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ClassicsOnline Home » BINGHAM: Choral works
The British composer Judith Bingham was for several years a member of the BBC Singers and before that the Symphony Chorus, so it is not surprising that choral music makes up a major part of her compositional output. Salt in the Blood is a ghost story based on the legend of a fatal quarrel between two Norwegian sailors over who was the better dancer. Four traditional sea shanties form the backbone of the music, and its text draws from fragments of ships’ log books, the Beaufort Scale, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A 2004 BBC Proms commission, The Secret Garden is a magical and intriguing piece in which Bingham imagines what the Garden of Eden was like after Adam and Eve’s expulsion, and whose central image is the extraordinary synergy that exists between plants and insects. In 2006 Judith Bingham won the British Composer Award for choral music.
By Guy Rickards
By David Denton
Judith Bingham (b. 1952)
Salt in the Blood • The Darkness Is No Darkness
The Snows Descend • The Secret Garden • First Light
Judith Bingham was born in Nottingham, grew up in Sheffield and had already been composing actively for many years when she entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1970 to study composition and singing. Her teachers included Alan Bush and Eric Fenby, later Hans Keller, and Erich Vietheer (for singing).
Her individual musical voice soon attracted attention and led to many requests for works, notably for the King's Singers, Peter Pears and the Songmakers' Almanac. In 1977 she won the BBC Young Composer Award and from 1983-96 she was a regular member of the BBC Singers, for whom she has written eleven works: at the end of 2005 she became their Associate Composer.
While her orchestral and choral works have made a wide impact, Bingham has won particular acclaim for her scores for brass – ensemble, band and solo; she is also fast becoming recognised as a major composer of organ music. In 2005 her huge orchestral piece Chartreswas selected for the Encore project and conducted by James MacMillan. She was the 2004 winner of the Barlow Prize for choral music, and has won three British Composer awards in 2004 and 2006 for choral and liturgical music. New projects include works for St Paul's Cathedral, the BBC Singers, choirs in Utah and Albuquerque, an organ concerto, and a series of violin pieces for Peter Sheppard Skaerved.
Salt in the Blood (1995)
British folk-song is a ghostly form of time travel. The oral rather than written tradition underlines its mysterious and powerful pull. It was at the Last Night of the Proms in 1994, during the traditional rendition of the Henry Wood Sea-Songs, that I decided I wanted to write a piece about the sea and shanties. The idea stagnated until I read in John Masefield's Sea Superstitions about the fatal quarrel of two Norwegian sailors as to who was the better dancer. From this basis I invented a ghost story which features four traditional shanties and three invented hornpipes.
Life at sea is of course dominated by the weather – I have done some sailing myself and know that your life becomes the weather. When you see old photographs of tall-masted ships and their crews, there is a sense of organic harmony with the weather and the environment that modern sailing cannot provide. The story of the piece follows weather patterns, the different moods of the story being reflected in the changing weather.
The text of this piece was hard to put together. The shanties form the backbone of the piece, but having decided to tell the story through them I had to write most of the verses myself. The rest was made up of fragments from diaries and log books, the Beaufort Scale (written in the nineteenth century and curiously poetic), fragments of Bram Stoker's Dracula and my own words. I used the women's voices to represent the disembodied and traditionally feminine mysteries of the sea and ships. The four shanties are based on thirds and sixths, and these intervals – coincidentally the sounds of horns and foghorns at sea – are the harmonic basis for the music.
The piece follows five weather patterns: calm, breezy, violent storm, fog and calm. At the start, it is as if you were approaching the ship in a glassy twilight, hearing the sounds of the shanty Whisky Johnny wafting to and fro across the water. The men are dancing on the lower deck and two of them, Billy le Bec and Daniel Stone, argue about who is the better dancer. The fight is interrupted by a change of watch; Daniel slips and falls while putting up a sail, and is killed. Perhaps it was an accident but the men blame Billy. A huge storm blows up, and at the end of it the deck is covered in dead birds. In a thick fog, one of the sailors sees the ghost of Daniel Stone putting up a moonsail on the skysail yard. The moonsail was the highest sail and rarely used. The ghost challenges them to climb but only Billy goes up. When the fog clears his body is found hanging in the shrouds. The sailors sing the gloomy shanty Homeward Bound as the ship disappears into the mist.
