Director of Music, Alex Patterson, explores the features of J. S. Bach's St John Passion ahead of the Cathedral Choir's upcoming performance on Saturday 7 March 2020.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) left the royal court of Anhalt-Köthen in May 1723 to take up his duties as Kantor (Director of Music) of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig. As part of his role as Kantor, Bach had resolved to compose liturgical cantatas for every Sunday of the church’s year, and it was during his first year in the post that Bach composed the Johannes-Passion (St John Passion). It was heard for the first time on Good Friday, 7 April 1724, at the nearby St Nicholas’s Church, due to a last minute change of venue.
The St John Passion is set in two parts: Part 1 concerns the arrest of Jesus and Peter’s denial, and Part 2 covers the questioning by Pontius Pilate, the Crucifixion, and the death and burial of Jesus. In the original context of the Lutheran Good Friday liturgy, a sermon would have been delivered between these two parts, most likely of considerable length (lasting several hours). Bach takes the main text for the Passion from chapters 18 and 19 of St John’s Gospel, yet he includes two moments not found here, but rather in the Gospel according to St Matthew: the weeping of St Peter after his denial, and the tearing of the veil of the temple.
The Gospel narrative is led by the Evangelist in sections of recitative, using near-speech rhythms, accompanied by cello and organ. Soloists take on the roles Christ, Pilate and Peter, and Bach intersperses the story with arias sung by soloists, which reflect on the action just heard. In contrast to his St Matthew Passion composed a few years later, the St John Passion has a stronger sense of urgency and dramatic drive. There are fewer arias than in the St Matthew Passion and, as a result, there are fewer moments of leisurely contemplation. Instead, the St John Passion features frequent interjections from the crowd (sung by the chorus), constantly pushing the action on, as if the narrative is being driven by forces outside of Jesus’s control. The dramatic spirit of the narrative pervades the recitatives and Bach gives important textual passages more prominence through expanded and striking musical ideas. Notable passages include Peter’s lament at the end of No. 12: ‘weinete bitterlich’ (‘wept bitterly’), and the whipping of Jesus at the end of No.18: ‘und geißelte ihn’ (‘and whipped him’).
At the heart of the work are the chorales, meditating on the story at key points. These hymn tunes and words would have been familiar to Bach’s contemporaries and, as such, would have been designed to put us next to Jesus in the story.
‘The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.’
- J. S. Bach
‘Herr unser Herrscher’ (‘Lord, our Ruler’), the dramatic opening chorus, is a striking and unsettling beginning to the St John Passion. The movement is full of dissonances and an overwhelming sense of pain and despair, despite being a hymn of praise. By contrast, the penultimate movement, ‘Ruht wohl’ (‘Rest well’), which mirrors the opening chorus in terms of scale and depth, is an affecting lament full of falling figures suggestive of the lowering of Christ into the tomb.
Throughout the St John Passion, Bach casts the chorus into the roles of the crowd, servants, High Priests, and soldiers, with sudden and often brutal choral outbursts. When the Jews are calling for Christ to be crucified, there is a sense of coercion; the crowd is not necessarily the majority, but those that are louder and angrier than anyone else pressurising others to follow their lead. Bach’s setting of the text is often intensified using similar musical motifs for related texts: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (No. 2), ‘Crucify him’ (Nos. 21 & 23) and ‘Greetings to you, dear King of the Jews!’ / ‘You should not write: “King of the Jews”’ (Nos. 21 & 25).
The arias of the St John Passion follow the operatic convention of exploring the emotions felt by individuals at various points in the narrative. Again, Bach brings us right into the core of these moments of contemplation, which often feature musical material that is in some way symbolic or holds pictorial significance. No. 7: ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ (‘My Saviour allows Himself to be bound’), elaborately weaves the tangled oboe lines with the alto soloist. In No. 9: ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ (‘I, too, will follow you - with joyful steps’), the flute line ‘follows’ the soprano in close succession, with a stumbling bass line, perhaps intended to imitate our own stumbling footsteps to follow the way of the cross. There is the overly pictorial representation in No. 24: ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ (‘Hurry, troubled souls’), with its compelling running line illustrating the words, ‘hurry to Golgatha’.
