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In any hands other than those of Anna Lapwood, fashioning an album around the sentiment 'I’m a firm believer in everyone having the chance to try composing at some point in their lives …' might seem risky. These twenty-one tracks—a large number of them by composers new to the catalogue—show how wrong one can be. Air doesn't get any fresher than this.
As lockdowns came and went, we continued to expand our repertoire with a particular focus on music by living composers and diverse voices. Adjacent to this expansion (and, I think, in correlation with it), an ever-increasing number of compositions by members of the Chapel Choir started to appear; first a psalm chant, then an introit, then some responses … This gave me the idea of bringing some of the Chapel Choir compositions together with the Girls’ Choir carols to form the basis of our long-awaited Christmas album, paired with other Christmas favourites from the choirs’ repertoire. We finally managed to schedule the recording for March 2022, only for the choir to be hit by a wave of Covid the week before the recording sessions. In the space of 24 hours we lost four members of the Chapel Choir and four choristers from the Girls’ Choir (including our head chorister); I thought it was going to spread further and so was almost completely convinced that we were going to have to cancel the recording. We cancelled a day of rehearsals and then conducted the remainder of them either outside (accompanied by the friendly Pembroke ducks), or inside—whilst standing 4 metres apart and wearing masks. Going back to ‘the Covid way’ of doing rehearsals was incredibly demoralising and the mood was pretty sombre, but it was evidently worth it because we only lost two more choir members. Whilst we were a little depleted in numbers, the stress of the previous week made it even more special to be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder again in St George’s Church, Chesterton, and finally get A Pembroke Christmas recorded.
Archangelus Patricia Van Ness (b1951)
For many of us, Christmas starts with the sound of a single voice singing that iconic ‘Once in royal’ solo. Hundreds of years before that solo was written, though, Christmas would have been soundtracked by voices singing unison plainchant by composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, the composer who inspires Patricia Van Ness. Van Ness is a contemporary American composer whose love of medieval and Renaissance music, in particular the music of Bingen, permeates everything she writes. Much of her music is notated in neumes instead of using contemporary notation. This piece, 'Archangelus', is part of a larger upper-voices work The Nine Orders of the Angels. The excerpt heard here is the first half of the second movement, 'Archangelus, Gabriel Praedicator', and the text describes the Angel Gabriel arriving to ‘whisper in the handmaiden’s ear … [to] invite her, in this lily-strewn night as the great hosts whirl, to be Mary, Queen of the Angels’. Van Ness’s music has been praised for the atmosphere it creates, and we certainly hear that in this piece; it unfolds as if a spell is being cast, presenting the image of Gabriel both as a celestial being and also as someone almost instantly familiar.
Venite, gaudete! Adrian Peacock
From unison chant we move to a piece that pulsates with energy and excitement. Adrian Peacock’s Venite, gaudete! starts with a single line singing an ostinato which gradually expands and intensifies, paving the way for some thrilling double-choir writing. We first sang this piece for our 2021 Advent carol service; the choir was excited to sing this piece with a congregation present as we had been particularly enjoying getting to grips with it in the rehearsals over the previous couple of weeks. As is so often the case in live music, though, things didn’t go entirely to plan. I had given the choir strict instructions to sound as menacing as possible; this clearly worked because as the piece started to really get going, a baby started crying, becoming increasingly vocal through to the end of the piece, much to the amusement of everyone in the chapel.
Halcyon days Melissa Dunphy (b1980)
I’m sure I’m not the only conductor who used lockdown to explore new music, and I think this piece might be one of my favourite discoveries from that period. Melissa Dunphy is an Australian-American composer who I first came across through her O Oriens, the next work on the album. Already aware of her name and her writing, I was excited to see that Voces8 commissioned a new piece from her for their Live from London Festival in 2020, and so eagerly bought copies when it became available. Dunphy sets a specially written text by her regular collaborator, Jacqueline Goldfinger, which creates ‘a period of calm during winter storms where we reflect on what we have lost.’ We learnt this piece over Zoom during the lockdowns of 2020, and then sang it outside at our end of year service when we were finally allowed to sing together again. Having had our choir activities (and lives) so heavily restricted, the words ‘rise up, rise up, tattered and torn’ seemed particularly emotion-laden and this piece has retained a special place for us ever since.