The Darkness Is No Darkness (1993)
'Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace' by S.S. Wesley is an old war-horse of church music: once, when playing it through on the piano, I noticed how unusual some of the harmonies are in isolation, and wondered what would happen if you were to take those harmonies and re-work them into a new piece. I decided that I would re-work some of the words as well, so that the final result is more like a love-song. The piece segues into the Wesley, hopefully providing a new window on the familiar harmonies.
First Light (2001)
For this commission, from the Waynflete Singers, I asked my friend, the poet Martin Shaw, to write me a poem about the Incarnation. He and I share the same interest in mystical philosophies and I knew that he would approach the subject in a way that would challenge me. The poem is itself densely mystical and explores the moment when Christ crosses 'unreachable reaches' to become a vulnerable child. In between each verse, a quatrain suggests that the revelations of dreams, music and suffering are God-given gifts.
In the summer of 2001 I spent some time in Greece and my thoughts about the music were much influenced by the art in the monastery of St John on the island of Patmos. In a twelfth-century fresco, revealed by an earthquake, a Virgin and Child are flanked by two angels in Byzantine court dress. They seem to be questioning and are all looking away as if to some other reality. In Athens I was staying opposite the Cathedral, and the carillon, with its odd sequence of notes based on an augmented seventh suggested itself as the musical basis of the piece.
The poem's exploration of the relationship between a male child and his mother found an echo in the strong male/female dynamic of the Orthodox Church. The music, emerging as if from a dream, tries to convey the deep mystery of the Incarnation, but also its ecstatic, miraculous quality. At the end, the music descends into the lowest 'bell' as the darker future of Christ's pilgrimage begins.
The Snows Descend (1997)
The Snows Descend was written in 1997: it is a paraphrase of my choral work Gleams of a Remoter World, which sets words by Shelley from his poem Mont Blanc. 'Some say that gleams of a remoter world visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber…has some unknown omnipotence unfurled the veil of life and death?' The piece starts off like a sombre sarabande, and the occasional crescendos and fortes are glimpses of the alpine peaks through mist or snow. Staccato snow storms build up over long expressive lines in the lower instruments. The whole piece seems to hinge harmonically on the note E which is rarely absent from any bar.
The Secret Garden (2004)
This 2004 Prom commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus was inspired by a conversation with its dedicatees, Elaine and Christopher Perry, about the Masaccio fresco of Adam and Eve, and its exploration of shame. It made me wonder what the Garden of Eden was like after Adam and Eve left – did God still walk there in the evening, alone and disappointed? Did it become an enclosed world where shame did not exist, a protected and perfect space? In the research and reading that followed, I was taken with the Swedish botanist Linnaeus's sexual descriptions of plants and their behaviour:
The flowers' leaves serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously adorned with such noble bed curtains and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity.
And I was very taken with the discovery that there is a place in Iraq, Qurna, where locals believe the Garden of Eden stood. The Tree of Knowledge, or Adam Tree, was bombed in the Iran-Iraq War, and the final part of the piece wonders how nature – paradise - would have renewed itself once the human influence had left. Finally, I found the central image for the piece in the BBC TV series, 'The Private World of Plants' - the extraordinary synergy that exists between moths and orchids.
This is meant to be a magical and intriguing piece. It has a Christian framework with its opening and closing quotations from Genesis and Matthew, and in the second and third movements the Star of Bethlehem orchid rises like a prophecy. In this way it could be seen as a piece about redemption and forgiveness. But the piece also seems to wonder whether the world is better off without humans, and that, should humans ever cease to exist, Paradise would very soon re-establish itself, in a world without blame, denial, or shame. The poem, which I wrote myself, includes many Latin names of plants and moths, and this led to the subtitle of Botanical Fantasy.
The eighteenth-century world of Linnaeus made me choose a French Suite as the form, and there are five movements: Ouverture, Air de Musette, Vol de Nuit, Entr'acte and Air de Nuit. I knew that I was writing for the newly restored Albert Hall organ, and also for Thomas Trotter, so the organ has a virtuosic and highly-coloured rôle to play. An extended solo at the end of the third movement describes the synergy between plants and insects.
Sung texts are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570346.htm
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BINGHAM: Choral works