‘This Morning’ by Emma Ballantine

DSC03157Are you as amazed as I am by the glory of this beautiful morning? And not just of this one, but of the last few mornings? Creation is just bursting with glory at the moment. And a perfect response is this wonderful song called This Morning by Emma Ballantine, a good friend of mine. Have a listen, and let yourself be swept off into a dreamlike world of glory.

No one’s seen the sun so bright lately or the sky so completely clear … It seems anything could go from here …

You can also visit Emma’s website here.

The Heart in Waiting: Commotio records Bob Chilcott carols

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Bob relaxes in his ‘composer’s chair’!

Well, the weather was certainly appropriate for a recording of Christmas carols! Over the weekend the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, in which I have had the pleasure to sing for 5 years, recorded a disc of carols by Bob Chilcott in Keble Chapel, due for release in November 2013 on the Naxos label, under the direction of the mighty Matthew Berry. For those of you unfamiliar with the choir, it was founded in 1999 to provide a ‘refreshing alternative’ to the usual choral repertoire by focusing on little known works of the 20th and 21st centuries. For anyone who has been through the mill of Evensong repertoire for years (i.e. me), such a choir provides a wonderful opportunity to discover new music (especially by working with composers of new works), be challenged musically, and, well, have a good time with other like-minded individuals. The choir is that rare thing: amateur in the best sense of it being our hobby, while capable of negotiating difficult music. We get a fair bit of air-time on ClassicFM and Radio 3, and for a discussion on Radio 3 of the music on our last disc, the choral music of Francis Pott, see here: Caroline Gill of Gramophone Magazine calls the choir ‘uniquely good’!

With this in mind, you might ask why we were recording a disc of Bob Chilcott’s carols, some of whose works, unlike most of the repertoire we sing, are very well known in choral circles, and whose music isn’t (at least at first blush) as challenging a sing as Commotio’s usual staple diet. I’ve found that some can be quite snobby about his music, brushing it aside as ‘cheesey’, often lumping it together with the music of John Rutter. If you think there is nothing more to Chilcott’s music than An Irish Blessing, can I invite you to think again. I first realised there was more to his music than my school-girl choral experiences had led me to believe when I sang his Advent Antiphons in 2007. These are anything other than cheesey. Bob is a hugely experienced choral composer who writes in many different styles, but what I find underpins his music is the fact that it is so singable. You can really tell he’s a singer and I never feel vocally tired after singing his music, even for 12 hours a day during a recording! He also manages to compose music which is both musically interesting and accessible for a wider audience: no mean feat!

Inside Keble chapel

Inside Keble chapel

We recorded something like 24 individual movements/pieces, including the more well-known Shepherd’s carol. Many of the pieces were for unaccompanied choir, but we also recorded some with organ, harp, flute and oboe, and worked with a lovely soprano soloist, Laurie Ashworth. It was quite an experience getting used to singing with instrumentalists in the boomy acoustic of Keble chapel, but it was a lot of fun. Many of the pieces are absolute gems. Bob explained that he likes to set music to texts by modern poets such as Kevin Crossley-Holland and Helen Dunmore, and I found that these texts so wonderfully explore the mystery of the incarnation, which, given that this is a Christmas disc, is the central theme. Crossley-Holland’s poem The Heart in Waiting is particularly brilliant, and I think the title so amazingly captures both the about-to-be-ness and the eternity of God’s plan to become man: Jesus has been there since the beginning, a ‘heart in waiting’.

And Bob’s settings of these texts are sublime. He writes like a French composer in Les Anges de nos Compagnes, and his double-choir setting of Before the ice/O Magnum Mysterium is weighty and full of awe as the narrator contemplates the implications of the incarnation. But it was his setting of On Christmas Night that I loved the most. It is a collection of eight movements for choir, harp, organ, oboe and flute based on familiar texts such as Once in Royal David’s City, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (translated) and O little town of Bethlehem. For each text he has written a new tune, but then introduces the traditional tune later on into the texture, i.e. over the top of the new tune, and all this without the new tune sounding like it’s been written to ‘fit’ the old one – amazing! I can never understand how composers write new tunes to texts which have such well-established choral arrangements already. But Bob’s setting of This is the truth sent from above far outdoes the traditional Vaughan Williams arrangement in its simplicity and mystery, really bringing out how contrary the incarnation is to the world’s expectations.

Commotio recordings are never stressful, and it was an enjoyable weekend. There is a real spirit of ‘togetherness’ in the choir and it means that we always have a lot of fun making music without it ever being cliquey or diva-ish. And the tenors are always making us laugh: check out their Christmas jumpers!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

I’ll probably blog again about this once the disc is out (we’ll be having a launch concert in London in November). Watch this space! And if you can’t wait till then, here’s King’s College Cambridge’s offering of The Shepherd’s Carol in 2011.

Holy Week and J.S. Bach

Did you know that J.S. Bach is this week’s composer of the week on Radio 3? Every year I think to myself that Holy Week is the best time to engage with the works of Bach. This is primarily because it is usually during this week, the week where Christians follow Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) to the cross (Good Friday) and subsequent resurrection (Easter Sunday), that Bach’s two great ‘Passions’, those of St Matthew and St John, are performed across the country. While I have to admit (and most of you know anyway) I am a totally committed fan of pretty much anything Bach composed, the passions are singular, as far as I am concerned, in their emotional depth. For those who know nothing about passions or the Bible or Bach, these great works were intended to be performed on Good Friday in church, and take the form of a gospel text (St Matthew’s in one instance and St John’s in the other), which charts the last few days of Jesus’ life in recitative form, interpolated with arias and chorales in which deeper themes within the biblical text are explored.

