Tag Archives: Hassler

Brave new world

The Cecilian Choir has always been something of a playground for experimenting with contemporary choral music, and this term we’ve been finding our feet with a selection of modern pieces that really challenges us.

Ubi caritas, in a setting by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, is full of exotic harmonies, still retaining something of its original plainchant ancestry at the start before blossoming into luminous colours as the piece begins to unfold;


Alongside this, the Choir is drawing out the rich dissonances in Latvian composer Arturs Maskat’s Lugums Naktij (Prayer to the Night); additionally, we’ve recently begun working on Indian Prayer at Evening, the third of ‘Three Native American Songs’ by the young British composer, Toby Nelms, with swinging, prairie-filled open-fifths and a suitably dusky tonal palette. We started our contemporary odyssey with the Hymn to the Dormition of the Mother of God by the late Sir John Tavener back in October, which will add an element of tribute to the choir’s concert in April.

This choir excels at picking up new music, and for next term I’ve lined up some pieces by Howard Skempton as well. The backbone of the programme is something rather less modern – movements from Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria, written somewhat earlier in 1599, and a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long while; the intention is to weave the contemporary pieces amongst the movements of the mass.

Before then, the Choir will be performing a clutch of carols at next Wednesday’s end of term, festive ‘Watch This Space’ event on the foyer-stage. But it’s in the contemporary music that the choir is particularly strong; next term’s concert will be a treat.

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Finding our (choral) feet

This week, the second week of rehearsals with the Chamber and Cecilian Choirs, has seen a real development since last week’s tentative feet-finding first sessions.

Chamber Choir is still ploughing through its repertoire for the Crypt concert in March – we’ve a weekend workshop this Saturday as well, at the end of which we’ll pretty much have sung through nearly all the pieces in the programme. I’m expecting us all to feel slightly more relaxed after Saturday – a few movements from the Brahms’ Sieben Lieder aside, we will now start returning to repertoire we’ve already seen, which will (I hope) start to make the pieces feel more familiar – instead of being confronted each week by new pieces.

And the Cecilian Choir is really starting to develop a terrific sound; we revisited the Hassler ‘Kyrie’ and moved then into the ‘Gloria,’ before departing Germanic Renaissance for the contemporary shores of Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi Caritas and then back to Germany for Rheinberger’s richly-sonorous Abendlied. As the Choir revisits passages we have previously seen, it starts to grow in confidence, and there’s the potential for a lovely ensemble sound to emerge as we become more confident in singing. As we work to develop the three-dimsensionality of the pieces by bringing out the dynamic contrasts and, in the Hassler, the individual subjects as they enter, the choral sound is really beginning to blossom.

Whilst at the start of the week, the upper-voice incarnation of the Cecilian Choir (we’re still working on a name…) met for the first time to explore music by Hildegard of Bingen and send some medieval monophony soaring around the concert-hall. We’ll be experimenting with performing it with and without a drone accompaniment, and establish the wonderful flexibility of the lines as we become more familiar with Hildegard’s colourful melismatic writing.

Exciting to be here as it starts to unfold…


Kick-starting the choral year

And finally, after all the preparations, amassing the repertoire and two days’ worth of auditions, both the University Chamber Choir and Cecilian Choir each had their first rehearsal this week.

On song: Chamber Choir meets for the first time

On song: Chamber Choir meets for the first time

There’s no gentle easing in for the Chamber Choir; the first commitment, ‘Music for Advent’ looms in about eight weeks’ time, and the Crypt concert in March, and we have to go from zero to full performance assuredness in no time. Ergo, the first few rehearsals represent a whirlwind tour of the full range of repertoire, in order that the singers can get a feel for the geography of the programmes and see what kind of pieces they will be expected to perform. (The other reason for whirling rapidly through pieces is that, if there’s a piece someone doesn’t like, at least they know we won’t be dwelling on it for hours at a time in these early rehearsals).

I’m pleased to say that everyone seems to be taken with Whitacre’s colourful Lux Aurumque with which we ended the rehearsal – the student conductor, Matt, opened with Byrd’s serene masterpiece, Ave Verum Corpus, and I followed with two movements from  Brahms’ Sieben Lieder op.62. After the break, Matt led the first steps into Rutter’s Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron, which is deceptively simple and offers some real challenges as it builds.

And yesterday, the Cecilian Choir reconvened, this time in mixed-voice formation; sister-choir to the Chamber Choir, it looks as though it might number close to thirty singers, which is particularly exciting! A whistle-stop tour of some of the repertoire for this particular Choir took in the ‘Kyrie’ from Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria, the middle section of Maskat’s evocative Prayer to the Night, the first few pages of Rheinberger’s purple-hued Abendlied, and the second section of Sir John Tavener’s Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God, which had the sopranos and altos gliding in medieval-esque parallel fourths whilst the basses were slightly confounded by their line which, on paper, reads simply but actually works against the upper voices to provide those typically Tavener dissonances.After all the preparation and learning over the summer months, it’s a relief finally to be getting to grips with the music, meeting the singers, and getting the Choirs off the ground. Ice-breakers and warm-up exercises served to get people introduced to each other and to singing together in a rudimentary fashion – these first few rehearsals, I always find, are somewhat hesitant as people grow accustomed to singing with strangers and finding their feet with new repertoire in a brand-new choir.

