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ClassicsOnline Home » MCCABE, J.: Choral Music (Visions) (BBC Singers, Farrington, Hill)
The distinguished composer and pianist John McCabe has written in almost every genre, and has long been one of Britain’s leading musicians. In his choral music he has taken a variety of texts—including anonymous sixteenth-century Latin, and the poems of Henry Vaughan and Thomas Hardy—and fashioned them into powerful settings. He evokes a rich variety of vocal colours and textures, remaining at all times communicative and vital, not least in the beautiful Marian Carols and the contrasting riches of the Mangan Triptych.
John McCabe (b. 1939)
Visions: Choral Music
Writing carols has been a constant pleasure throughout my career, as relaxation from sterner stuff, as a way of flexing a different set of compositional muscles, and a way of participating in the great tradition of music for the community. The three Marian carols date from very different periods. In I Sing of a Maiden (2008), I was asked to employ a semi-chorus along with the main choir, which suited very well my instinctive liking for different layers of sound. The text is a beautiful, reflective anonymous fifteenth-century poem relating the Virgin birth to the mystery of nature. Dormi, Jesu is the second part of a carol triptych Upon the High Midnight, written variously during the 1960s and 1970s. It sets an anonymous sixteenth-century Latin text, a lullaby with a soprano solo floating over the chromatic harmonies. The mood is intimate and simple, characteristics also found in Mary laid her Child (1964), to a poem by the Lakeland writer Norman Nicholson—another lullaby, with Mary’s child asleep in a barn, in the bleak, cold winter. The contrast between warmth and cold austerity was particularly moving to me.
When I came across the work of James Clarence Mangan, the Dublin-born poet who died in 1849 at the age of 46 after a tragic life, his work immediately impressed me with its characteristically Irish rhetorical power and vivid imagery—it has a powerful visionary quality. The first of these three unaccompanied choruses to be written was Motet (1979), commissioned by the Chichester 904 Festivities for George Guest and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. The text is a poem entitled Gone in the Wind—I chose to call it Motet because I felt this conveyed the strength and powerful severity of the utterance, as well as aspects of its contemporary significance. The tempi alternate between a maestoso for the ritornello verses and a faster, more rhythmic feeling for the intervening episodes of what is formally a rondo.
Siberia was commissioned for the 1980 Cork International Choral Festival, and first performed by Stephen Wilkinson and the William Byrd Singers of Manchester. Still obsessed with death, exile, and the implacable forces of nature, this poem seemed more intimate in tone, something reflected in the musical setting. The piece is predominantly slow, with a couple of quicker passages, and the governing mood of doom-laden bleakness is sustained throughout. Visions, dedicated to Clive Wilson and commissioned for the 1984 Harrogate Festival and the BBC Northern Singers, is a conflation of two Mangan poems, And Then No More and Shapes and Signs, the verses alternating. The contrast between the two is considerable, but it seemed to me that in their different ways they deal with contrasting aspects of a dream-like world, and they are once more strongly evocative of Mangan’s highly personal emotional world. The choral writing in this piece is as elaborate as I have done, and I felt able to release a wider range of harmonic colouring, sometimes quite rich and complex. The chorus is divided into eight parts throughout. Currently, my preferred order for what is called the Mangan Triptych starts with Visions and finishes with Motet.
Another choir with whom I have worked on many occasions is the William Ferris Chorale of Chicago, who gave concerts for both my fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays, and they commissioned Amen/Alleluia (1991) for their own twentieth anniversary season. It is dedicated with love to William Ferris and the Chorale, and has two sections, the first slow and the second quick. The text is simply the two words of the title, the Amen being the first section and the Alleluia the second. In each part, the relevant word is built up from its component syllables or sounds (in the Amen, at one point all four letters are sung simultaneously), and the second section is a gradual progress from a quiet, light texture to a blazing final cadence. The choir is again divided, often into eight parts.
Despite my love of Thomas Hardy’s writings, I have set very little of it to music. Proud Songsters (1989) was written for the seventieth birthday of Stephen Wilkinson, and first performed by the BBC Northern Singers. In it I hope I have captured the vigour of young birds singing and the evanescent nature of their existence. The Lily-White Rose, a setting of an anonymous fifteenth/sixteenth-century text, is a movement from Songs of the Garden, for soloists, chorus, and ensemble or full orchestra (2004/9), inspired by an eighteenth-century Japanese book of poems and pictures on subjects concerned with Nature. This particular arrangement seemed a suitable gift for the King’s Singers in 2009, to thank them for their performances of my music. Its first performance led to requests for me to make this version for a cappella SATB, which was given its première by Commotio, conducted by Matthew Berry, in 2010.
The earlier of two Henry Vaughan settings, The Morning Watch was written in 1968 for David Patrick and the choir of Barnet Parish Church, Hertfordshire. The key to the music is the quiet unaccompanied phrase “O, let me climb When I lie down!”, which is softly recalled by the organ at the end. There is much use of solo voices, and quite a varied range of choral writing, from simple chordal movement to imitative writing and counterpoint. The companion piece, The Evening Watch, was commissioned by the Musicians’ Benevolent Society for the 2003 Festival of Saint Cecilia Service in St Paul’s Cathedral and first performed by the combined choirs of St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, with John Scott conducting. Bearing in mind the Cathedral’s acoustics I wrote an organ part which is discreetly decorative and reflects the nocturnal nature of the literary context—night-time, and nocturnes, have been a constant source of inspiration for me.
Commissioned by Holy Trinity Church, Southport in 1967, Great Lord of Lords was scored for choir and either organ or brass, timpani and organ, though this latter version is almost unheard. The marking Allegro deciso indicates the forward momentum of this setting of a Victorian version of a sixteenth-century anonymous text, in which the choral part is dominated by two- or four-part block chordal textures. The setting of John Donne’s A Hymne to God the Father (1966) was commissioned by St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, and is dedicated to Michael Nicholas and the Church’s Choir. The tone of the piece is reflective, the questioning text’s sharpness and pointedness mirrored, I hope, in the music’s austere expressiveness. The use of soli for three short phrases (two for Soprano, one for Tenor) reminds one that this is essentially a personal plea, though cast in the form of a communal prayer. Commissioned by St John’s College, Cambridge, and first performed by their combined choirs in November 2008 under Andrew Nethsingha, The Last and Greatest Herald starts with a flourish on the organ. The poem by William Drummond (1585–1649) concerns the trials of St John the Baptist’s sojourn in the desert—after a short, slower interlude in eight parts with superimposed chords, the anthem ends with a resounding call for repentance for “old errors”.
© 2012 John McCabe
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