I will admit to being slightly disingenuous in dividing these posts into ‘Christmas Past’ and ‘Christmas Present’; the concert is after all entitled ‘Christmas Past and Present’ and as I’ve already had occasion to observe, a large portion of the programme reflects this unity in setting old, familiar words in new, surprising ways, whether through arrangement or original composition. However, I think these are also the works most readily accessible to an audience, so I’ve been looking to the outer ends of the spectrum in the hope of shining a light on the more arcane items.
Composed by our glorious leader Mark Jordan for the John Lewis Partnership’s Nine Lessons and Carols in 2009, In Splendoribus Sanctorum (In the Brightness of the Saints – Psalm 110) was designed specifically to be sung before the Ninth Lesson, the powerfully resonant opening of St John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Consequently the piece is written as a kind of sustained fanfare, with a gentler middle section where a solo soprano exemplifies the feminine quality of the passage ‘before the day star, in the womb I begot you’. Mark also tells me that as an inside ‘musical joke’ the ‘scrunchy’ chords are full of ninths!
The Golden Tree (2014) is another recent piece written for John Lewis by a young composer, Thomas Hewitt Jones. In this case the text, by Paul Williamson, is also new; yet words and music have a self-consciously archaic flavour as Hewitt Jones responds to the mysticism of the poetry, which has a kind of prophetic quality reminiscent of Isaiah in its tracing of the genealogy of Christ. The mood is prevailingly contemplative, though it rises to peaks of ecstatic affirmation before subsiding once more into the quietly protective arms of Mary.
Carl Rütti’s A Patre Unigenitus (The Only-begotten of the Father – 2011) sets an adapted version of a 15th Century macaronic text, whereby the main exposition in English is punctuated by Latin ‘soundbites’. The whole piece is a continuous crescendo, beginning with a quiet statement of the rather mysterious melody by the sopranos over a tolling organ note and ending on a triple forte chord spread across the voices. On the way, it swings almost disconcertingly between a stately 3/2 and jubilant dance-like sections in 6/8, skilfully combining a sense of awe and wonder with that of joyful celebration.
Alleluya, A New Work is Come on Hand (1952) is probably Peter Wishart’s most well-known composition. Dominated by its riotous, tumbling Alleluias, it is a piece which cleverly tips its hat to its medieval text through its angular, almost raw, unison sections but yet feels distinctively modern in its surprising harmonic shifts and complex syncopations.
John Gardner’s exuberant modern setting of the classic ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ (1965) also employs heavy syncopation, dismantling the lyrical flow of the traditional tune in favour of a jaunty, almost jerky, melody with percussive organ accompaniment, giving the piece a breathlessly joyful, headlong momentum from first to last bars.
Oxford Pro Musica Singers very much hope you enjoy our concert and wish you Season’s Greetings!