Tag Archives: Howard Skempton

Singing spirits: Finzi, Skempton and Vaughan Williams

You’d have thought persuading the gentlemen of the choir to sing in a lusty and bawdy fashion would be no problem. The opening of the setting of Mother, Make My Bed which I’ve written for the concert starts with a rambunctious repeated pattern for the tenors and basses, which needs to be delivered in not quite a thigh-slapping manner, but not far off. And yet…they were terribly polite and mannered about it; it was far too refined. More loose living before next week, chaps, maybe ?!

Finzi finesse

It was back to England this week, after last week’s rehearsal of Scottish pieces, and a chance to dance with Finzi’s My Spirit Sang All Day. This piece is a complete joy, full of life and bursting with sheer delight in its harmonic revelry. It’s also the last new piece to prepare for the end of the month (apart from the encore, should we need one, which is a popular favourite that we can learn at the drop of a hat nearer the time); from now on, it’s all consolidation, which makes me feel an awful lot better!

Whenever I start to become nervous about the concert – it’s a big programme, with challenging works, in an awe-inspiring venue – I should just get the choir to sing the Skempton Cloths of Heaven, and all shall be well. We looked at if for the third time last night (that spreadsheet I wrote about keeping earlier is really starting to pay dividends – I can see which pieces we’ve neglected in a trice!), concentrating now on balancing the chords and making sure all the lovely semitone clashes between the inner voices are brought out, or making the sure the basses’ sustained pedal notes can be heard. The basses are, at several points, the driving force behind the emotional impact of the piece; they either underpin the gently breathing harmonies with a solid pedal-note, or at crucial points rise up over an octave to really push the texture upwards.

Although I’m endeavouring now to try and provide as little support on the piano as possible, to get the choir accustomed to singing without any accompaniment, there’s a danger that the pitch can drop and you can end up a good semi-tone lower at the finish, something we’ll have to work on improving.

We revisited the Vaughan Williams songs to finish the rehearsal, endeavouring to impart a sense of rhythmic vitality into the sprightly ‘Over hill, over dale,’ whilst contrastingly making sure the bell-like effects of ‘Full fathom five’ were working. The chords struck in the four-part divisi sopranos throughout the opening section need to begin percussively with a crisp ‘d’ on the words ‘ding’ and ‘dong.’ The altos really showed themselves to be solid masters of the beat, holding the straight crotchet beats against the triplet rhythms in the other voices: I’m beating with one hand in six and with the other in four, so it’s certainly a piece to keep everyone on their toes, including me…

(Preview tracks via LastFM).

A church, some carols…and Skempton

A miserable night yesterday: dark, windy, cold and raining.

Inside St. Mildred’s Church, however, light, music and jollity abounded; we had battled the elements in order to hold our customary Tuesday night rehearsal in the church, in order to work without a piano and to get a sense of the space and the acoustics for the concert.

The antiphons are developing: a little more confidence in delivery is needed here; singing plainchant is a skill that requires initial groundwork, and many have not sung this style of music before; a combination of flexibility in the line, following the rise and fall of the speech, as well as confidence in taking responsibility for the line and doing so at the same time as everyone else. Tricky – it requires a lot of work to appear effortless!

The carols are progressing, too; singing in the acoustic of the church meant we could really start to draw forth a full ensemble sound from the group, balance the parts, and begin to explore bringing out specific notes and phrases in particular voices. Bethlehem Down especially is starting to develop some three-dimensionality as it lifts off the page, and with some sensitive dynamics starting to be included, it’s going to be a treat.

The final singing of the evening was a chance to re-visit Skempton’s He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. It’s not a Christmas piece, it’s not in the Advent service in a few weeks’ time – in fact, we’re not actually singing it until February. But this was too good an opportunity to miss: the chance to sing it in a sonorous acoustic, arranged in a crescent-shape similar to the way we’ll be standing to perform in the Cathedral Crypt. (And besides, I love the piece, so any opportunity to sing it is welcome indeed…). We took it a fraction under-tempo, as it’s been several weeks since we first sang it, and this is only the second reading; this meant the chords hung in the air for just a little longer than usual, and the colours really had a chance to blossom. It worked so well, in fact, that I’m wondering whether it shouldn’t go at that speed in performance; it’s marked Andante, but perhaps my enthusiasm has pushed the speed slightly ? Something to think about…

(Don’t tell the composer…).

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.