-apartheid campaign, he left the courtroom to a chorus of his supporters singing Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, an old hymn in the Xhosa language which had become the unofficial anthem of the African National Congress (ANC), and which is now the national anthem of South Africa. During Mandela’s incarceration, many people gave their lives in the fight for their civil rights in South Africa. Another song which played a large part in motivating and uniting those fighting for their freedom in South Africa was Ayihlome—a song particularly associated with the guerrilla fighters of the ANC, codenamed ‘the spear of the nation’; its lyrics ask ‘Why are you not taking action? Why are you with bended knees? Why are you not fighting, young man?’. In both Estonia and South Africa, it would be unrealistic to suggest that the songs themselves ended occupation and Apartheid respectively. But in both countries, tireless popular campaigns eventually helped to bring about change in the early 1990s. These were campaigns fuelled by a solidarity, determination and courage that came from singing together in harmony.

Long ago, on the border of Europe and Asia—even before the introduction of Christianity into much of Europe—a specific style of polyphonic singing had begun to develop in the much fought-over Eurasian country of Georgia. Music has been one very stable presence in the life of the Georgian people, and a proud source of national identity through many centuries of invasion, occupation and colonisation by many external countries and empires powers. Georgian polyphony is now protected and recognised by UNESCO as a ‘masterpiece of intangible heritage of humanity’. The west-Georgian polyphonic style that we’ve explored in this album involves three musical parts, one of which is a drone and one of which is a more florid line often sung by a soloist. It is a beautiful feature of the style, and particularly audible in Shen khar venakhi (supposedly written by King Demitrius I of Georgia), that all three parts will sometimes coalesce on to one single note signalling the end of a phrase or verse. Tsinskaro is a particularly well-known love song, which references the town of the same name, in the Kartli region of Georgia. Despite the many different linguistic and musical dialects across the country, it is not uncommon to find everybody at a Georgian community event joining in songs. For those who don’t know the specific melodies or words, there can be hundreds of people at a time joining in the drone, making for a thrilling communal experience which not only connects the people present together in song, but connects them back through generations of countrymen who have sustained and nourished the many sounds of Georgian polyphony.

Another place where music has held together the fabric of society through difficult periods is in the highlands of Scotland. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ led a failed attempt from Scotland to claim the British throne. He was backed in his attempt by many Scottish highlanders—armies comprising men from the hundreds of clan families which occupied the north of Scotland. When this attempted coup was finally crushed in 1746, the English authorities began to hunt down and kill highlanders who had shown disloyalty to the crown. Thousands of them were killed or imprisoned and their land requisitioned. Thousands more began to emigrate across the Atlantic to North America. Over the coming century, this process—known as the ‘highland clearances’—continued, leading to the dismantling of much ancient Scottish culture. In this dismantling, the clan structure began to fall apart, and with it disappeared much of the tartan used in traditional dress, as well as the playing of traditional instruments such as the bagpipes and fiddle, and much of the Gaelic language. Out of this crumbling, however, evolved a style of folk music style called Puirt a' bheul (mouth music). In this style, the cheerful rhythms of dance music—which would have previously been played on the bagpipes or fiddle—were instead sung, with Gaelic words inserted to fit the rhythms. The style represented one small way in which old ceilidh songs could be preserved in a new form, complete with lyrics in the ever-fading Gaelic language. At the tail end of the clearances, around one hundred years after the failed coup, one highlander—John Cameron—wrote a song called O, chì, chìmi na mòrbheanna. He came from an old clan, but with the evaporation of employment opportunities after the clearances, moved to Glasgow where he worked in a shipyard but longed for the beauty of his home. His song depicts the ‘misty mountains’, ‘blue grassy hills’ and the ‘language I cherish’. Sir James MacMillan, who is himself Scottish, wrote this arrangement specifically for Finding harmony and is engaged deeply in combating remaining cultural divisions within Scotland through the work of his Cumnock Tryst.

One song in Finding harmony with particular historical poignancy is Dremlen feygl (‘Birds are snoozing in the branches’), and it comes from 1943, from the Nazi-established ghetto of Vilna in Lithuania where tens of thousands of Jews were held as a part of the ‘final solution’ in World War II. On one day in April 1943, a train was loaded with Jewish families from the Vilna ghetto, who were told they were to be resettled elsewhere. The train in fact stopped in the countryside miles from Vilna, and trucks full of the passengers were driven to nearby woods and fields before being executed. Many on the train managed to escape, having seen what was occurring, and fled to nearby villages where they sought refuge. In the days following this, the local poet and teacher Leah Rudnitsky heard and read stories from some of the children who had escaped the killing fields, but who had seen unimaginable horrors and recounted them in school essays or to trusted adults. Their testimony inspired her to write Dremlen feygl, whose words mix images of innocence and peace with metaphors for the hails of bullets flying across the fields. The song was arranged for Finding harmony by the British composer Toby Young (b1990), whose grandmother was herself a holocaust survivor.

