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The Shepheardes calender

composer
2006

 
I have had an enjoyable creative relationship with the St Louis Chamber Choir for several years now, thanks to Richard Rodney Bennett, who introduced us. Their conductor, Philip Barnes, concocts wonderful themed concerts and has commissioned many composers over the years. Both for the SLCC and Philip’s other choirs in Missouri I have written five pieces—Aquileia (of which more anon), two settings of God be in my Head, and most recently The Shepheardes Calendar. Most commissions start with a brief, but one of the briefest and strangest ones was for this piece, in that I should include the word ‘rams’. The dedicatee of the piece Linda Ryder, the Executive Director of the choir, is a supporter of the St Louis Rams, their baseball team. She was not to know how difficult it would be to find a poem with that word in it! I asked a friend of mine, John Rowlands Pritchard, who is an expert on all things English, for his advice, and he immediately thought of the Somerset folk song One Man shall Mow my Meadow with the words ‘shall shear my lambs and ewes and rams’ in it. Intrigued by the tune, I decided I would use it as the basis for the piece. He also pointed me in the direction of Edmund Spenser and The Shepheardes Calender.

I thought I would write a piece that was an allegory for sin and forgiveness, and so the movements move from winter to autumn, cruel weather to a good harvest. In the first movement, Winter, the rhythms are stilted and jagged, describing a vicious winter with the sheep and cows (and their herdsmen) standing frozen and shivering. With the cold comes Death. Spenser warns that you may think yourself invincible, but a freezing winter can carry you off! In the middle movement, Spring, I wanted to give the impression of the mysterious and magical arrival of the first shoots, pushing up through the cold earth. The words are ‘The Lord to me a Shepherd is’, from the 1651 Bay Psalm Book, because I liked the idea of linking the rich English of Spenser with the first art of the Puritan Americans. In the lastmovement, Autumn, the shepherd saves a sheep from the wolf and a beautiful description of autumn ‘all in yellow clad’ follows. The folk song is finally heard in its entirety, like a Morris, ushering in warm weather and redemption. For this recording a small group from the choir walked, while singing, from the west end of the nave up to the choir and back again, a somewhat shorter distance than in the Cathedral-Basilica of St Louis!

from notes by Judith Bingham © 2008

Recordings

Bingham: Remoter worlds & other choral works
SIGCD144Download only

Details

Movement 1: Winter  Ah for pittie, wil rancke Winters rage
Track 2 on SIGCD144 [3'57] Download only
Movement 2: Spring  The Lord to me a shepheard is
Track 3 on SIGCD144 [4'18] Download only
Movement 3: Autumn  Thereby is a Lambe in the Wolves jawes
Track 4 on SIGCD144 [2'44] Download only

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