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ClassicsOnline Home » WHITBOURN, J.: Choral Works - Luminosity / Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis / He carried me away in the spirit (Commotio, M. Berry)
Best known for his inspired Son of God Mass for saxophone, choir and organ, the British composer, conductor and writer James Whitbourn is admired for his fresh, distinctive yet accessible compositional voice. Setting texts from ancient seers to the modern luminary Desmond Tutu, the works on his new recording reflect the breadth of the composer’s achievement, from the monumental Magnificat written for King’s College Cambridge, to the Classical Indian fusion work Luminosity—a rare choral work composed for dance. They are performed by Commotio, an Oxford-based chamber choir which specialises in contemporary choral repertoire.
By Tom Manoff
All Things Considered
James Whitbourn (b. 1963)
Luminosity and other choral works
Light—life-enabling, life-enhancing. Something fundamental, universal in our life. Images evoking it abound in language, and virtually all the authors of the texts set here deal with or refer to it in one way or another, from ancient seers to the modern luminary Desmond Tutu.
There are of course many different kinds of light, but on its own the single word evokes something bright, pure, clear. These are words which can equally well be
applied to James Whitbourn’s music. His writing is simple and straightforward (especially harmonically), and not outwardly virtuosic; his use of texture (often
under-appreciated as a musical value) is also simple, but beguiling. The choir often sings homophonically (all voice parts moving in the same rhythm, as in a hymn),
which implies a clarity of communication. But with a few sure strokes—the addition of a single element, such as the solo voice in the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and A Prayer of Desmond Tutu, or the use of percussion in the same works, or the tanpura and the cunningly Eastern-sounding viola in Luminosity, he can simultaneously evoke different, non-Western traditions, and thereby multiply the allusions.
Even one writer’s description of James Whitbourn as a modern-day Kapellmeister does not quite do justice to the breadth of his activities: apart from being a
composer, he is also choral conductor and clinician, writer and producer. The thread common to all these is choral music, which was a passion even before his time in the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford. His largescale works include Annelies, an oratorio on texts from the diary of Anne Frank, first performed in London in
2005 and—in the newer chamber form—in The Hague in 2009. His works for the BBC include commissions for events such as the funeral of the Queen Mother, the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, and a service in Westminster Abbey for the victims of 9/11. He has produced Carols from King’s College for twenty years, as well as DVDs of opera productions from many European opera houses.
The writer Etienne Rolland-Piègue sees the broadcast media as the modern replacement of aristocratic patronage, believing that the specific demands of each occasion, far from being limiting, are positively stimulating for Whitbourn’s music: “These constraints are the starting point from which he can elaborate with breadth and depth, in order to convey simple and powerful messages to the listener”.
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis both convey heartfelt responses to divine revelations. The young Mary has just learnt that she will be the mother of God; the aged Simeon, having been told that he will not die before beholding the Messiah, sees the young child in the Temple. These settings were commissioned for the choir
of King’s College, Cambridge, and first performed in the chapel—that building suffused by ever-changing light from its stained-glass windows—on Easter Day 2005. In a few striking ways they differ from the hundreds of settings made over the centuries. They consistently pit a determined solo voice against the choir, suggesting wider traditions, perhaps of a cantor or even muezzin. It is exceptional for any instrument other than the organ to be used: here it is joined by tam-tam
(indicated in the score as a festal extra). And the use of two languages—simultaneously or in alternation—is also highly unusual: Latin to reflect (in Magnificat) the universal significance of the revelation, English for the personal reaction of the young mother-to-be. Texts: Luke 1 46–55 & Luke 2 29–32
Alleluia jubilate was commissioned by the Choir Schools’ Association to be sung in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in 2008 by the largest gathering
of cathedral choristers since the 1953 Coronation. A version of the refrain also introduced a BBC series on English churches. Of the text of praise it is the first three words which are reiterated over and over again in an almost obsessional fervour. Text: Psalm 66 1–2
A Prayer of Desmond Tutu was commissioned for BBC broadcasts in 2003. A second version—for reader, organ and upper voices—was first performed in
Westminster Abbey in 2004 with Desmond Tutu as the reader. Text: Goodness is stronger than evil, Love is stronger than hate, Light is stronger than darkness, Life
is stronger than death. Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
He carried me away in the spirit was written for Commotio and Matthew Berry and first performed in Oxford in 2009. It was designed as a companion piece for the following work, and indeed written so that the pieces can segue together. The subtle, quasi-echo effects in the soprano parts re-occur in Of one that is so fair and bright. Text: Revelation 21 10–11, 23
Pure river of water of life. The image of crystal from the preceding text now refers to the water of the title, and the music proceeds more regularly and purposefully. Text: Revelation 22 1–2, 5
Eternal Rest. Originally conceived as an orchestral piece, it was commissioned by the BBC for its coverage of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002. Text (adapted from the Requiem Mass): Eternal rest grant unto us, O Lord. May light perpetual shine on us. Amen
Of one that is so fair and bright. Although unrelated to the following work, it nevertheless shares with it certain common features: the form of 3 strophes, a
modal colouring (here, perhaps in response to the medieval text), and cells of the same harmonic progressions. It is a hymn to the Virgin Mary. Text: Thirteenth century English
There is no speech or language is taken from Annelies, the Anne Frank oratorio. Text: Psalm 19 3–4; Psalm 79 3; Lamentations 2 21
Luminosity, completed in 2008, was written for the unusual combination of choir and dancers, being conceived with a visual counterpoint to the music in
mind in the form of art, dance and light, as well as the use of space. The focus in all the elements is on transcendent beauty and eternal love. It was written for
Westminster Choir College, New Jersey, their conductor James Jordan, Blair Academy Singers, the violist Daniel Stewart and the Philadelphia dance group ArcheDream
who made the first performance literally luminous through their imaginative use of ultraviolet light. The libretto gathers together a collection of simple, profound
and beautiful truths from luminaries down the ages, all exploring the timeless nature of creative love. The music reflects the universal nature of these great truths
of the human state by fusing elements from Eastern and Western music. Thus the piece begins with the sound of the tanpura, the Indian drone instrument; later, the viola (chosen for combining the range of the sitar with the expressive sustaining power to be effective in a large acoustic) is directed to play with an awareness of the Karnatic style which characterises Indian melody.
I. Illuminare. Lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt. (The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overpowered it.) John the Apostle
II. Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of Autumn. I have said enough about moonlight, ask me no more. Only listen to the voice of cedars and pines, when no wind stirs. Ryonen (b 1797), Zen Buddhist nun
III. Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world. Isaac of Nineveh (d. c 700)
IV. He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And answer came, ‘It is all that is made’. I marvelled that it could last. And answer came into my mind, ‘It lasts and ever shall
because God loves it.’ And all things have being through the love of God. Julian of Norwich (b. c 1342)
V. It came to me that the soul is like a castle, a castle of diamond or very clear crystal. In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
VI. Ask the beauty of the earth, ask the beauty of the sea, ask the beauty of the sky. Question the order of the stars, the sun whose brightness lights the day, the moon whose splendour softens the gloom of night. Ask the living creatures that move in the waves, ask the creatures that roam the earth, ask the creatures that fly in the heavens. Question them and they will answer, ‘Yes we are beautiful’. Their very loveliness is their confession of God: for who made these lovely mutable things, but He who Himself who is unchangeable beauty? Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
VII. Because of our good Lord’s tender love to all who shall be saved, he quickly comforts them, saying ‘The cause of all this pain is sin. But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. Julian of Norwich Alleluia.
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