Tag Archives: antiphons

Cecilian Choir launches the Advent season in meditative Breathing Space event

Congratulations to the University Cecilian Choir, which launched the season of Advent last Friday with a highly atmospheric combination of antiphons, carols and periods of silence in a special Breathing Space occasion at St Michael and All Angels, Hernhill.

The interior of the church was bathed in candlelight for this unusual event, which is part of a series run by the church during the dark winter months, as an opportunity to escape from the pressures of the Digital Age and find the chance to enjoy a reflective, meditative space on the last Friday of each month. The Cecilian Choir travelled out to the fifteenth-century church to sing a sequence of carols, each prefaced by one of the great Advent antiphons, creating a contrast between the solemnity of the plainsong and the colours of the carols which followed.

The sequence began with a glass-clear rendition of the opening verse to Once in royal David’s city from second-year soprano, Felicity Bourdillon, which opened the door into the ensuing procession of carols and antiphons, punctuated by periods of stillness illuminated by the dancing candles set around the church.

The Choir, comprising staff and students at the University, relished the opportunity to usher in the season from the closeness of the choir-stalls. Afterwards, congregation and performers left in silence, following the line of candles flickering along the sides of the footpath leading away from the church and into the Christmas season.

Some carols and some lessons

There was an eager sense of anticipation at last night’s rehearsal, as we gathered in the church of St Damian & St Cosmus, in Blean, for our last evening rehearsal ahead of Friday’s Advent concert. At last, we were taking the repertoire for the concert and running it in its entirety, including all the readings, in the space in which we’ll be actually be performing.

The church itself glowed with a gentle light as we all drove down the country lane towards it in the darkness. Spilling out into the crisp, chill November night, you could sense the excitement growing, coupled with a real sense of the Advent season’s imminent arrival. Gathering in the church to lay out the chairs took some time, as we gave crucial consideration to key ideas – could we stand throughout the whole concert ? If we sat and stood again, could we do so without looking ragged ? And why is the Carols for Choir compendium so darn heavy ?

It’s become apparent that Deck The Hall is something of a showpiece for this year’s Choir, the best we deliver best, so this was the first piece we sang, in order to set a benchmark for our standard of performance; then we launched into the first Advent antiphon, and we were off.

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

As Matt took his turns to conduct each of the carols he is directing in the concert, I took the opportunity to stand at the back of the church and listen. I learned immediately that all those hours spent working on ensemble, on clarity of diction, on getting the consonants in the right place and on the right beat, had paid off: the ensemble was terrific. When a group is performing as one, the effect is electrifying. Moving between music and poems, the magic of the combination of music and spoken word began to blossom, and one could see a dawning sense on some of the singers’ faces that the programme was coming together.


Mid-rehearsal break

At the end of the run-through we took an interval, and Matt and I took stock; he was equally as excited as I was that things were really starting to come off the page. There had been a few moments where the antiphons hadn’t quite gone in the right direction or had seemed to drag, and we used the second half of the rehearsal to try to limber up the plainchant, instilling a greater sense of freedom to capture the ebb and flow of the phrases. Some of the intonation in a few carols needed checking, and Matt went over how some of his pieces will begin – beats given, note pitched – in order to get them to start with greater commitment. The most challenging part of the entire evening occurred next, when we practiced lining up in pairs and processing on, and how to sit and stand. As one of the sopranos pointed out, one needs to sit attentively during the readings; the Choir is still on view behind the reader, and needs to look engaged rather than shuffling through their music to find the next piece, or gazing off in some private reverie.

Ten minutes after the rehearsal finished, everyone had collected their belongings scattered amongst the pews and left. At ten o’clock on a November night, I found myself standing outside the darkened church beneath the stars – there is no street-lighting in this part of Blean, and the darkness descends swiftly, rendering the night-sky clear – reflecting on the previous three hours. We’d taken a good step forward, now starting to get caught up in the momentum of the programme and following its various narratives through music and readings; the key will be to maintain this through until the concert on Friday evening.

Advent is nigh.

In the Mix

It’s becoming increasingly clear, as rehearsals progress and the choir develops as an ensemble, that mixed-voice singing really suits the group. The strength and depth of sound, the richness of the chords and the accuracy of the ensemble, all are quite different – and vastly improved – when standing with the voices all mixed. Talking with some of the group afterwards, it seems that they prefer a mixed-voice formation – they like the sound that it produces, and they are keen to keep rehearsing as such, in order to see if we can perform in this fashion as well.( And when the group themselves are asking to keep doing something, you know it’s a good sign!)

