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Grayston Ives (b1948)


Jesus College Choir Cambridge, Britten Sinfonia, Richard Pinel (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2020
Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: July 2021
Total duration: 42 minutes 43 seconds

Grayston (Bill) Ives has a compositional style which is complex in terms of its many points of reference, but unashamedly accessible, rich and colourful, popular with performers and audiences alike. This Requiem was composed for liturgical use at Magdalen College, Oxford, where Bill was director of music for some two decades.

On 8 June 1966 I met Benjamin Britten. He was sitting alone in the nave during a break in rehearsal for an Aldeburgh Festival concert in Ely Cathedral. Approaching nervously and clutching a batch of my schoolboy compositions, he was very gracious and promised to look at them. Five months later a letter arrived with a careful assessment, offering encouragement and advice. He was pleased to see plenty of ideas, ‘a good thing at your age’, and advised me ‘to find a good teacher, preferably a composer with lots of practical experience’.

Correspondence with Maurice Duruflé came to nothing—he only accepted organ pupils. Surprisingly, he was very diffident about his work as a composer, perhaps understandably, working in the same city as Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez.

An approach to Richard Rodney Bennett was more successful. His music made a deep impression, particularly his haunting film score, Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and he agreed to take me on. From the outset he made it clear that he would offer help with my compositions and wouldn’t charge for lessons—‘Boulez never charged me’. I loved my visits to his home in Lonsdale Square, London; the smell of freshly ground coffee, his exquisite taste in décor, and the sheer excitement of being in the presence of a professional composer. He lent me scores, which were eagerly devoured. Such a kind and generous man, and so multi-talented.

Working with the King’s Singers some years later, Bennett’s perfectly crafted and beautifully voiced close harmony arrangements were a joy, as was his magically atmospheric commission, The House of Sleepe. Our work with other arrangers—notably Gordon Langford, Peter Knight and Daryl Runswick—taught me a huge amount about arranging and voicing.

My singing career began as a small boy at Ely Cathedral. Anyone who has had the good fortune to have been a young chorister will know the profound effect it has upon one’s life: teamwork, camaraderie, punctuality, learning at a tender age how to become a professional. Schooldays were spent within a stone’s throw of the building itself—that mighty, noble cathedral, sailing across the Fens. The musical experience within the walls was overwhelming. To this day I still marvel at the mystery of those little dots on the page being transformed into sound through human endeavour. And the boyhood fascination with chords has never dimmed.

The liturgical aspect of a chorister’s life is also important. The daily office is central: the responses and psalms are chanted, the office hymn is intoned, the canticles and anthem are sung. The creed and the prayers become second nature, the words of the psalms seep into the soul. The sound of a plainsong office hymn—still sung every day—stays with me.

Composers learn most from hearing their work performed. Bumps, glitches and miscalculations immediately become apparent. My early compositions were performed at school and at Cambridge—an invaluable experience. After graduation, I sang at Guildford Cathedral in the remarkable choir that Barry Rose started from scratch in 1961. Aware of my interest in composition, Barry encouraged me to write for the choir. I will always be deeply grateful to him.

Arriving at Magdalen College in 1991, I found myself on the other side of the choir stalls. Compared with conducting as an undergraduate and at the Edington Festival in the 1970s, Magdalen was a different ball game. I was the officer in charge, no longer lurking in the ranks. A steep learning curve, but hugely rewarding: writing new pieces, preparing services and shaping performances, all of which stimulated the exploration of new musical avenues.

In the Requiem many influences are thrown into the musical melting pot and will be apparent to the discerning listener. Ultimately, the piece is firmly rooted in the Anglican choral tradition (written specifically for liturgical performance), the distillation of a lifetime in music.

The Britten connection comes full circle. The delicate, sweet sound of a pair of tiny hand-held cymbals is heard at the opening and at intervals throughout. They were bought at Snape Maltings from a group of Tibetan monks who were resident there during the summer of 2008 when ideas for the piece were forming.

The Requiem was first performed in Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford, at the Solemn Requiem for All Souls on 2 November 2008. It was commissioned by Mark Loveday to mark the 550th anniversary of the foundation of the College. It is dedicated to the memory of members of the Loveday family, who attended Magdalen as Demies and Commoners, and since 1700 have served the College as Fellows and as Vice President.

Finally, I must thank the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Britten Sinfonia for their beautiful performance. Special thanks go to Richard Pinel, who assisted me in the first performance at Magdalen. His enthusiasm and belief in the work have been the driving force behind this recording.

Grayston Ives © 2021

Bill Ives has enjoyed a rich and varied career as both performer and composer (Grayston Ives). These experiences, culminating in nearly two decades as Informator Choristarum (Director of Music) at Magdalen College, Oxford, are reflected in a compositional style which is complex yet accessible, rich and colourful. His choral music comes from the heart, and this deeply personal reaction to the texts enables the performer or listener to engage with and enjoy the music to its full extent.

The Requiem Mass is originally part of the Roman Catholic funeral rite. Over the centuries its use has expanded to include acts of remembrance, both general and specific. Its powerful message of redemption and rest has inspired many compositions, from large-scale operatic works (Verdi) to more intimate settings (Ockeghem, Victoria and Fauré). Grayston Ives’ Requiem, originally intended to be sung liturgically, is a welcome addition to the repertoire and gives fresh expression to these ancient texts.

We are delighted to share this recording, which represents two ‘firsts’ for the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge. This is the first time the choirs and Britten Sinfonia have collaborated on disc, which was recorded when the world was on the cusp of being turned upside-down by the Covid-19 pandemic. In our chapel services and extra-curricular tours and concerts, the two choirs are usually heard separately. This is the first time they have joined forces for an entire disc, though you can hear the sopranos sing without the trebles in the Benedictus (track 4) and the choristers sing the opening of the Pie Jesu (track 5) alone. For the remainder of this recording the beguiling combination of boy trebles and adult sopranos works beautifully in Grayston Ives’ fine setting of the Requiem.

Richard Pinel ©

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