Symbolic instrumentation is used to great effect in several arias: a pair of violas d’amore in No. 19: ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ (‘Look, my soul’), reflecting on the whipping of Christ, and in the following tenor aria, No. 20: ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ (‘Consider how his blood-stained back’). Always keen to experiment with unusual sonorities, Bach followed standard convention for funerals by using the solo viola da gamba in ‘Est ist vollbracht’ (‘It is completed’), its delicate timbre giving an otherworldly quality at this pivotal point in the Passion.
In addition to the choruses, which are central to the narrative, Bach has the choir singing contemplative chorales throughout the St John Passion. As Sir Simon Rattle remarks, ‘the only place of order and safety is the chorales – the haven of peace in the Passion’.
The congregation at the time of the first performance would have recognised the tunes and words of the chorales, which were used regularly in private devotion as well as in church services. As many of the chorales in the St John Passion sit in an unsuitable range for untrained voices, or are complexly harmonised, it is uncertain whether the congregation would have actually sung these chorales aloud but they certainly would have recited the words quietly to themselves during the performance.
The closing chorale is a triumphant affirmation of faith, ending with optimism, trust in the Resurrection, and a resolve to praise Christ forever.
Tickets for the Cathedral Choir's performance of the St John Passion on Saturday 7 March are still available online.
[Saint] John Henry Newman, Bishop of Nottingham 1850-????
Peter Francis Smedley, Master of Music, Westminster Cathedral 1961-????
It nearly happened, in both cases. When the hierarchy of England and Wales was restored in 1850, Cardinal Wiseman wanted Newman, his most high-profile convert, to be bishop of Nottingham. He persuaded for a long time, but Newman was steadfast in his refusal: he did not want “power” in the Roman Catholic church, and to come to Nottingham would mean working closely with [Arch]bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham, a prospect the gentle and scholarly Newman dreaded as Ullathorne was, shall we say, no respecter of persons.
When the post of Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral came up in 1961 Peter Smedley made it to the last two. He was beaten by the assistant organist at Westminster, Colin Mawby. Ten years later Mawby’s assistant Nicolas Kynaston left to begin his worldwide career as player and teacher, and Peter was asked to succeed him. However by then professional and family circumstances made this impossible and Peter remained at Nottingham Cathedral till his retirement in 2003.
Colin Mawby began his musical career as a boy at Westminster Cathedral. He was thus present in 1947 when auditions took place for a new Master of Music. Among the candidates were George Malcolm, who got the job, and two other London choirmasters: Fernand Laloux of Farm Street and Henry Washington of Brompton Oratory. (In the way that curious coincidences sometimes arise, Washington went on to teach Peter Smedley and Laloux went on to teach me.)
Mawby became assistant to George Malcolm, and was then for a time choirmaster at Portsmouth RC Cathedral (they have two in that city). In 1959 he became assistant to George Malcolm’s successor Francis Cameron, succeeding him as we have seen two years later.
A taste of the music in Colin Mawby’s early days can be found in the YouTube clip below:
You will briefly see the future Cardinal Heenan’s solemn entrance into the cathedral and hear Mawby’s choral direction and Kynaston’s playing. And, with Heenan’s fine style, it was splendid: he had been given a great send-off in his former see of Liverpool that afternoon with his flock at the station to say goodbye; a delayed train caused him to have a mad dash to Westminster, with the briefest of blessings to a parish group waiting for him at Euston, before his arrival in his new cathedral, under a canopy, scattering blessings and smiles (he always smiled at his flock as he processed from the altar after Pontifical High Mass) and finally enthroned. As some will remember he was a good media star too; an excellent appearance with David Frost has never been forgotten.
Mawby evidently enjoyed good relations with Cardinal Heenan, but with Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy it became clear that change was in the offing: a simplified liturgy and the opportunity to celebrate it in English. Pastorally perfect for parishes and for more experimental liturgies in universities and schools – but what about those centres of excellence, our cathedrals, the mother churches of our dioceses? Should they be leading or following? And what of the patrimony of church music, whether Gregorian chant in some cases a thousand years old or the work of great composers who have served the Church, sometimes – as in the case of Byrd and Tallis – at great danger to themselves?