In the live concert version of Finding harmony, the performance ends with a section called 'In our time', which looks at some very recent instances of song bringing communities together, crossing societal divisions in times of difficulty. The songs from 'In our time' feature throughout the album, and largely have their backgrounds in events from the last three years. Across the world, the year 2017 featured several challenging events in which songs came to symbolise unity in the face of adversity. One of the most prominent of these was the bombing of Ariana Grande’s performance at Manchester Arena on 22 May, by the suicide bomber Salman Abedi. 23 people were killed in this act of terrorism, and over 800 injured. But out of this act of hatred, Ariana Grande, the people of Manchester, and musicians of many genres found strength, unity and defiance through the ‘One Love Manchester’ charity concert just weeks later. The final official song in this concert, Ariana Grande’s hit One last time, saw all of the artists who’d performed join together on stage. This act of unity in the face of adversity brought together a range of diverse musicians from across the world, as well as the audience of 55,000, using music as their common tool. In the audience of ‘One Love Manchester’ were young singers from Manchester’s Hallé Youth Choir, whose director Richard Wilberforce created the arrangement of One last time for Finding harmony.

A few months later, on 19 September 2017, a devastating earthquake struck half way across the world, in Mexico City. In a spooky repeat of history, it was 32 years to the day since another vast earthquake had also hit Mexico’s capital, killing thousands. The 2017 earthquake was not so severe, with a death toll in the hundreds rather than thousands, but a spirit of national defiance and community prevailed in the face of natural disaster. 'No country in the world unites like Mexicans unite in disasters', wrote Mariana Macias, who was one the volunteers out on the streets within hours clearing rubble and looking for survivors. The teams of volunteers, responding in hordes, were captured in video footage singing the old Mexican love-song Cielito lindo at the tops of their voices. The unity and solidarity of the popular response to the 2017 earthquake was expressed most colourfully in the singing of this song by volunteers throughout the rescue effort, with the words ‘Canta y no llores / Sing and don’t cry’ taking on a special significance. Cielito lindo has been a popular song in Mexico since the late 19th century, and is almost universally known and sung by Mexicans in times of grief and times of triumph. One such time of triumph came 9 months later, when Mexico’s soccer team unexpectedly beat Germany in a FA World Cup match on 17 June 2018. From the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, to Mexico City itself, a rendition of Cielito lindo erupted when the whistle blew on the game, uniting Mexicans around the world in a chorus which transcended age, belief or geographical location.

Another significant event of 2017 was the viral movement #MeToo—a hashtag which began to be used to highlight the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, particularly in the workplace. The momentum from #MeToo led to the formation of the #TimesUp early in 2018. Where #MeToo had raised awareness of a widespread problem, #TimesUp aimed to help combat the harassment and assault, and raised millions of dollars to support court cases. One singer-songwriter in particular became synonymous with the movement. Kesha had brought a series of lawsuits against her manager, Dr Luke, from 2014, for gender-based hate crimes, sexual harassment and employment discrimination. After a period of inactivity through the legal proceedings, Kesha released her album Rainbow in 2017, the lead single from which was her song Praying. This song is thought to address Dr Luke directly, and became an anthem of the #TimesUp movement in 2018, after her performance of the song at the 2018 GRAMMY awards. The song’s lyrics speak of Kesha’s defiance in the face of abuse and discrimination.

In the wake of these movements from 2017-18, the old women’s marching song Bread and roses has taken on a new relevance. The poem was originally published in Chicago in 1911, and quickly became associated with Women’s Trade Unions of the early feminist movement. It was set to its popular hymn-like folk melody by Joan Baez and Mimi Fariña in the 1960s, and this arrangement—as well as that of Kesha’s Praying—was written for Finding harmony by the composer Rebecca Dale.

One day is the one song on this album which sits perhaps slightly apart from the rest. It is not a popular anthem from a historical episode, nor is it necessarily a song which has brought communities together at difficult times. But despite this, it is also the epitome of Finding harmony. In the literal sense, the harmony of Richard Rodney Bennett’s arrangement for The King’s Singers is some of the most complex and sumptuous in the group’s library, demonstrating the power of voices working together to create something of a richness beyond the sum of its parts. The lyrics of the song, originally written by the jazz legend Michel Legrand—who died just a few months before Finding harmony was recorded—encapsulate the spirit of hope which so much of this music represents. The optimism that ‘one day the rains will be softer, one day the winds will be sweeter’ characterises our belief that through music, and particularly through singing together in harmony, there is always the possibility of an even better world.

Patrick Dunachie © 2020

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