In the mix

Image credit: Wikimedia

Last night’s rehearsal was a long one – lasting almost three hours – as we’re rehearsing in the church, at which we’re singing our Advent concert, next week, and it was important that the group had gone through all of the repertoire for the programme before adjusting to the performance space. We used the piano less and less during last night’s session, and I’m hoping to spend less time behind the piano and more time actually working with the sound between now and the coming performances.

The antiphons are starting to discover a sense of freedom; there’s a wonderful flexibility starting to emerge as we become more familiar with the lines they weave. There’s a lively sense of fun in The Holly and the Ivy and Ding, Dong, Merrily on High, and a lovely sombreness to Remember, O Thou Man.

We also looked for the first time at a carol written by a second-year student studying at the University; a serene and intimate setting of In the Bleak Mid-Winter, of which we’ll be giving the première at the Advent concert, by Rachel Richardson. It’s a great opportunity to be able to give a young composer the chance to hear their work performed, and her carol will suit the space in the church very well.

Last night, too, was the first time we’ve gone through Steve Martland’s Make We Joy Now, without the safety-net of the piano; a couple of hair-raising moments where the unity of the ensemble was, how shall I put it, not quite as tight as in other pieces, and there wasn’t quite the sense of confidence in some of the voices that there is elsewhere; but we’ve two weeks to go, and even by the end of last night, the improvement was considerable. (You have just got to go away and look at your verses in between rehearsals, tenors and basses!).

Overall, a really good rehearsal; time to start cranking up the momentum as we head towards the first concert in just over two weeks’ time.

So that’s how we can sound! A moment of realisation

There was a wonderful moment of realisation at the end of yesterday evening’s rehearsal.

We’d had a hard two hours, in particular looking at the rhythmic minefield that is Steve Martland’s Make We Joy Now. We’d also worked through a further four carols, including the rich sonorities of Peter Warlock’s heart-rending Bethlehem Down, a piece in which you have to be constantly on your toes to be ready for passing chords and leading passages that occasionally don’t do what’s expected of them.  Parry’s Welcome, Yule! Is a sprightly, consort-style carol that nevertheless has some tricky passages. We’d also looked at a new Advent Antiphon, O Clavis David, that doesn’t quite lie as easily as the earlier ones.

Looking beyond Christmas to the Crypt concert in February, we’d also begun working on O Sonno, a wonderful Italian madrigal with deeply sonorous harmonies exploring the plaintive text; more Italian vowel-shapes to perfect…

The final piece in the rehearsal, the rich and strangely haunting Remember, O Thou Man, we had looked at in a previous session, and the group sang it confidently. On the spur of the moment, to keep the choir on their toes and give them something new to think about, I asked them move into mixed formation, such that each member was standing next to someone singing a different voice-part, and we began the carol anew.

As soon as the first verse began, it was clear that something different was happening: the sound had changed and was deeper, richer and more sonorous – the result of each member suddenly having to take full responsibility for their line when they were unable to rely on hearing the same line sung by their neighbour. The transformation was immediate – and you could see an awareness of this gradually permeating the group as the verses unfolded. There was a palpable sense of excitement at the new sound, and some of the group started to smile without being able to help themselves.

When we finished, the atmosphere was electric: we’d stumbled across something quite dramatic, and something that made the whole group aware that there was a quite astonishing sound waiting to emerge. We’ve decided to explore this idea in future rehearsals: whether we use it in performance or not remains to be seen. Having written previously about the idea of moving the choir around in rehearsal, and the positive effect it can have, it was quite something to see it working, and to see the group as a whole come alive to its potential.

Great stuff: well done, team. (Just make sure you keep looking at the Martland in between rehearsals!).

And just to whet your appetites, here’s King’s College, Cambridge in Warlock’s carol…

Touching the past: the Advent antiphons

And so, this week we ventured yet further into our Advent repertoire. With the concert looming at the end of November, time to start the great Advent antiphons. As written about in a previous post, the magic of these antiphons resides in breathing life and flexibility into them, finding a rhythmic freedom that will allow the lines to ebb and flow with a naturalness, whilst still retaining the integrity of the ensemble. We explored the first and third, ‘O Wisdom’ and ‘O, Root of Jesse.’ Singing this music is a direct link with the past; you really feel history coming alive as the music unfolds. The antiphons date from before the ninth century, culled from Old Testament texts to foretell the coming of the Messiah, and singing them puts one in direct contact with a tradition dating back over a thousand years.