Mawby saw the opportunities for the new liturgy in a solemn English setting which was broadcast in 1968, televised live from St James’s Spanish Place under the direction of the charismatic Roger Pugh, who later became the assistant organist at Westminster and who, in the company of a Benedictine monk, had a sighting of the Loch Ness monster. Musically Mawby’s mass setting was very interesting indeed, good for choirs to sing and an example of what a good composer could do with the new texts. Nor did Mawby forget choirs and congregations with different needs: as a parishioner at Matlock in 1972-73 I regularly heard one of his settings, in which simplicity was certainly the watchword.
But was that all? He was very worried about what would happen at Westminster Cathedral, which at that time had a daily Capitular High Mass at 10:30 and sung or solemn Vespers (depending on the feast) at 5 pm. Obviously there was scope for different things in other services, but was Latin going to come under attack? The Administrator of the time was a man of immense learning and culture who declared that he felt his chief duty was “to protect the building [the cathedral] from Heenan”, who was very good at steam-rollering through his own ideas. No mention here of the music, and there is no doubt that there were cathedral priests (called chaplains there) who were ill-at-ease with Latin and didn’t look forward to celebrating it. And there started to be pressure from some choir parents, who thought their sons should be singing in English, not old-fashioned and (some thought) heretical and now-forbidden Latin. No wonder Mawby went into print, in a letter to The Times, voicing his concerns (that didn’t go down too well in certain quarters).
And yet . . . it was at this time that the Choir School was rebuilt, and Heenan himself could deliver fine liturgy. I twice saw him on Easter Sunday morning: full Latin mass, attended by deacon and subdeacon of the Mass, two deacons at the throne, assistant priest in cope and a gentleman-at arms in full livery, and Mawby conducting a Mozart mass complete with orchestra.
After Heenan’s death Mawby became director of music at the great Jesuit [then] church of the Sacred Heart in Wimbledon, where my parents and I often worshipped, and then in 1981 choral director at Radio Telefís Éireann. Of his many compositions from that time, his powerfully romantic setting of Ave Verum Corpus is a great favourite at Nottingham Cathedral.
Although he kept a relatively low profile after Westminster, it was no surprise to find him last summer entering the lists about what he saw as devastating changes to the organisation of Westminster Cathedral choir school. And shortly before his death he had gone into print again eloquently warning about the damage that would occur.
The death of a renowned director of music is always a cause for mourning. Mawby’s successor [Sir] Stephen Cleobury died on St Cecilia’s Day 2019; Mawby himself died two days later. And to add to our grief, their latest esteemed successor Martin Baker has resigned. Cardinal Heenan and Cardinal Hume, both so supportive to the cathedral’s music, must be turning in their graves.
Director of Music, Alex Patterson, takes us behind the repertoire of our upcoming concert of music by Benjamin Britten on Friday 22 November 2019.
Maggi Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, was set up in 2003 to commemorate the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), who lived in the town for most of his composing life. It is inscribed by the quote – ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ – taken from Britten’s first major opera Peter Grimes, which was premiered at the re-opening of of Sadler’s Wells in 1945. The opera was not only important for Britten as a composer, but it was also a landmark moment for British music, and opera in particular – there hadn’t been an opera of note by a British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
By the age of 21, Britten had got his first job working at the General Post Office film unit, where he met W. H. Auden. The poet obviously had a very keen impact on the young composer, who wrote in his diary the following day: ‘Auden is the most amazing man, a very brilliant & attractive personality’. As well as being collaborators for films such as Coal Face and Night Mail, Auden became something of a mentor towards Britten and having a hand in many of the pieces Britten wrote in the late 1930s: providing the text for the first and last movements of the large orchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and introducing Britten to Arthur Rimbaud’s work leading to the song cycle Les Illuminations (1939). Auden encouraged Britten to widen his aesthetic, intellectual and political horizons, and would later play an integral part in spurring Britten to explore his sexuality.
Two significant events in Britten’s life took place in 1937: his mother died, and he met the tenor Peter Pears. They met following a rehearsal of the BBC Singers, of which Peter was a member, and got to know each other later that year while they were both helping to clear out the home of a mutual friend, Peter Burra, who had died in an air crash. Pears quickly became an important musical inspiration for the composer and later life-long partner.