Now I happen to think that the works of J.S. Bach will enrich anyone’s life, regardless of whether you are a Christian, a musician, a Germanist, or none of the above. Hence this is my attempt to gently encourage you all to engage with a little bit of Bach this week, regardless of your background. I think Bach has something to offer everyone.

For Christians who are not musical, these passions offer an alternative style of devotion (that’s what they were intended for!) They take us through the last moments of Jesus’ life and give us space to reflect on and respond to his great sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The scores are unparalleled in the musical world in their treatment of this topic. You might come away feeling like you’ve run a marathon, but sitting down with the words and a CD and listening along certainly adds a new dimension to my devotions every year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Since the passions deal with questions of cosmic significance, they are relevant and accessible to non-believers as well as Christians, especially to people who like music! As a wannabe musician, I sometimes find myself guilty of not really paying attention to what I’m singing about. However, my understanding and appreciation of Bach’s passions increased exponentially (as did an outpouring of my faith, as it happens: ask me about it sometime) as a result of engaging with the text and Christian claims of these great works. I urge you whatever your faith not just to sing or play, but to engage!

As for Germanists who might or might not be familiar with classical music and/or Christendom, Bach counts among the best of Germany’s exemplary cultural output, so he’s definitely worth getting to know!

The best way to get into a passion is to sit down with a libretto, a translation and a recording. Happily, you can do all this online! (Isn’t technology wonderful!) For example, you can watch a live recording of the whole Matthew Passion, directed by the brilliant Philipp Herreweghe, here. You can follow the German here, and read a translation here.

Since most people will find the idea of listening to 2 hours 45 minutes of Bach daunting, I thought I’d help you find a ‘way in’, one from the Matthew Passion and one from the John.

St Matthew Passion: This aria is called So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (‘My Jesus has now been captured’), and features just after Jesus has been identified by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. A duet allows us space to reflect on the unjust arrest of Jesus, before a fabulously exhilarating section helps us to recognise the cosmic significance of the moment (and call for judgment on Judas, which you may or may not like, but is a great vehicle for some truly terrific German: Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle – try getting your mouth round that lot in a hurry). It’s quite brilliant – do have a listen, and enjoy how Bach uses the ‘chorus’ to interject with lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (‘Leave him, stop, bind him not!’) The words are below with a translation (from the same source as above).

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen,
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Sie führen ihn, er ist gebunden.

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,
Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle
Mit plötzlicher Wut
Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!

Thus hath my Jesus now been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
Moon and light
Are in sorrow set and hidden,
For my Jesus hath been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
They lead him off, he is in fetters.

Hath lightning, hath thunder in clouds fully vanished?
Lay open thy fire’s raging chasm, O hell, then,
Now ruin, demolish, devour, now shatter
With suddenmost wrath
The lying betrayer, that murderous blood!

St John Passion: Here I have gone for the final chorale of the piece. Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is not depicted in the passion accounts (in the Lutheran church this would have been celebrated with much gusto on Easter Day with an Easter cantata) It is a prayer which looks forward with great faith and hope to the resurrection at the last day, and I never fail to be inspired by the boldness of the words Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich! Ich will dich preisen ewiglich! (something like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, listen to me! I’m going to praise you for ever and ever!’)

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear
At my last hour my spirit bear
To Abraham’s own bosom,
My body in its simple bed
In peace without distress and dread
Rest till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In fullest joy, O God’s own Son,
My Savior and my gracious throne!
Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
I would thee praise eternally!

Words; Translation

Suddenly

Many of you will have seen the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables. I originally saw the stage show about ten years ago in the West End and it’s definitely one of my all time favourite musicals (back in the day I was a bit of a musical theatre connaiseuse…)

When watching the film at the cinema last month, I noticed a song, ‘Suddenly’, which seemed unfamiliar to me. Given that it sounds so much like it belongs to the rest of the Les Mis score, I assumed it was just one of those songs that I had somehow forgotten in the years since I used to sing ‘I dreamed a dream’ practically every day, accompanying myself at the piano (it must be a stage all 15-year-olds go through…) A little bit of research has shown me that actually, ‘Suddenly’ does not feature in the original production, but was written specially for the film by composer Claude Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, who had penned the original. Since the film is two and a half hours long, you’d be forgiven for wondering why an extra song was written for the big screen: Tom Hooper, the director, explains here how he wanted to show how central falling in love with little Cosette was to Jean Valjean’s life, something which is difficult to capture in theatre. The writers clearly agreed with him, because in the same extract Schönberg says ‘There is a chapter in the book I think that only a camera can catch’.

For those unaware of the plot or who haven’t seen the musical, Jean Valjean is an escaped convict who has never been shown love before, and he takes in Cosette, the daughter of a disgraced prostitute who has died, and brings her up as his own daughter. There is much I could write about this story and this film, given its strong Christian overtones, as although much of the plot is harrowing, it is ultimately a tale of grace. However, I draw your attention to this song because it is rare, I think, that intimate but non-sexual relationships of this type get explored in popular film. Jean Valjean is a single grown man, Cosette is an abused little girl. It seems an unlikely friendship, but it is a beautiful one. Have you ever had an unlikely friendship, where you have learnt to see the world in a new way because of someone else, someone who you would never have thought would touch you in the way they did, because they are so different from you in terms of background, age and so on? I know I have. I love the fact that the unlikeliest of relationships are often the ones that stay with us long after our paths have crossed. This song beautifully sums up this sentiment. Have a listen.