From medieval simplicity to the rich, clashing harmonies of the carol, Remember, O Thou Man; we worked at particularly pungent chords, moving very slowly between particular dissonances in a way that rendered certain passages actually rather alarmingly modern.

Steph then led the group in their first look at the Carol of the Bells, getting the choir to sound like bells ringing. A sprightly piece, this, and popular with the group. Lots of words to get across, too…

Time also to get to grips with a tricky corner in Barnum’s Dawn, building some of the chords note by note, a real opportunity to revel in the rich colours of many of the added-note chords that require great commitment from the voice-parts: the chords need to be delivered with great conviction for the colours to bloom.

Brahms’ In Stiller Nacht is maturing nicely; just some pronunciation aspects to sort out, as there are also in Monteverdi’s Ecco mormorar l’onde. This piece is the hardest so far. By contrast, and as a respite from the linguistic minefields afforded by these pieces, we went back to Sleep Wayward Thoughts, which is starting to lift off the page and achieve some rhythmic grace.

A final return to Whitacre’s Sleep, to look at the climactic section towards the end; tricky lines for the choir, where each part has to have courage to follow their lines through and stand firm in clashing dissonances.

A great rehearsal, full of colour; next week, we’ll be getting seriously in the Christmas mood as we broach, for the first time this year, that harbinger of the Christmas season: Carols for Choirs

A medieval summer, Bethlehem Down and dancing with Shakespeare

Credit to the choir for this latest rehearsal: we worked through a lot of repertoire in a very short time.

Time to re-visit the Advent antiphons, and to capture some of that floating effortlessness that sounds so easy, but is hard to achieve; you can’t really conduct them too much lest you destroy the sense of freedom that they seem to occupy, so the choir have to trust one another to come in after the pauses and have confidence in the phrases; in other words, they have to know the music really well!

History on the page: Sumer is icumen in

From a wind-swept and rainy late October, we moved through the seasons to the approach of summer with Sumer is icumen in, with its lusty dance-rhythms and its rustic celebration of the turning of the season to herald the beginning of summer. We’re working on a medieaval English style of pronunciation – ‘Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cucu; growth sed and bloweth med and spring be wude nu.’ I firmly believe in performing ancient and modern music side by side, a terrific way of glimpsing the sounds of the past and sometimes showing that some modern music sounds as ancient as medieval manuscripts, whilst some ancient music can sound as modern as contemporary pieces. We’re working on creating a vibrant, lively sound – no ‘received pronunciation’ here! – to bring it to life. There are also sacred words to the song, ‘Perspice christicola,’ which we’ll perform later in the same February programme with a wholly different and more appropriate sensibility.

Thence to the last of the Vaughan Williams Shakespeare Songs, ‘Over hill, over dale,’ which in its 6/8 rhythm dances along over bush and briar; we worked at it slowly, and then sang it through at a rough mid-tempo pace – it’s nearly there, another rehearsal will have it dancing off the page. We also returned to the first half of ‘Full Fathom Five,’ and really worked to make the bell-peal imitations ‘ping’ off the page with a percussive start to each ‘ding.’ We also explored the rich chords clothing the word ‘strange,’ and immersed ourselves in the chords by prolonging them, to get used to the sound of the flattened sixths and added seconds and the way the notes beat against one another.

After the break, we entered the almost mystical landscape of Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, and it was here that the choir started to come together for the first time that evening. Something obviously clicked – several of the choir have sung the piece before, admittedly – but somehow the atmosphere created by the text and the harmonies Warlock spins around the words came straight off the page. We explored dynamic contrasts between verses, as well as between lines in the verses; the greatest challenge was to get rid of the bar-lines, and sustain the long phrases across the bars without breaking the line and losing the impetus.

A brief recap of the opening sections of the ‘Gloria’ from the Jackson Edinburgh Mass; difficult music, rhythmically challenging and harmonically, lots of cluster chords to get right.

We ended by singing Today The Virgin and A Babe is Born; lots of rhythmic drive needed for the Tavener, and a richer sound required, whilst A Babe is Born needs plenty of bounce and energy to help it dance along.

Some really good work here, particularly the Warlock: with all its meandering lines and harmonic twists, it came alive almost immediately and was a joy to work up. Next week ? Hopefully the carol books will have arrived, so we can prepare the more traditional carols for the Advent concert.