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At the round earth’s imagin’d corners

    at St Andrew's Holborn

    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