But it promises to be a very exciting year for both choirs – and on Monday, the upper-voice incarnation will meet for the first time to explore some medieval pieces. Watch this space…

Changing shape in formation (and vowels)

As I stood in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral during a meeting on Monday, ahead of the two concerts the University is holding at the Cathedral this term, it dawned on me just how close the Chamber Choir concert is – just over three weeks away.


Rehearsals have taken on a new intensity this term, as we really start to make sure all the pieces are as good as those that we performed back in the gala concert in December. We’ve been pacing slowly through the rich and strange harmonic territory of Lauridsen’s evocative O nata lux, in which tuning is all-important – get in wrong, and the chords turn from lush to awkward. We are working hard, too, to get an increased flexibility in the plainchant sections of Hassler’s Ave maris stella, and have also been taking apart the vowel sounds in his madrigal, Tanzen und Springen. (With two native German speakers in the choir this year, it’s even more important that we get the pronunciation exactly right!) I’m assured by them both that there’s no echt Deutsch way of singing ‘Fa la la,’ but we have been tidying this up by replacing broad ‘ah’ vowels with ‘uh’ and singing more on the ‘l’ than the vowel itself – this seems to have worked, and creates a much tidier (and less Lady Grantham-esque!) shape to the sound.

We’ve also started to work in a slightly deeper horse-shoe formation, mimicking the space in which we’ll be singing, inside the pillars of the Cathedral’s Norman Crypt.

The Cecilian Choir is also preparing for its concert celebrating Britten in his centenary year, and this afternoon we’ll be putting the Ceremony of Carols together with the harp for the first time. Find out how we get on later…

Lift-off at last

We’ve been talking in the Choir about That One Rehearsal, where it all comes together. It happened last year, a decisive moment when things turned a corner and the choir never looked back, and we’ve been feeling that a similar moment hasn’t yet happened this year; and we’ve been wanting it to. When will it come ? How can we make it occur ?

Last night’s rehearsal started with the three carols we will be singing in the Cathedral for the University Carol Service; some serious note-bashing of individual parts, building the verses section by section, following the lines and thinking about the text. We sang them through – ok, progress had been made, we were starting to get a feel for the carols, but nothing particularly exciting was happening with the music, with the ensemble sound.

In a spontaneous and completely un-premeditated moment, I now asked the Choir to stand to sing through the last of the carols, and said ”Right, let’s try it a little differently; sopranos, can you stand over there (pointing to where the tenors normally stand), basses, can you go there (where the altos usually are), altos, can you stand on the end on the left, and tenors, over where the basses usually sing.” We’ve customarily sung in a line, sopranos on the left, moving through the alto and tenor sections towards the right and ending with the basses on the right-hand end; but in order to try to make something happen here, we were now to stand in a new formation.

There was some shuffling around, we arranged ourselves in the new line-up, and sang through Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of ‘The Truth from Above.” The last chord died away, and there was something of an extended silence; we could, I think, all feel that something significant had just happened. The ensemble sound had changed completely. The balance was better; with the sopranos (who are normally the more dominant of the voices) now standing in the middle, the sound was no longer left-hand-heavy; the altos and tenors, now standing on either end, could now be heard more clearly, and because the basses were now also in the middle, everyone could now hear the bottom of the chords and tune to them better.

After a moment, I said ”Ok – how do you fancy singing through the three pieces for the Gala concert in the same formation, to see what happens ?” There was an excited nodding of heads, copies for the three relevant pieces were gathered, and we launched into them.

The effect was astounding. The ensemble sound was more confident, the intonation was improved, and (very importantly) the pitch didn’t drop throughout the entire set of pieces. We reached the climactic phrase at the end of ‘For the Music,’ and there was a moment’s hush followed by sponteneous clapping and whooping from the Choir. (I may even have done a whirl of sheer delight as well.) We had done it; we’d found Our Ensemble Sound, found a way of arranging the Choir in formation that produced the best result.

The rest of the rehearsal seemed to pass in a whirl, as we sailed through the remaining pieces I’d planned. Handel. BAM! Tavener. BAM! Hassler. (Well, ok, some more note-bashing was required for that one). But the prevailing mood was buoyant throughout the rest of the evening; the moment we’d been waiting for had finally happened, and all through an unplanned decision to mix things up there and then.

It just goes to show – the key is to keep changing, keep trying things out, and be experimental, flexible, until that moment comes when you draw a sound from the group unlike one you’ve heard from it before, and which everyone realises is what we’re striving for.

We have lift-off…