O Oriens Melissa Dunphy
We move now to the first of two settings of the ‘O Oriens’ antiphon, one of the great Advent antiphons used at vespers in the last seven days of Advent. ‘O Oriens’ is the antiphon for the 21st December, focusing on themes of light and enlightenment. Dunphy’s setting of this piece was commissioned by the Choral Society of Philadelphia and is infused with plainsong influences that lend the piece an irresistible timelessness, organically linking old and new. Dunphy says of the piece: 'When I was asked to set one of the O Antiphons, I knew the one I wanted to choose was ‘O Oriens’ because of its universality. While my setting uses the traditional plainsong setting as its backbone, I hear the text as relevant far beyond its liturgical purpose; it becomes a plaintive call for light in the form of love, knowledge, and peace both in the world and within each of us personally, particularly for those of us who have suffered from depression or grief.'
O radiant dawn James MacMillan (b1959)
This is our second (and better-known) setting of the ‘O Oriens’ antiphon, this time by Scottish composer James MacMillan. To say MacMillan writes well for voices is an understatement. His compositional output includes over 90 choral pieces alongside his solo songs and three operas. This is music that is undoubtedly text-led, that is, always putting the text first. In the case of this piece, the homophonic writing means the text is always clear, whilst MacMillan uses repetition and harmonic interest to highlight certain words. A favourite memory of our recording sessions was when we were recording the soprano/alto interlude in the middle. I happened to discover the disco button on the keyboard while we were waiting to do a take, and we discovered that particular passage worked rather well with a funk disco beat …
I sing of a maiden Emma Johnson (b1966)
One of my favourite things about programming music by living composers is being able to give our singers the opportunity to meet and work with them. Composer and clarinettist Emma Johnson has been the patron of our Girls’ Choir since it was first set up in 2018, so when I saw that she had written some pieces for upper voices, I jumped at the chance to programme them. We first performed I sing of a maiden in a carol service in 2019, the clarinet part played by one of our tenors. As an aside—we went through a strange phase of having a plethora of high-level clarinettists in the choir, leading to the amusingly-named ‘Pembroke College Cambridge Chapel Choir Clarinet Choir’, or the PCCCCCC. It was amazing to work with Emma for this recording, though, and hear her insights on the piece. The text, popular amongst composers for hundreds of years, is a Middle English poem which dates back to a 15th-century manuscript, although it is likely that the poem existed in oral form much earlier.
A tender shoot Kerensa Briggs (b1991)
Another classic Advent text—this time from 15th-century Germany—given a new lease of life in this setting by Kerensa Briggs. On our previous recording, All things are quite silent, we recorded Briggs’ Media vita and were struck by her lush, expressive harmonies. Similar harmonies are heard in this setting which offsets a largely homophonic text and close textures with moments of chromatic harmony to draw attention to the text. A particularly memorable moment from our recording rehearsals was when, after a couple of days, we had to move all rehearsals outside thanks to some cases of Covid. It was this piece that attracted the attention of a couple of ducks who waddled up to say hello, rendering all attempts at rehearsing completely useless …!
Gaudete! Pembroke College Girls’ Choir
We come now to the first of three carols written by the Girls’ Choir. Out of all the pieces the girls wrote, this was their favourite—they adored deciding on the best combination of rhythms to accompany the chorus, and there was a rather intense argument about whether or not to include a tierce de Picardie at the end! It was only when we rehearsed it with the upper voices of the Chapel Choir shortly before the recording that we agreed it needed a little extra sparkle in the last verse. Luckily, we have a random assortment of percussion instruments in our organ loft, stowed away precisely for moments such as this! There was a tambourine up there, and, even more luckily, one of our altos is a percussionist so knew how to play it properly. We tried including it and everyone in the room, myself included, squealed with excitement, so we hope that little surprise addition might make you smile too!
