Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A re-discovered passion

I spend most of my time playing around with cameras or synths, taking photos or creating new music. When I'm not out trespassing or holed up in my studio, I listen to a lot of music, usually John Foxx, Midge Ure, Ultravox or some other such like. But I have found myself to be guilty of neglecting a long time musical passion, namely choral music.
 
I'm not a religious man in any sense, but the only two good things religion has actually given to the world are churches and music. I had classical training in music and as such was exposed to a lot of different styles of composition, but one of the most wonderous and impacting was choral music.
 
Choirs are usually made up of four sections so that they may sing in four-part harmony, though this isn't a set up that is cast in stone, for example,  the Tudor composer (and one of my favourites) Thomas Tallis composed a 40 part choral piece for 8 choirs that had 5 sections each, but the more usual arrangements are parts of 3, 5, 6 and 8. One of the beauties of choral music is that it can be backed by a full orchestra, a single instrument or no accompany at all. The latter is known as "a cappella" and, interestingly, the American Choral Directors Association doesn't like this term because it infers religious connotations and prefer the term "unaccompanied". Very typical of the Americans to dumb down something that has been in place for centuries - I personally think it's because either they can't pronounce it or because it's not American English (read: bastardised English language). Anyway, there's nothing quite as stirring as a mass choir and full orchestra or as sublime as a single instrument and a women's choir.
 
It's difficult to say what sort of choral music is my favourite as I love them all equally, be it the Choir of King's College, Cambridge singing Christmas carols, or Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices, The King's Noyse and David Douglass singing the work of Thomas Tallis or The Purcell Singers performing Holst's third group of the  Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, to me, there is no finer instrument than that of the human voice.
 
Take a listen to this piece below. It's by British composer Benjamin Britten and is called "There Is No Rose" and sung by the Elektra Women's Choir. This beautiful composition comes from his "A Celebration of Carols" which was written for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp, consisting of eleven movements, using texts from "The English Galaxy of Shorter Poem"s, and sung in Middle English. Britten wrote this whilst travelling by sea to England from the United States in 1942. It's tonal quality is quite sublime and very ethereal:
 

 
In a slightly different direction is this next piece by Thomas Tallis, an English composer revered within the history of English church music and favoured by many as one of England's greatest composers because of his originality. Tallis was believed to have been born around 1505 during the reign of Henry VII and died in December 1585 (according to the Gregorian calendar and November 1585 if you go by the Julian calendar) and very little is known of his early life. In fact there are no known portraits of Tallis during his lifetime and the only one that exists was painted some 150 years after his death. You have to put aside the unfortunate "50 Shades of Grey" context and open yourself to the music rather than the modern references - ultimately this piece will be around far longer and held with greater reverence than the book could ever hope. It is a religious lyric, possibly written around 1540, and comes from the gospel of John, where Jesus promises his disciples during the Last Supper that he will not leave them abandoned, but will be with them through the Holy Spirit whom he will send from the Father (John 14.15). As with "50 Shades of Grey", the biblical aspect for me is without any importance at all next to the simple quality and beauty of the piece, which is without question:
 

 
The above piece was performed by the Cambridge Singers under my favourite modern day composer, John Rutter. Rutter was born in September 1945 and is a British composer, conductor, editor, arranger and record producer, chiefly of choral music. His compositions are predominantly choral, comprising Christmas carols, anthems and longer pieces such as a Gloria, a Magnificat, and a Requiem. The following is the first part of Rutter's wonderful "Magnificat", as performed by the Cambridge Singers and superbly demonstrates Rutter's fabulously modernist choral style. The "Magnificat", which is Latin for "my soul magnifies", is also known as the "Song of Mary" or the "Canticle of Mary" and is a canticle that's often sung liturgically in Christian church services. The title is derived from the first word of the Latin version of the canticle's text. Once again, put aside the religious context and allow yourself to be swept away by the up-lifting and wonderful cadences and crescendos:
 

 
I have to show favour with John Rutter for this posting as I'm really enjoying my return to listening to this sort of music and Rutter's compositions are really hitting the mark for me at the moment. This next piece by Rutter is another blindingly beautiful piece called "Esurientes", the sixth part of his "Magnificat" and perfectly performed once again by the Cambridge Singers:
 

 
And finally, mostly because I can, a third Rutter piece and another favourite, this is the "Shepherd's Pipe Carol". Very Christmassy and quite lovely :-)
 

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