Masses of colour: Jackson and Skempton

Two pieces lie at the heart of this year’s repertoire, and at the second rehearsal last week we looked at both: the wonderful colour of Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass and The Cloths of Heaven by a composer who will come as no surprise to anyone who sang with the Chamber Choir two years ago: Howard Skempton. Skempton arrived onto the scene with almost majestic grandeur when his orchestral piece Lento was premiered at the Barbican in 1991 (repeated at this year’s BBC Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov), and his choral piece shows the same effect of ‘profundity through simplicity.’ The Chamber Choir has previously sung his motet Beati quorum via, and the Cecilian Choir sang the Ave virgo sanctissima and Locus iste; I’m delighted to be able to continue our exploration of Skempton repertoire this year.  He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven features Skempton’s trademark simplicity of musical language that nevertheless is deeply moving. Fabulous rich harmonies clothe (no pun intended) W.B Yeat’s evocative poem.

Jackson Mass score

Published by OUP: the Edinburgh Mass

Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass occupies a similar musical landscape to the Mass in G by Poulenc, and the Gloria begins with a terrifically affirmative gesture before a more contemplative passage for the text ‘et in terra pax hominibus.’ For me, this piece is like a stained-glass window: lit from behind, it glows with fantastic colour. The Gloria, sees rippling descending quavers passing downwards through the voices, like the pealing of bells, creating a wonderful shimmering texture. More about these two wonderfully evocative pieces as we work through them over the course of this term…

For the Advent concert, we started the antiphonal Hymn to the Virgin by Britten, a traditional seasonal favourite, written when Britten was just seventeen: it already shows a mature command of musical gesture, an assured harmonic palette and a quiet authority for such a youthful work.

About to begin on here is ‘Not drowning but waving.’ a regular column looking at aspects of the choral conductor’s art: expect the first article later this week.

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