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Sign of an Elizabethan musical renaissance

21 February 2012

Helen Burrows assesses the Jubilee choirbook

Coronation choir practice, May 1953: 32 boys are conducted by Edred Wright at Addington Palace, Croydon, then home to the RSCM PLANET NEWS

Coronation choir practice, May 1953: 32 boys are conducted by Edred Wright at Addington Palace, Croydon, then home to the RSCM PLANET NEWS

AN EXCITING and ambitious project, Choirbook for The Queen is a triumph of partnership between an impressive list of individuals, organisations, advisers, sub­scribers, and donors. The two-volume collection of 44 sacred anthems written by living British composers has been brought together by an advisory group under the guidance of Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music.

The collection, including 11 commissions, seeks to celebrate the current enthusiasm for choral music in church, and to represent the best in church music being written today. The list of contributors is impressive, although not all have previously been known for their work in this genre.

In his excellent foreword, Maxwell Davies alludes to The Eton Choirbook, and states that Choirbook for The Queen aspires to many of the qualities of its Tudor pre­decessor, one of the great musical collections of the European Renaissance, which still inspires today.

Aside from the music, this is a wonderful resource of new texts. There is an anthem for most occasions, including Christmas, wed­dings, and festival occasions; and many of the texts are set to music for the first time, though there are also some familiar titles.

Julian Anderson’s “My Beloved Spake” is a very simple setting for a cappella choir with organ interludes — a welcome addition along­­side that of Patrick Hadley. John Casken’s harmonic language in “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” enables the text to be heard afresh, and, being no more difficult than either, is a most welcome alternative to Holst or Darke. Colin Matthews sets Psalm 23 with a lilting accompaniment and occasional, effective, cross-rhythms between organ and voice parts.

Giles Swayne approaches Ave Verum Corpus with a simple unaccompanied and imitative texture that explores the passing dissonances created by a falling scale motif. John Tavener chooses “Take Him Earth for Cherishing”, setting the text in four charac­eristically slow-moving and long-breathed phrases, each echoed immediately by a rescoring of the same material for a distant SSAA semi-chorus, a far cry from Howells’s robust setting.

Half the works are intended to be performed unaccompanied, which may initially seem daunting for some choirs. The majority of them, however, are very accessible. Sally Beamish’s setting of words by Katrina Shepherd, “In the Stillness”, relies on beauty through the clarity of simple homophonic progressions and careful dynamics, and this is a delightfully gentle addition to the Advent and Christmas repertoire.

Bob Chilcott’s contribution uses an inspiring new text by Kevin Crossley-Holland: “The Heart-in-Waiting”. It is dramatic in places, with short passages of cluster chords, but Chilcott’s overriding sense of melody is never lost. More challenging is Jonathan Harvey’s “The Royal Banners Forward Go”, commissioned by St John’s College, Cambridge, which makes full use of their choral resources with divided tenor and bass parts and a soprano solo.

John Rutter’s wedding anthem “I My Best-Beloved’s Am” was written for the BBC Singers. It is also unaccompanied, with divided voice parts. The text-setting is largely syllabic, but there are considerable challenges of intonation, as various voices take on the role of accompaniment with long repeated or sustained chords.

Among the finest works included are the commissions. Nigel Osborne’s African “A Prayer and Two Blessings” is an exciting blend of unaccompanied vocalisations and word-setting. Roxanna Panufnik’s setting of Roger McGough’s poem “Joy at the Sound” certainly requires technically and rhythmically able performers, splitting into double choir towards the end, but is one of the most exuberant works in the collection.

Meticulous planning has gone into the production and distribution of the collection. Sets of the Choirbook have already been purchased and donated by “Diamond subscribers” to 80 participating choirs (mainly choral foundations), each of which will sing at least two of the anthems in 2012, and have undertaken to keep the Choirbook resources in their repertoire thereafter.

In his preface, Maxwell Davies writes that the works are “challenging but also satisfyingly within the capability of good amateur choirs as well as professionals”. While there are challenges, especially in Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Psalm 1, which calls for extended techniques in both organ and vocal parts, this is rare. Overall, it is pleasing that the claim is not exaggerated. It is refreshing to see some new and less frequently used texts that will certainly be welcomed by choirs wishing to broaden their repertoires.

Time will tell, however, how many choirs will take up this particular challenge to embrace the current renaissance of interest in sacred choral music, and so help to embed the work of the current generation, that they, too, like their Tudor predecessors, will be celebrated 500 years from now. Regrettably, on the basis of this publication, that seems unlikely. The contents are well presented, but, most disappointingly, the volumes are not hard-bound, which will inevitably limit their life, and deter potential investors.

Dr Helen Burrows is Director of Music at St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance, Biggin Hill, and at Combe Bank School. She is also Examinations Secretary to the Guild of Church Musicians.

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