My heart, O God Lucy Walker (b1998)
Another piece with a Pembroke connection now, written by Lucy Walker, who sang alto with us in 2020–21. Lucy first came to hear the choir when we were singing her Iustorum Animae—this was just after services had begun again between the first and second lockdowns. We were allowed socially-distanced pizza after Evensong—Lucy stuck around and ended up enjoying it so much she asked to join the choir. My heart, O God sets text from Psalm 57, and was originally written for Peter Asprey and the Choir of Holy Sepulchre. Whilst not explicitly festive, I like to think it does a beautiful job of articulating the thoughts of Mary when she learns she is going to give birth to the Son of God.
On Christmas Kethaki Prathivadi (b1998)
We have a particularly talented alto section at Pembroke! Kethaki Prathivadi is another one of our altos, and I first met her when she joined the NHS Chorus-19, a virtual choir for NHS staff set up during the Covid pandemic. She has a wonderful voice, and ended up coming to join the Chapel Choir once things were allowed to start up again. She wrote this little piece for us in between her medical school finals, setting a text by 20th-century writer and poet Marion Strobel. We workshopped the piece as a choir, suggesting various small tweaks to the harmony to accentuate the text, and so there was a real sense of excitement and ownership when it came to recording this track.
O Adonai Roderick Williams (b1965)
We come now to the most substantial piece on the programme: Roderick Williams’ setting of the second O Antiphon, traditionally sung on 18th December. Williams describes the structure of the piece:
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.
I have been wanting to programme this for quite a while but it was only this year that I felt we had a group of singers capable of tackling it. The celebrant part, in particular, is extremely difficult, often at odds with the rest of the harmonic material, and I’m extremely grateful to one of our baritones, Tom Unwin, for the time he spent with the score when preparing to sing the solo. One of the things I love about this piece is that it never quite sounds the same way twice; there are very few fixed moments, and the spatial separation of the singers means we are all relying on listening and trusting each other as opposed to watching. Occasionally, this leads to some beautiful moments where things line up ‘accidentally’.
My Lord has come Will Todd (b1970)
Back to more conventional territory now, and with it we move firmly from Advent into ‘Christmas proper’ and the arrival of the baby Jesus. This piece is sung by the combined choirs, and often features at our annual Christmas Carol Services in the College Chapel. This piece shot to carol stardom when it was included in Oxford University Press’s Carols for Choirs 5—I think this is partly because it’s so well-written for voices, and because it’s quickly accessible for choirs of all standards and sizes. There is also something about the main melody which feels comforting, safe, and instantly familiar. The thing I really love about this piece is that, instead of celebrating the birth of Christ with jubilant trumpets and drums, Todd opts for something more introspective, intimate, and filled with wonder and awe.
The Huron Carol Eleanor Daley (b1955)
Now onto a piece which feels as if it has been woven from the same thread as the Todd, written by the composer Eleanor Daley. The Huron Carol is a new addition to our repertoire, and has proven to be an instant hit amongst singers and congregations alike. The carol itself is Canada’s oldest Christmas song, thought to have been written in 1642 by Jean de Brebeuf. The original song was written in the native language of the Huron People, with the title ‘Jesus Ahatonhia’ (‘Jesus, he is born‘), and the melody is based on that of a traditional French folk song. Daley’s setting shows off her particular flair for writing for upper voices, both in their material accompanying the lower voices’ tune, and in the upper-voices verse.
The Pembroke Carol Pembroke College Girls’ Choir
The last of our little triptych of verse carols, and another composition from the Girl Choristers. The Pembroke Carol sets verses from Sara Teasdale’s Christmas Carol, and was the most substantial piece the girls wrote over the course of their writing weekend. I started by giving them the text, and as a group we then chatted about what metre and key the text suggested. They were surprisingly quick to decide that it should be 6/8 and modal! From there we worked at writing a melody before breaking it up into verses and trying out different textures and harmonies. This was quite an experimental process and I wasn’t sure how well it was going to work at first, but I think we all found it really rewarding, and it was lovely to see everyone getting involved, including our youngest choristers. It doubled-up as an opportunity to do some more detailed theory and notation work with some of our younger members, but I also found it fascinating how simply singing a lot of choral music means most of them had a certain sound world in their heads straight away. The piece ended up receiving its premiere from the BBC Singers live on BBC Radio 3, which caused huge levels of excitement amongst the choristers!
