At the round earth’s imagin’d corners

Twentieth century settings of the metaphysical poets. The choir’s first self-promotion under new musical director, Sam Laughton. Soloist: James Gilchrist


Michael Berkeley: At the round earth’s imagin’d corners
John Casken: Three choral pieces
Holst: The evening-watch
Kenneth Leighton: Crucifixus pro nobis
Thea Musgrave: On the underground (set 2)
Parry: Songs of farewell
Judith Weir: Two human hymns


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John Donne, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Henry Vaughan … the 17th century produced some of the greatest poetry in the English language. And the ‘metaphysical poets’, with their vibrant imagery of the spiritual or religious world, have held a peculiar fascination for composers of the 20th century, with the more famous poems being set many times over.

Tonight we present an array of the most thought-provoking, and exhilarating, choral settings of these poets by English composers spanning the century: from Gustav Holst to John Casken, from Kenneth Leighton to two of our most prominent women composers working today, Thea Musgrave and Judith Weir. We are delighted to be joined by James Gilchrist, one of the leading young tenors of his generation, who will sing the narrative role in Leighton’s cantata ‘Crucifixus pro nobis’.

The programme is framed by two superb, but very different, settings of Donne’s apocalyptic poem which gives the title to the concert: Michael Berkeley’s anthem, writing in 1980, begins and ends with exuberant trumpet fanfares, whereas Hubert Parry, in his extraordinary swansong composed during the First World War, can only end in deep resignation.

‘To Hubert Parry must go the chief credit for the awakening of English music from the complacent lethargy that had been growing on it for the best part of two centuries.’ So wrote Frank Howes, and although Parry’s achievements were swiftly overtaken by the genius of Elgar, the older composer’s Songs of Farewell remind us how much he contributed to the reinvigoration of the choral tradition. In particular Parry was keen to bring strong literary associations to his music, and in four out of the six Songs of Farewell, Parry returned to the great era of 17th-century spiritual poetry that began with John Donne and included Henry Vaughan, John Davies and Thomas Campion. The Songs of Farewell were composed under the stress of the First World War in 1916, and constitute Parry’s swansong. As such they movingly speak farewell not only in personal terms (Parry was to die just two years later) but also to the fast-disappearing world of Parry’s youth. Their constant theme is the redeeming power of the Christian faith as contrasted with the frailty of man.

English composers throughout the 20th century have followed Parry’s lead in turning to the metaphysical poets for inspiration. Gustav Holst, for instance, just eight years later, set another poem of Henry Vaughan in his eight-part motet The Evening-watch, in which the Soul comforts the dying Body with intimations of the after-life. But Holst, being a generation younger than Parry, had found quite a different and individual style: almost the entire work consists of widely spread chords built on perfect fourths and sung pianissimo. Its anti-romantic tone it is a classic example of how Holst’s love of mysticism (derived in large part from his study of Eastern traditions) had displaced all memories of the Victorian age.

Kenneth Leighton was just 32 when he composed Crucifixus pro nobis in 1961 for the choir of New College, Oxford, but already had created a personal style that was to characterise his work until his death in 1988. He would combine a melodic lyricism with a harmonic stringency to create a dramatic, individual but very direct form of expression. This work is dominated by a tenor solo part which reflects with almost overwhelming intensity the colourful religious imagery of Patrick Carey, who in turn brought a highly personal reaction to bear on the vicissitudes of Christ’s life. Carey’s final reference to the believer’s ‘melting tear’ led Leighton to a poem by Phineas Fletcher for the final unaccompanied movement of the cantata, which yet further intensified the personal nature of the Christian faith in 17th-century eyes.

Michael Berkeley was also 32 when he was commissioned to write an anthem for the Southern Cathedrals Festival, another setting of the ‘Holy Sonnet’ by Donne also set by Parry. Berkeley, unlike Parry, chooses to return to the first lines of the poem at the end of his anthem, arguably upsetting the very deliberate shape of the poem which so clearly moves from the triumphantly apocalyptic to a regretful personal position. But this does nothing to diminish the resplendent writing for choir, trumpet and organ.

John Casken shows an attention to the details of individual word-setting which at times reminds one of the the world of Monteverdi and Gesualdo. His choral style, as shown in The Land of Spices (1990), displays a love of expressive harmony and flexible rhythm which beautifully sets off the remarkable shower of images compiled by George Herbert. A Gathering (the 1991 commission for the Christmas Eve service at King’s College, Cambridge) is based on one of the semi-poetic ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ by the Lancelot Andrewes, the early 17th-century Bishop of Winchester. Thea Musgrave and Judith Weir are two of Scotland’s leading composers, and both their works in tonight’s programme date from 1994. Musgrave, a generation older, belies her seniority in the sheer freshness of her settings of poetry taken from those displayed On the Underground. Set among the mirror settings of a Herrick epigram and a remarkable anonymous puzzle poem, is an interloper in tonight’s programme. Edwin Morgan (b.1920) was commissioned to write a poem for the inauguration of Glasgow’s underground, but the transport executive was so alarmed by what he wrote that it was never used …

Judith Weir wrote her Two Human Hymns for the quincentenary of Aberdeen University. We are singing her later arrangement of ‘Love bade me welcome’ for unaccompanied choir, which arguably better suits the conversational style of Herbert’s famous poem. ‘Sic Vita’, by another bishop, Henry King, recalls the theme of human frailty encompassed in the Parry settings of some 80 years before. But despite the fatalistic tone of the poetry, Weir has chosen to put an extraordinary spring in the step of the music. Perhaps she had the opportunity to be more optimistic at the end of the 20th century than Parry was at the start.

Sam Laughton

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    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)

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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).