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Joanna Forbes L'Estrange (b1971)

Heaven to Earth

London Voices, Ben Parry (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2023
St Barnabas Ealing, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Alexander L'Estrange
Engineered by Al Forbes
Release date: January 2024
Total duration: 69 minutes 16 seconds

Heaven to Earth is a collection of singable, accessible, sacred choral music—introits, anthems, canticles, a set of Preces and Responses, and a congregational Mass-setting—by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange. In the words of John Rutter: 'This is simply beautiful choral writing by someone who knows, from a singer’s perspective, how to compose music which every choir will want to sing.'

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It was never my intention to be a composer. Despite being the granddaughter, daughter, and wife of composers—perhaps because of being—I hadn’t considered putting pencil to manuscript paper myself. Singing was my first love and my route into the music profession. From my formative years as a chorister in my local parish church choir of Bisley and West End in Surrey to three undergraduate years singing with Schola Cantorum of Oxford to seven years touring the world as soprano/Musical Director of The Swingle Singers to twenty years performing and recording with Tenebrae and even more with London Voices, I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy a wonderfully fulfilling career as a singer.

So when, unexpectedly, my foster father Richard asked me to compose a piece to be sung at his ordination in 2007, I was rather taken aback. 'But I’m not a composer', I explained, to which he said, in his typical, candid fashion, 'well, I think you could be'. And that was that. I wrote a setting of Go forth In peace (track 21) and found myself on a new path.

A few years later, I was invited to compose The St Helen’s Service (tracks 14-17), a congregational setting of the Mass for my local church of St Helen’s in Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire. Having written it, a friend suggested that I send it to the Royal School of Church Music for possible publication. To my delight, they not only published it but were keen to see more. I started to receive commissions from choirs in the UK and in the USA for prayer settings—The Lord’s Prayer (track 18) and Saint Richard’s Prayer (track 19)—a set of Preces and Responses (track 6), my King’s College Service (tracks 3 and 4), introits—Let my prayer rise up (track 1) and God the Holy Trinity (track 2)—and anthems, including Drop, drop, slow tears (track 12).

One rather dreary afternoon last autumn, I received a surprise phone call from my publisher inviting me to compose an anthem for ‘Sing for the King’, a project to mark King Charles III’s coronation. 'Why me?', I asked. He replied, 'because choirs love singing your music and we want as many choirs as possible to sing this piece'. This conversation encapsulates something I care deeply about when I’m composing church music: I want it to be rewarding and enjoyable for all choirs, not just the professionals. My early chorister years and my experience of conducting many types of choir has inspired me to write music which sits comfortably within the vocal ranges and ability of choral singers who haven’t necessarily all had musical training or singing lessons.

I chose to set the first three verses each of Psalms 72 and 149 and named my coronation anthem The mountains shall bring peace (track 20). Words are always my springboard, both pre-existing or those I’ve written myself, such as for my Passiontide anthem Words from the cross (track 7). I like to read a text aloud whilst imagining myself to be in a church service. From the shape of the phrases comes a melodic idea, a theme, a sound-world, a tonality. If my musical settings bring those who hear them closer to the meaning of the words I feel I’ve done my job well. If they don’t, my opinion is that the words may be better left as spoken.

Some of the pieces on this album are accompanied by organ, others are a cappella, but the majority are for mixed voice choir and a few, including Give us grace (track 8) and High as the Heavens (track 13), are for upper voices. The Chorister’s Prayer appears twice, first in its mixed voices version (track 5) and later in its original, upper voices version (track 11). Some pieces are melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically simple, such as the wedding anthem Faith, hope and love (track 9), while others are syncopated, the harmonies more jazz-influenced, and the textures leaning towards Gospel, such as in For the beauty of the earth (track 10), which I wrote in collaboration with my husband and long-time music partner, Alexander L’Estrange. Just as I love to sing in as many different styles as possible, so it is with listening to music. I make no apology for listing among my influences Taizé, Gospel, Film soundtracks, a cappella groups, contemporary classical music, ABBA, and worship songs. Heaven knows how the guests on Desert Island Discs whittle their list of tracks down to just eight.

I couldn’t have wished for a more fitting choir than London Voices to record this album. The individual singers’ sheer diversity of talent and expertise together with Ben Parry’s consummate leadership, the engineering skill of my brother, Al Forbes, and Alexander’s extraordinary editing and producing prowess have created recordings which sound just as I’d heard them in my head. My hope is that every choir will discover something amongst these tracks which they’d like to sing. Meanwhile, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the choirs around the world who have already sung my music and those who have commissioned new pieces from me. I consider it an enormous privilege to be a composer and I love to hear from choirs and their directors.

Heaven to Earth is dedicated in memory of Reverend Richard Abbott, without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. Beginning every phone call with the question 'what are you composing at the moment?', Richard continued to encourage me and champion my work right up until his death in October 2022. I am also indebted to Professor Eric Nye whose generosity made this recording possible.

Through music, we bring a little bit of Heaven to Earth. And hopefully what we sing here on Earth somehow also finds its way up to Heaven.

Joanna Forbes L'Estrange © 2024

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