Tag Archives: Saint-Saens


And so this year’s Chamber Choir has met for the first time; after weeks of preparation and two days’s worth of auditions, finally comes the time actually to get to grips with the repertoire, not to mention getting to know the group.

Camille Saint-Saens: 1835-1921

For a group finding its feet for the first time, our first rehearsal was somedeal astonishing; having chosen the first few pieces with which to begin, we ended up rehearsing five works in total, rather than just the three I’d selected (so much for breaking the group in gently!). Our first musical steps were into Handel’s Hear Thou My Weeping, in an arrangement for four-part choir by Desmond Ratcliffe, a setting of the Ave Verum Corpus by Saint-Saëns (rather than its more famous incarnation from Mozart), and a look at two sections of the piece written by Yours Truly for the December concert.

The Handel in particular came off the page rather well, and the choir readily picked up the mood of the piece. The piece is a four-part setting of the aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo, usually sung as a solo, but realised here for SATB in a manner sympathetic to the original, and the group got the hang of it well. There’s already a sense amongst some of the group that it may become the choir’s calling-card piece this year…

And not content with those, we also looked at one of a series of four Forgotten Children’s Songs, which I’ve written for choir and percussion for the February Crypt concert, and a setting of Cantate Domino by Pitoni, a lively piece which will open the same concert in an uplifting and a decisive fashion.

This year’s student conductor, Emma, led the group in some lively physical and vocal warm-up exercises to get the rehearsal underway; she will be leading the choir in rehearsing one of her chosen pieces next time.

There’s a good feeling amongst the members already, for all that it’s very early days; some of the members are returning from last year, whilst roughly half of the group is new. The speed with which the choir picked up the pieces bodes well; we are up against it this year, with a major concert in December, together with the fact that the Crypt concert falls a week earlier than it did last year, so we will lose valuable rehearsal time. But it feels like it could be a very good year…

Mighty madrigals to intimate Saint-Saens

Extremes of contrasting repertoire this week veered from Monteverdi’s epic five-part Ecco mormorar l’onde, rich in textural contrasts, to the understated homophony of Saint-Saëns’ Calme des Nuits, by way of Vaughan Williams’ Rest, a revisit of Barnum’s Dawn, and our first footfall in repertoire for the festive season.

The Monteverdi is a mighty piece, a meditation on the approaching dawn, with the rustle of leaves, birds singing, and the colours of the sea and sky beginning to appear. Monteverdi uses the piece to demonstrate his consummate skill in textural writing, with imitation, stretto, echo, homophony and antiphonal passages breaking out all over the place; there’s never time to relax into one style, as a few bars later, you’re into a different one. The two soprano lines vie for supremacy as they duck and weave over and around each other, whilst the inner voices ripple with imitative runs or move in similar motion with one or other voice-part. And on top of all that, there’s the Italian pronunciation to get right as well.

Steve Martland

Steve Martland: image credit Schott International

Our first piece for the Christmas season this year is Make We Joy Now by the contemporary British composer, Steve Martland. Martland’s music can be brash, bold, and full of rhythmic verve, and this carol is no exception. Its terrific rhythmic impetus sees the melody in the verses bobbing and weaving, wrong-footing the regularity of the pulse with sudden accents or crotchets where you’d expect a quaver; this is interspersed with a chorus that moves into triple metre, and builds dynamically in a truly exciting fashion as the same phrase is repeated – ‘make we joy now.’ We’ve worked slowly through the first verse and chorus, and it’s starting to develop, although the unpredictability of the metre is proving something of a challenge.

Steph returned to The Long Day Closes‘and had the choir exploring the dynamic contrasts with different sounds – humming for piano passages, ‘eeh‘ for crescendi / diminuendi and ‘ah’ for forte passages, which revealed the dynamic contours to good effect. A very useful exercise: I might have to nick that one…!

The rich sonorities of Vaughan Williams’ gently flowing Rest were followed by the intimacy of Saint-Saëns’ Calme des Nuits, a marvellously understated piece which, apart from the central eight bars, never really gets above pianissimo: the challenge with this work will be to bring off singing very quietly with good ensemble and intonation. Oh: and the French pronunciation, of course…

We ended by returning to Eric Barnum’s Dawn, in particular the last page, which uses an aleatoric passage for upper voices: the sopranos and altos each take a single note from a collection of eight, which they then sing over and over again, breathing where necessary, but in a way that should not coincide with anyone else: the score talks about creating the effect of ‘golden light.’ This was definitely new territory for the group (that’s modern music for you), but they took to it well, and eventually it started to work. We talked about creating the effect of a shaft of light falling through a prism and breaking into rainbow hues, and this seemed to help them make sense of what they were trying to achieve. In the Cathedral Crypt, it could be an amazing moment…

Mozart and Saint-Saens: the face-off

As a companion and a contrast to the Saint-Saens setting of the Ave Verum Corpus, the Cecilian Choir today began rehearsing Mozart’s setting of the same text. Two very different treatments of the text: Saint-Saëns’ quite straightforward response to the words, Mozart’s much more lyrical and impassioned. I find programming two contrasting settings of a piece of text to be a interesting feature of concert-planning; each throws up facets of the other that listeners might not have otherwise noticed, or be able to compare a setting they might already know with one they’ve not heard before.

We gathered in the round – Circle Time! – to sing the Saint-Saëns, and also to re-visit the plainchant ‘Ubi Caritas’ and Duruflé’s setting from last week. We took the plainchant more slowly than we have done before; I find that slowing pieces down just a little opens up a conversely larger amount of space in music – there’s time to really feel the phrases finish, to let the notes die away in a resonant acoustic before moving on. Getting the choir to stand in a circle really makes for a rich sound; suddenly, people can hear and relate to other voice-parts moving that they hadn’t previously really been aware of; they also feel more a part of the collective whole, rather than standing strung out in two lines as we are when we are seated in rehearsal.

We’ve now got so much sheet music that we’ve had to resort to folders for everyone to be able to keep all their music together: a sure sign that the choir are able to work swiftly through repertoire and a tribute to the ease with which they pick new pieces up quickly; good news, indeed!