Ascending into Heaven

Part of the 2004 London Festival of Contemporary Church Music

John Casken: Sunrising
Henryk Górecki: Amen
Jonathan Harvey: God is our refuge
James MacMillan: On the annunciation of the blessed virgin
Per Nørgård: Three motets
Tarik O’Regan: Gratias tibi
Arvo Pärt: Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen
Giles Swayne: Magnificat
Judith Weir: Ascending into heaven

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Seven Magnificat-Antiphons          Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

Upon hearing this work, it is astonishing to recall that the young Arvo Pärt was Estonia’s enfant terrible¸who produced the country’s first 12-tone composition in 1960. But after a soul-searching transition during which he made an intense study of medieval music, he began a new phase of composition in the late 1970s. Since that time he has developed what he calls a ‘tintinnabulist’ style, described thus: ‘Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning … Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a moment of silence comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triads are like bells.’ In 1982 Pärt moved to Berlin, where this work was commissioned by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the RIAS Chamber Choir in 1988 (although the composer revised it three years later). It was Pärt’s first substantial vocal work to use a language other than Latin. The texts, each beginning with the exclamation ‘O’ (and hence sometimes referred to as the ‘O-Antiphons’) would liturgically have been sung as antiphons to the Magnificat on the seven evenings preceding Christmas Eve. Sung as a continuous sequence as directed by the composer, these antiphons demonstrate the composer’s ability to deliver intense, direct, sometimes sensual emotion with the simplest of materials.

Magnificat          Giles Swayne (b. 1946)

‘My Magnificat was written in 1982 in response to a commission from Christ Church College, Oxford, whose choir first performed it under their conductor Francis Grier in July of that year. At that time I was still reeling from the impact of my belated discovery of African music. In the previous year I had spent two months in Senegal and the Gambia, researching and making recordings of the music of the Jola people of that region. One of the songs I collected during this trip was a work-song which I recorded in a small village called Badem Karantaba, about thirty miles south-east of Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of southern Senegal. I used the opening call of this song to begin the Magnificat; it returns as a refrain towards the end.’ (Giles Swayne)

Three Motets after Agnus Dei          Per Nørgård (b. 1932)

Nørgård is one of the most original artists in the cultural life of Denmark. His work and efforts as composer, teacher, and theorist through almost half a century has had an enormous significance to the development of contemporary Danish art music. Nørgård has written works in all categories, for amateurs as well as for professionals: from large-scale operas to modest hymns, from simple movements to imposing edifices. This setting of words from the Mass was composed for the Copenhagen Boys Choir (now the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir) in 1982. Each successive movement is a variation, or a distillation, of material from the previous movements, as the text itself gradually shortens. As always with Nørgård, he manages to find an entirely new choral texture, not only from other composers, but also from his other choral works (some of which the Elysian Singers have had the privilege of working with the composer himself).

On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin          James MacMillan (b.1959)

This text is from The Golden Grove, or, A Manuall of Daily Prayers and Letanies (1655) by Jeremy Taylor. He described the contents as ‘Hymns Celebrating the Mysteries and chief Festivals of the Year, according to the manner of the Ancient Church: fitted to the fancy and devotion of the younger and pious persons. Apt for memory, and to be joyned to their other Prayers.’ James MacMillan, arguably Britain’s most impressive contemporary composer of choral music, set the text for Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1997.

Gratias tibi          Tarik O’Regan (b.1978)

Tarik O’Regan is one of the most exciting composers (particularly of choral music) to emerge in recent years and has already developed an international profile at the astonishingly young age of 25. He is currently the holder of the Fulbright Chester Schirmer Fellowship in Music Composition at Columbia University in New York City. This eight-part motet was composed in January 2000 for Edward Higginbottom and the Chapel Choir of New College, Oxford, and was joint winner of the New College, Oxford Millennium Competition. The text is taken from the final words of Book 1 of the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo (354-390).

Ascending into Heaven          Judith Weir (b.1954)

This setting for choir and organ of a text in praise of the Heavenly City by Hildebert of Lavardin (1056-1133) was commissioned by the St Albans International Organ Festival 1983. It falls into three large sections, the outer two grouped in loose symmetrical design around a central section in which tenor and bass soloists invoke the urbs caelestis aand are then amplified by the full choir. On either side of this, the many wondrous attributes of the city are enumerated in a flowing, triple-time melody, sung at first by the sopranos and latterly by the whole choir in harmony. At either extreme, the words ‘Sion’ and ‘Alleluia’ are elevated on a bubble of organ figuration and choral glissando; and at the very end, ‘Alleluia’ disappears completely into the ether, leaving behind a single footprint, a lone C major chord.

