Songs in praise of Somerset

by
02 November 2006

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AFICIONADOS of amateur choral singing in London will know of the Revd Ronald Corp's work as a choral conductor on the musical scene of the capital for the past two decades. His recordings on the Hyperion label of rare British music have also won him wider acclaim.

He is himself a composer, whose output includes not just a piano concerto, but many works for chorus. In particular, following on from his achievements with the New London Children's Chorus, there is a body of sacred music, and a clutch of thoroughly enjoyable works that include a children's chorus.

One of his most recent choral pieces is a setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, composed for the BBC Singers. It was their voices that added the icing to the cake of a markedly successful concert in Wells Cathedral last month, for which the orchestra comprised members of the New London Orchestra and the orchestra of Wells Cathedral School.

It featured Waters of Time, his new large-scale cantata. It is based on events relating to Somerset and Wells: Corp's family connection with the city dates back to before the 1950s, when he was born there at 1 Cathedral Green.

You might think a cantata relating to so specific a location would have local interest, but not travel well. This was certainly a performance on home ground, and a celebration of place. Yet this is an exciting, galvanising new work, with self-evident merits that make its appeal potentially much wider. The events delightfully evoked or alluded to in the imaginative, even flamboyant, text by Marilyn Floyde would be no less absorbing outside Somerset than the story of (say) Robin Hood would be beyond the confines of Nottinghamshire.

Some half a dozen of the short (and even some of the extended) sections for the youngest, primary-school-age children are gems, such as a clever setting of "The Witch of Wookey Hole", which the librettist has based directly - like several other passages in the text - on the misericord carvings of Wells Cathedral.

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These sections would make glorious concert items on their own, as three- to five-minute songs, with orchestral or keyboard accompaniment. "Bishop Jocelyn and the Wyvern" is another. (The Bishop wins the struggle, and the hapless dragon breathes its last.)

The music is intelligently written. I found the libretto, and possibly the music, marginally cloying in just two places (unstrategically placed near the start and the end). The rest - especially the picturesque anecdotal and narrative sections, including a lively drinking song for the men's chorus, and a vivid sequence relating to the Battle of Sedgemoor - seemed to gauge pace perfectly, especially in this vital performance, and to use a kind of language, both musical and literal, with which older and younger singers feel utterly at home.

Much of the time there's a natural, even nursery-rhyme-like, poetic quality to the words: they're spirited and fun. Time and again, the music catches the rhythms perfectly, ingeniously geared to a large choir of varied ability, which, old and young alike, served up a performance full not only of zest, but also of musical acumen, under the composer's baton.

This event was deft, varied, and brilliant, as the director of Somerset Music, Graham Bland, had hoped it would be. I had one or two minor cavils about the design of the work: one or two bars towards the end might conceivably be excised or tweaked to advantage. But it sang itself. I should like to hear more of Ronald Corp's music.

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