There are more influences at work in Leighton’s choral music than we might think. In 1951 Leighton won the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which allowed him to spend a year in Rome studying under the Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. The marks of Petrassi’s stern serialism, and the range of influences Leighton encountered in Italy, are visible in the murky harmonic language of pieces like God’s grandeur
. This work opens with a loud, unison cry, which quickly fragments; the chords grow fiercer and more dissonant until the climax, ‘the grandeur of God’. This last word, ‘God’, arrives on a chord of D, a harmonic progression one might expect after the piece’s opening in G. But ‘God’ is not in D minor, or D major, but both: the tenor F sharp jars against the soprano F natural. For Leighton, God’s grandeur is a great and terrifying thing (as it was for Hopkins). Hopkins’s poem is a sonnet, and one way of reading the poem would be as a turn (a volta) from despair at human conduct to the prevailing power of nature and grace. Leighton’s setting is more subtle in its analysis: not only is ‘nature’ a more jagged and uncomfortable force, but God remains locked in that bitter-sweet chord of D minor/major. This is Leighton’s God: a harmonically ambiguous, unsettling combination of major and minor, joy and pain. Leighton sometimes speaks as someone from inside the church; but his relentless analysis of the familiar patterns of worship show him speaking, just as often, as someone from outside it too.
from notes by Ted Tregear © 2015