Sunrising          John Casken (b.1949)

John Casken has been since 1992 Professor of Music at the University of Manchester. One of ‘Three Choral Pieces’ each composed for a different choir, this unaccompanied setting of a poem by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was beautifully moulded as a gift to Durham Cathedral in 1993, the year of its 900th anniversary.

God is our Refuge          Jonathan Harvey (b.1939)

Jonathan Harvey has written extensively for voices, and much of his choral music displays a strong affinity with the English Cathedral tradition, in both spiritual and musical terms of reference. This setting of a selection of verses from Psalm 46 was commissioned by the University of Sussex to celebrate the University’s Silver Jubilee in 1986, and was first performed in Chichester Cathedral. The resources are simple and the symbolism clear: lively, diatonic two-part canons (the first of which recalls the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg) are repeatedly quelled by a slow, chordal refrain ‘Be still, and know that I am God’.

Amen          Henryk Górecki (b.1933)

Górecki’s musical journey has many parallels with that of Arvo Pärt, whose music opened this programme. Born just two years earlier, in Poland, Górecki’s early scores were characterised by monumental gesture, cacophony and note-clusters, earning the composer the reputation as one of the most avant-garde composers of his time. Together with Penderecki, Serocki, and others he established a pattern for new music: the more dissonance the better, the harsher the sounds, the better. However during the 1970s, Górecki worked to achieve a direct link between the emotional and spiritual content of texts, both sacred and traditional, and his musical architecture. He sought inspiration in early Polish music: a 13th-century conductus, a 16th-century polyphonic song… . The focus on vocal music throughout this period led quite naturally to an emphasis on melody, with a resulting simplification of the harmonic and textural elements. This gradual progress away from dissonance towards consonance, away from aggressive, dramatic, intense music, towards a more mellow style is typified in this astonishingly simple but effective setting of the single word ‘Amen’, composed in 1975.

  • “An entrancing aural kaleidoscope,...
    which beguiles with its ravishing combination of the ethereal and the profound" (Radio 3 broadcaster, Jeremy Summerly)

    "The singing is among the finest you’ll hear from a chamber choir" (Radio WRST, University of Wisconsin)

    "A very enterprising selection...the choir make a light, fresh sound and sing with enthusiasm and commitment...the music is well performed and well recorded"

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  • “A fine choral disc…well worth a listen” (Fiona Maddocks/The Guardian)

    Released in June 2019

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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

    Highly attractive...hugely enjoyable" (Time Out)

    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

    The Elysian Singers perform this often difficult work with clarity, precision and emotional punch (American Record Guide)

    Exquisitely sung with full-bodied, lively tone ***** (Classic CD)

    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    I travel back from London with the St Matthew Passion filling my head, after the moving performance from the Elysian Singers and Royal Orchestral Society under Sam Laughton at St James’s Piccadilly (The Spectator, April 2019)

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

    The classy Elysian Singers (Howard Goodall on Twitter, November 2013)

    That superb choir (John Woolrich, Radio 3)

    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

    A persuasive ensemble, excellently attuned to this repertory (The York Press)

    “The Elysian Singers came up trumps…luminously soft and uniform” (David Ardatti review)

  • Feedback

    Heard you sing last Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wow! (especially the Kodaly). Thanks, come again soon (S&MG, Dublin)

    I was moved, not just by the music, but also by the creativity of humankind, continually sharing new ways of contemplating life, and by the discipline of ordinary people who work hard and unpaid to interpret this beauty and emotion to others (York blog)

    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

    Your CD of Sir Granville Bantock’s music arrived today – what treasures it contains. As someone who has enjoyed singing in choirs for many years, I found this recording very special. Congratulations to all concerned!! (BL, Hobart, Tasmania)

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying the new album. The choir sounds fabulous throughout. Congratulations! Please pass along my gratitude to your excellent singers (JL, USA)

    The closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience for a very long time… (DF, Streatham, after hearing the choir perform James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross)

    You made such a lovely sound this morning. Ave regina coelorum was exquisite – quite the loveliest thing I’ve heard for a long time (J P-B, Salisbury, 2011)

    We cannot thank you enough for the beautiful singing, which totally exceeded our expectations. We feel very privileged. I particularly loved the descant – it was a moment I will always remember (N&T wedding, April 2013)

    The Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing…For the duration of [Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light], I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. (JB, London blog, Feb 2014)

    Beautiful, uplifting music and an eclectic repertoire. A very enjoyable evening (Audience Club reviewer, Feb 2019).