Serenity Ola Gjeilo (b1978)
One of my biggest challenges over lockdown was trying to think of creative ways to retain a sense of community amongst our singers when we couldn’t meet in person. One of the things we did was invite various musical figures to do Q&A sessions with our singers, and we were thrilled to chat to Ola Gjeilo during one of these sessions. His piece Serenity has been a personal favourite of mine for some years, partly because I have always had a bit of a soft spot for the cello, and I think it works so well when combined with voices as it is in this piece. It was wonderful to welcome back one of our alumna, Wallis Power, to play the cello for this recording.
Gjeilo said of this piece:
I wanted to write a cappella music that has a symphonic, abundant feel … I love the warm, lush sound that can give a feeling of space and evocativeness, but still be intimate somehow. But mainly, all I wanted to do with this piece was to write something that came straight from my heart, without any pretence or filters.
Lo! He slumbers Cecilia McDowall (b1951)
Cecilia McDowall’s setting of Isaac Watts’ Cradle Hymn was an instant hit with the Chapel Choir (specifically our tenor department!) thanks in part to its chromatic harmonies. The piece lilts along, largely in three but with regular changes of metre creating a sense of almost psalm-like speech rhythm.
Seeing the star Ben Ponniah (b1984)
One of the lovely things about working with living composers is developing relationships with the composers themselves. I first came across Ben Ponniah when he emailed me to say he had written a piece for us, Thou wilt keep them in perfect peace, having enjoyed listening to us perform Kerensa Briggs’ Media vita. We have been singing and performing his music ever since, and I’m particularly fond of this setting of Seeing the star, written for his old choir, St Mary le Tower in Ipswich. This is a piece that should be in the Christmas repertoire of every choir, in my view—it is accessible but extremely effective, its lush harmonies really enjoyable to sing.
The Evening Star Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
We had a couple of hilarious hours during our recording rehearsals trying to figure out if there was any way this piece could be linked to Christmas, other than through its reference to a star. There were some pretty tenuous links, including trying to suggest the ‘landscape’s odours rise’ was a reference to the smell of the animals in the stable. We eventually had to accept the fact that it probably wasn’t a Christmas piece, but it IS a piece that we really love singing and so we hope you’ll forgive us for including it for that reason and that reason alone! Coleridge-Taylor sets a poem by Thomas Campbell and, as with several of his choral pieces, uses harmonies that seem to be lifted straight out of a 1950s Disney film (in the best possible way!).
Lux aurumque Eric Whitacre (b1970)
Another choir favourite now from Eric Whitacre, and a piece that features not just at Christmas but in our services of candlelit Compline throughout the year. We are excited to be working with Eric as our ‘Composer in Association’ over the next couple of years, and have really enjoyed getting to know more of his music (including his monumental piece Leonardo dreams of his flying machine which we actually recorded as a little bonus at the end of the Christmas sessions). The sopranos particularly enjoy this piece as an excellent excuse to show off their well-coordinated staggered breathing, having to give the impression of holding the final note without a break for over a minute.
Silent night Pembroke College Girls’ Choir
The last of the pieces written by our girl choristers, and, fittingly, the piece which began this whole project. This arrangement, written over the course of a 60-minute rehearsal, put our youngest choristers on the top line and gave the older choristers the opportunity to explore some more intricate harmonies underneath. Thanks to Hannah Lewis, one of our longest serving Chapel Choir sopranos (and long-suffering choir librarian), for singing the first verse so beautifully.
The very best time of year John Rutter (b1945) arr. Owain Park (b1993)
Of course, it really wouldn’t be Christmas without a little bit of Rutter, in this case in a particularly glorious arrangement by Owain Park. The carol was originally written for choir and orchestra and perfectly demonstrates Rutter’s incredible talent for writing a glorious, instantly memorable melody. This a cappella arrangement was an instant hit with the choir, and we thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work on some slightly different styles of singing to create the sound world we were after.
Anna Lapwood © 2022