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ClassicsOnline Home » BINGHAM, J.: Organ Music - Jacob's Ladder / Into the Wilderness / Ancient Sunlight (Winpenny, Dmitri Ensemble, G. Ross)
Organ music holds a special affection for leading UK composer Judith Bingham, and the repertoire in this programme reflects a cross-section of her themes and work both recently composed and newly arranged. Experienced broadcast performer Tom Winpenny is joined by the acclaimed group, The Dmitri Ensemble, for the atmospheric concerto Jacob’s Ladder, while the rebuilt St Albans Cathedral Organ is an ideal instrument for works such as the improvisatory Annunciation I and radiantly charming Hope, recorded, as was all the music on this album, in the composer’s presence.
Judith Bingham (b. 1952)
One of the United Kingdom’s foremost composers, Judith Bingham was born in Nottingham and grew up in Mansfield and Sheffield. She entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1970, having already composed for some years, to study composition and singing. Her teachers included the composers Alan Bush, Eric Fenby, and later Hans Keller. Awarded the Academy’s Principal’s Prize in 1971, she subsequently received commissions from the King’s Singers, Peter Pears, Finchley Children’s Music Group and the newly-formed Songmakers’ Almanac, and won the 1977 BBC Young Composers’ Award. A regular member of the BBC Singers from 1983, she relinquished her post in 1995 to devote more time to composition: she served as the group’s Associate Composer from 2005 to 2009 and has composed a number of significant works for the choir. Other choral commissions in recent years include liturgical works for the choirs of Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and King’s College, Cambridge, Shakespeare Requiem for Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and works for the St Louis Chamber Chorus and VocalEssence (Minneapolis). In 2004 she was awarded the Barlow Prize for her choral music. The orchestral work Chartres, given its première in 1993 by the BBC Philharmonic, brought her great acclaim and was selected in 2005 as a featured work in the BBC/Royal Philharmonic Society’s ‘Encore’ project. Another work, The Red Hot Nail, commissioned for education projects by the London Symphony Orchestra, has been performed more than a hundred times. Her scores for brass have been highly praised: they include Prague, selected as a National Brass Band Championship test piece, and Salt in the Blood for chorus and brass, first performed at the 1995 BBC Proms. Chamber and instrumental music includes works for string ensembles, piano, guitar and a significant number of pieces for organ. Judith Bingham is the recipient of BBC Composer Awards in instrumental, choral and liturgical categories.
Although many mainstream composers eschew writing for the organ, Bingham has always been attracted by the instrument. Singing in church choirs regularly for 25 years, she was fascinated by the interaction of the organ timbre, the human voice and church acoustics. Her earliest organ works, composed for David Roblou, then organist of St Giles’ Church, Cripplegate, London, where she sang, were somewhat experimental, requiring changes in registration every few notes. Bingham cites the influence of French organ music, in particular the baroque works of François Couperin and Nicolas de Grigny, but also music of later centuries by Charles-Marie Widor and Jehan Alain (other influences include Bach’s C minor Passacaglia and works by John Bull). The organs and organ music of the French tradition have always been noted for their precise use of colour: Bingham’s attraction to the French canon is demonstrated in the vivid colour of harmony and texture shown throughout her output. Whilst her early works specify particular registrations, in the later works the organist is seen as the final stage in a piece’s creation. As no two organs are the same, she only suggests manuals, indicates pedals and gives general expressive instructions: the exact choice of stops is left to the performer’s imagination. Much of her music is inspired by particular images, stories, or by the building for which the work was composed and frequently has a religious theme. This relationship between performer, instrument and place is central to her important contribution to the organ repertory.
