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Seventeen tracks, ten of them by living composers, from the Chapel and Girls' Choirs of Pembroke College Cambridge, groups with a particularly ambitious range of activities beyond what you might expect, and all imbued with the boundless enthusiasm of their director Anna Lapwood.
Jesus Christ the apple tree is arguably Elizabeth Poston’s most famous and successful work. It started life as a short song in her Children’s Song Book; having happened upon the words of the carol while in the US, she proceeded to write a melody to fit it in the style of a folk tune. Indeed, one can hear definite similarities between this piece and her setting of The water of Tyne which comes later in this CD. In a letter to the Rev Ronald de Poe Silk in 1986, Poston said of the tune to Jesus Christ the apple tree: 'The Spirit bloweth where it listith. I wrote it down immediately and inevitably, almost without thinking, on the nearest scrap to hand at the time, which happened to be a garage bill.’ It was first heard broadcast on BBC One’s Carols from Kings in 1967, the year it was published, and has remained a firm favourite ever since.
I originally wrote O nata lux for our regular services at Pembroke; I was looking to include music by female composers in every service, but found there was an obstacle in my path when it came to music written for just tenors and basses. We were singing a men’s voices compline, and so I decided to write a piece that would fill that gap, which I then rearranged for the entire Choir for this recording. The piece starts and ends with a single note, a beam that expands into a warm glow for the second statement of the opening sentence where it is given a chorale-esque treatment.
For her charming carol In the stillness, Sally Beamish chooses a text by Katrina Shepherd depicting the ‘hushed rapture of a small parish church in a snowbound landscape.’ For so many of us who live and work in the world of choral music, it is this moment Shepherd describes that we look forward to every year at Christmas. Beamish writes simply and homophonically throughout, leaving room for expression through the text alone.
Jonathan Dove’s Into thy hands was written in 1996 to be sung at the burial site of Sir Edmund Rich in Pontigny, France, on the 750th anniversary of his canonization. Rich was one of the great scholars of the 13th century, and died near Pontigny in 1243. Into thy hands combines two prayers of Sir Edmund; the first is an expansion of Compline Responsary ‘Into thy hands O Lord’, whilst the second talks of pilgrimage and eternity. The Abbey in Ponigny is exceptionally resonant, and so Dove describes how he ‘imagined that the echo would be part of the piece, and set the first prayer spaciously, allowing for the sound of each phrase to reverberate.’ The second prayer, meanwhile, he describes as being a ‘calm processional which does not reach an ending, but simply, in trust, surrenders itself.’
The text of Media vita is attributed to Notker, a learned Benedictine of St Gall who died in 912. The story goes that he composed it while watching workmen build the bridge of Matinsbruck, in so doing risking their lives. Kerensa Briggs’ atmospheric setting of the text was commissioned by Siglo de Oro and Patrick Allies in 2015 to celebrate 500 years since the birth of the English Renaissance composer John Sheppard. Briggs describes how ‘The piece draws inspiration from both the intensity and ebb and flow found within Sheppard’s work and the text itself. False relations and imitative writing remain but these ideas are incorporated into a rich harmonic language and reflective sonority, depicting an awareness of death in life alongside a hope for redemption or salvation.’
The composer Caroline Shaw was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition Partita for 8 voices, and is also possibly the only choral composer who can say she has collaborated with Kanye West. Her music is renowned for its use of extended vocal techniques, the most basic of which can be heard in And the swallow, a setting of Psalm 84 which ends with the singers evoking the sound of autumn rains. Shaw spoke of how she was thinking of the Syrian refugee crisis as she composed the work; ‘There’s a yearning for a home that feels very relevant today. The second verse is: “The sparrow found a house and the swallow her nest, where she may place her young” which is just a beautiful image of a bird trying to keep her children safe—people trying to keep their family safe.’
The water of Tyne is one of Elizabeth Poston’s lesser known works. Her interest in folk songs is perhaps no surprise given her close musical relationship with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock. In the case of The water of Tyne, the folk song is sung by a girl lamenting the fact that her love is on the opposite bank of the River Tyne.
The following piece on the CD tells a different tale of heartbreak, written in memory of the composer’s friend who took his own life having learnt of his diagnosis of terminal cancer. The beauty of Matthew Martin’s Iustorum animae lies in its simplicity and restraint. Whilst originally written for just the ‘men’s voices’ of the choir, assumed to be alto, tenor and bass, the inclusion of the ladies of the choir singing low in their register gives this piece an even greater sense of depth of sorrow.
