Summer Songs

Sacred music by Britten, Howells, Lennox Berkeley, Peter Maxwell Davies and Andrzej Panufnik

Britten: Antiphon
Britten: Hymn to St Columba
Britten: Hymn to St Peter
Howells: Take him earth for cherishing
Howells: Salve Regina
Howells: O salutaris Hostia
Lennox Berkeley: Three motets
Peter Maxwell Davies: Hallelujah! The Lord God Almichtie
Andrzej Panufnik: Song to the Virgin Mary

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Benjamin Britten: Antiphon, A Hymn of St. Columba, and Hymn to St. Peter

Britten wrote the Antiphon in 1956 for the centenary of the College of St. Michael’s Tenbury. The first lines of George Herbert’s poem, “Praised be the God of Love/ Here below/ And here above” suggested to Britten three types of contrasting music: a florid unison phrase for the first line, deep pianissimo triads for ‘Here below’ and a soprano solo for ‘And here above’, which Britten directs to be sung if possible from a gallery. The antiphonal writing continues throughout, with a final repeated alternation of a high F major ‘one’ and a low ascending ‘two’, which come together in the last bar.

A Hymn of St. Columba, for four-part chorus with organ, is another piece that starts off with firm unison writing. It was composed in 1962 to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of Columba’s voyage from Ireland to Iona. The Hymn to St. Peter was written for the quincentenary of the Church of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich in 1955. The words are from the Gradual of the Feast of St. Peter and St.Paul and the music is based on the plainsong Tu es Petrus, which is sung at the end to its Latin text by a soprano solo while the chorus chants the same words in English. David Matthews

Herbert Howells: Take Him, Earth for Cherishing

The motet Take Him, Earth for Cherishing (Motet on the death of President Kennedy) has a complex history which is bound up with the death of Howells’ son Michael in 1935 at the age of nine. Firstly, almost everything which Howells wrote following Michael’s death was written in its shadow, but more than this, where he had been suffering a crisis of confidence following the disastrous first performance of his Second Piano Concerto in 1925, Michael’s death had the effect of rousing him to great compositional activity and rekindling the inspiration, which had seemed to be lost.

The most notable result of this was the Hymnus Paradisi, Howells’ “requiem” for Michael. He had used the 4th century poet Prudentius’ text from Hymnus Circa Exequias Defuncti in that work, and he turned to it again for this motet, not in its original Latin this time, but in Helen Waddell’s imaginative translation. There was another level on which Howells responded to this commission – the instinctive and worldwide horror at the assassination of a brilliant and popular world leader. Howells identified this loss with his own, and in using the text which he had used so personally before, made his own musical statement devastatingly powerful. Paul Spicer

Lennox Berkeley: Three Latin Motets

These Three Latin Motets were written by Sir Lennox Berkeley for the Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge, who gave the first performance in the same year, under their conductor George Guest. Since the first performance the same choir and many others have performed these beautiful motets, for five-part choir.

The first is a setting of a text for Passion Sunday, Eripe me (Deliver me, O Lord): the second, Veni Sponsa (Come thou Bride of Christ) is to a text proper to the Feast of Virgins and Martyrs and the third is a Maryan anthem, Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven), proper to the season from Easter Sunday to the Friday before Pentecost. Chester Music

Peter Maxwell Davies: Hallelujah! The Lord God Almightie

Composed for St. Paul’s Old Kirk in Edinburgh, this is a setting in Scots of the passage in the Apocalypse where St. John hears a voice from the throne, that voice appearing here as soprano-alto duets from a distance, building, as Davies has said, a ‘fine bridge’ from the time of the Edinburgh church to the present. Both vocal groups sing in translucent modal harmony with organ support. Paul Griffiths

Herbert Howells: Master Tallis’s Testament

Herbert Howells as quick to acknowledge his debt to Tudor polyphony, both musics deriving charged harmonies from their sinuous lines. In Master Tallis’s Testament, Howells – whose work is often suffused with nostalgia – pays tribute to the Golden Age. The Testament unfolds a series of variations on the opening theme. Although short, Howells regarded it as his best piece for the organ. Mark Brafield

Herbert Howells: Salve Regina and O Salutaris Hostia

Both these pieces are early works, written for Westminster Cathedral. The little O Salutaris Hostia of 1913 is based on the hymn-tune Rex gloriose heard in simple form in the first verse. The second verse sets the tune in long notes in the tenor (and briefly in the bass) while the other voices provide decorations around it in ancient technique used to new effect.

The superb Salve Regina has its roots in the motet tradition of Byrd and Philips, the imitation between voices producing an intense central climax. The final soprano solo evocatively places ‘this vale of tears’ of the text in the same English countryside as Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written the previous year. Paul Spicer

Andrzej Panufnik: Song to the Virgin Mary

In this choral prayer to the Virgin, my intention was to evoke the adoration, warmth and pure faith of the Polish peasant, for whom worship of the Virgin Mary has a special closeness and significance. My desire is to compose this piece was enkindled both by memories of the naive beauty of the religious folk art of Poland, and by the moving and powerful medieval text of an anonymous Polish poet – which I unearthed after a great deal of search – these two factors dictated the musical language to me as well as the structure.

The melodic theme based on the pentatonic scale has a close relation to Polish folk music as well as some distant flavour of plainchant. This theme weaves consistently through all six voices passing through all 12 keys and these processes are designed symmetrically.

The song opens in the first part with soprano and mezzo-soprano only, singing pianissimo, a most humble invocation to the Virgin. The voices gradually join in, slowly swelling to a warm fortissimo climax. In the middle part of the work, in pianissimo, the voices intone rather than sing with much emphasis on the rhythm of the words, characterizing a peasant congregation in a country church. The third part is a reflection of the first as regards musical material, but dynamically it leads to a much stronger fortissimo. the prayer has become more urgent, and it intensifies its ardour until it reaches final, ecstatic shouts on the name ‘Maria’. Andrzej Panufnik

  • “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).