The concerto Jacob’s Ladder was commissioned for the 2008 American Guild of Organists National Convention. The ladder-like design of the façade of the Blackinton Organ at Bethel University, Minnesota (where the piece was premièred), inspired this concise work’s subject. The work demonstrates skilful interweaving of the solo material with the ethereal effects in the string orchestra—the double bass harmonics, in the first movement, for example—being mirrored in the organ writing. The first movement contrasts heavy, serious chords with eerie reflective passages, whilst the second is a fleeting scherzo. The deep sleep of the Entr’acte is portrayed in organ-writing for pedals alone, whilst the final movement grows tentatively to a dramatic conclusion. The concerto is dedicated to the composer’s late brother, ‘and the parable of his life’.
The Annunciation and birth of Christ feature prominently in Bingham’s organ works: Annunciation I is the first of three instrumental works on the subject and was written in 2000. Inspired by the painting by Georges de la Tour, it has an improvisatory feel: a candle flickers in a small, dark room as the angel’s wings approach, and apprehension grows to an overwhelming, even frightening climax. Incarnation with shepherds dancing is a response to Nativity at Night, a painting by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1490). The distant shepherds’ rustic dance on hearing the angel’s proclamation is contrasted with Mary’s exclamation of praise: this section quotes from the composer’s 1995 setting of the Magnificat: both works were intended as part of a larger Nativity Sequence. Ancient Sunlight returns to the theme of the Annunciation: the starting point is Giotto’s scenes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, of the early life of the Virgin. Infancy is evoked with simple, clear textures, the arpeggio figures marked ‘like an Aeolian harp’, whilst Betrothal has a contemplative yet apprehensive air. Figuration in the final movement, Annunciation, depicts the angel’s wings beating and the mounting anxiety of the Virgin. A cadenza for the pedals precedes the dramatic final bars, overlaid in the score with the words of the Angelic Salutation: ‘Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum’ (‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’).
Into the Wilderness dates from 1982 and is a response to Christ’s temptation by Satan. At this time, following her first liturgical choral compositions, Bingham’s style was evolving from an angular and dissonant vocabulary to a more chromatic and lyrical language.
St Bride, assisted by Angels, composed in 2000, tells the story of the Celtic goddess Brigid, reborn as St Bride, who, according to legend, visits the Nativity and witnesses the rebirth of time. The closing stages of the work incorporate a Celtic folksong-style melody, a memory of the Saint’s former incarnation. The score contains poetry, ‘for the eyes of the performer only’ describing the scenes evoked.
Constituting the opening and closing movements of the Missa Brevis composed for Westminster Cathedral for Ascensiontide 2003, Prelude and Voluntary share a narrative thread from St Luke’s gospel along with the offertory motet of the same mass setting. The Prelude portrays sunrise on the road to Emmaus, the dispirited disciples soon stunned by encountering the risen Christ. The postlude—Et cognoverunt eum (‘and they recognised him’)—takes up music from the Agnus Dei (which in the mass precedes this work) and provides an exultant depiction of Christ’s Ascension.
The Gift and Hope are arrangements from a group of children’s piano pieces entitled Christmas Past, Christmas Present. The clarity of the organ’s quietest stops lends each piece a charming radiance, and the free nature of The Gift was, in its piano version, intended to sound like an organ improvisation.
Vol de nuit (Night Flight) is a rapid scherzo, transcribed from The Secret Garden, a 2004 BBC Proms commission for choir and organ, which explores the notions of shame, redemption and forgiveness through the story of the Garden of Eden and man’s interaction with nature. The section arranged for organ solo considers the extraordinary synergy found between orchids and moths. The earliest work on this recording, Gothick is a short and unusually macabre work, belonging to a set of student pieces entitled Festival of Hell, inspired ‘by reading too much Edgar Allan Poe’.
A lyrical nature lies at the heart of Bingham’s organ music, influenced by the central rôle of choral singing and composition throughout her career. At a time when organ composition is sadly neglected in conservatories, her understanding of the instrument and of its important liturgical rôle, and her broadening of its repertoire, make her an important flag-bearer for the organ in the wider musical community.
© Tom Winpenny 2011
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