Amy Beach is best known for her orchestral music, having earned the accolade of writing the first symphony to be composed and published by an American woman. A prodigious pianist from an early age, Beach was grateful that her parents refused offers of concert tours for the young musician, allowing her to focus on continued musical development at a European Conservatory near Boston. Her responsary Peace I leave with you was published in 1891, the year before her most successful choral work, the Mass in E flat.
The composer Eleanor Daley has become a favourite of the Choirs in recent years. The first piece of hers on this disc is Grandmother moon, a setting of a mystical text by a Mi’kmaq poet, Mary Louise Martin, who lives on a small island in British Columbia. The text describes the beauty and tranquillity of a full moon on a clear night; Daley stated how the words were so evocative that ‘when I first heard them, I was utterly smitten, and knew that I needed to set them to music at some point!’
Before the second of Eleanor Daley’s pieces, we hear Rebecca Clarke’s setting of the Marian text Ave Maria, one of the first of her choral works to be published. A British composer born in 1886, Clarke studied with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, London, and had a long career as a violist before moving to New York. Whilst Clarke was initially known for composing chamber music, she was amongst a group of students at RCM who encouraged Ralph Vaughan Williams to lead them in singing Palestrina’s music in the early 1910s. The influence of this study of Palestrina can be clearly seen in her Ave Maria in its constant allusions to the Renaissance style through balanced writing and graceful linear content, always responsive to the sensitivities of the text.
Upon your heart is the first piece of Eleanor Daley’s encountered by the Choir. It was written in 1999, and was commissioned by Dr Thomas Porter, dedicated to his wife for their 45th wedding anniversary. Daley’s attractive and accessible writing has led to this piece embedding itself into the life of the College Choir; it has been sung at numerous weddings and funerals in the College Chapel, and is always one of the final pieces that Choir members sing in their final service before graduation.
Imogen Holst wrote her Mass in A minor in 1927 when she was just 20 years old. At the time, Holst was studying at the Royal College of Music and the Mass was written under the guidance of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with whom Holst was studying at the time. The influence of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor can clearly be felt, and yet Holst still preserves her own distinctive voice, particularly in the Agnus Dei, heard here.
John Tavener’s setting of Mother of God is a perfect miniature that forms part of a much longer work. Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple: The all-night vigil was commissioned for the Temple Church in London, and was designed to engage the listener in a symbolic journey from darkness to light. Mother of God is an incredibly simple yet beautiful anthem marked to be sung ‘hushed', with infinite tenderness.
Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied sets text from Luke 24: 29. This is the same text used in the famous hymn ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide’. These are the words spoken by two disciples to the stranger they met on the road to Emmaus; they encourage the stranger to stay with them so that they can protect him, not knowing that he is the risen Jesus. This display of humanity and kindness is a fitting end to our exploration of the stillness and quietness of faith and contemplation.
As a Choir, we do regular popular collaborations and so it seemed fitting to include a little encore to the main body of the disc. While Laura Mvula is world-famous for her success as an R&B singer, few people know that she studied composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Her song Sing to the moon was the title track from her first album released in 2013, making the top 10 in the UK albums chart. Laura recorded an orchestral version of Sing to the moon with the Metropole Orkest & Jules Buckley and she wrote this haunting choral arrangement for the Eric Whitacre Singers. Encouraged by Eric, the premiere was her first experience as a choral conductor. Sing to the moon was performed by the BBC Singers at the last night of the Proms in 2019. Laura fragments the writing in the verses to give a sense of the shattered soul at the centre of the piece, contrasting with the close-textured homophony of the choruses, comforting us in the knowledge that singing has the power to turn the tide.
Anna Lapwood © 2020
This album is the first commercial release both for The Choirs of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and for me as a conductor, and it was also recorded just a year after our Girls’ Choir was founded. It is a recording of some of the Choirs’ favourite music, some of which happens to have been written by women and some by men. It’s my hope that by continuing to showcase this wonderful music alongside more well known and equally excellent contemporary choral music, it will be performed by more and more choirs across the UK and worldwide and appreciated for what it is. It is, first and foremost, good music.
Anna Lapwood © 2020