In April 1939, Britten and Pears set off to North America, away from the looming war in Europe. Together they settled into a bourgeois lifestyle with Auden and Christopher Isherwood who had moved there earlier the same year. Britten and Pears were more likely to be mistaken for a pair of public schoolmasters, but although the lifestyle didn’t suit them, it wasn’t until 1941 that a decision was made to return. Whilst in California, Britten happened to read an article on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe and on reading his poem The Borough containing the tragic story of Peter Grimes, he later reported: ‘I realised two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged’.
Hymn to St Cecilia
Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November, an auspicious day given it is also the Feast Day of St Cecilia (the patron saint of music). It is unsurprising, therefore, that Britten had desired to write an ‘ode’ to St Cecilia for quite some time. As early as 1935 there is evidence that Britten was struggling to find the right text for the work. It was during their time together in America that Britten asked Auden to provide a text for his ode to St Cecilia, which Auden sent in sections to Britten throughout 1940, alongside advice on how to be a better artist. In 1980 Pears recalled, ‘Ben… was no longer prepared to be dominated – bullied – by Wystan, whose musical feeling he was very well aware of… Perhaps he may have been said to have said goodbye to working with Wystan with his marvellous setting of the Hymn to St Cecilia’.
Britten started the work in America in 1940 but had only written part of the first movement when in March 1942, he and Pears boarded the MS Axel Johnson in New York for the month-long journey to England. The manuscript of the completed section of the piece was confiscated by customs officials, fearing the music was a secret code, but while at sea, Britten rewrote the confiscated part from memory and finished it on 2 April 1942.
Hymn to St Cecilia is set in three parts, interspersed with a varied refrain on ‘Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire’.
The first part concerns the legend of St Cecilia, who is supposed to have invented the organ in order to ‘enlarge her prayer’ – a deliberate use of both Roman and Christian imagery to highlight music’s ability to arouse and soothe.
The second part, a light and lively passage, could refer more to Britten himself (Auden had a history of goading Britten after all), the music conjuring up the image of a child who doesn’t want to grow up – the divided sopranos and tenors chasing each other like a teasing dance in the playground, with the altos and basses holding everything together as the mature adults. A letter from Auden to Britten just before the composer left America is quite telling: ‘Wherever you go, you are and probably always will be surrounded by people who adore you, nurse you, and praise everything you do… You are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself… to build yourself a warm nest of love… by playing the loveable, talented little boy’. The letter suggests that Britten needed to suffer for his art, and although he always battled against this, the ideas of lost innocence and the plight of the outsider never left him and come back time and again in his work.
The final part is restless, more regretful than before, and there is a sense of foreshadowing in the theme of lost innocence which develops in Britten’s later operas. Referencing the 17th century odes to St Cecilia, the words refer to different instruments: violin, drum, flute and trumpet, represented by alto, bass, soprano and tenor soloists.
A Ceremony of Carols
Whilst on their month-long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1942, Britten was drafting what Peter Pears described as ‘7 Christmas carols for women’s voices and harp’ – an instrument Britten had been studying in depth before his departure after receiving a commission for a harp concerto (unfulfilled for 27 years before he composed his Suite for harp for friend Osian Ellis). Armed with two harp manuals and a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems which the composer had picked up whilst the MS Axel Johnson was berthed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten composed the set, with Pears working on a draft scenario for the opera Peter Grimes in the next room – as Britten himself commented, ‘one had to alleviate the boredom!’ It received its first performance at Norwich Castle in December 1942.
A Ceremony of Carols is bookended by the Gregorian chant ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ which is also heard in the central harp solo. Following the opening Processional, the work bounds forth into ‘Wolcum Yole’, a child-like excitement for the New Year, before the resonant ostinato bass in ‘There Is No Rose’ which underpins a more adult wonder of the unparalleled Virgin Mary. The lachrymose tear drops in ‘That Yongë Child’ lead directly into Mary’s lullaby for the infant Jesus, Balulalow, contrastingly filled with inner warmth. The exuberant ‘As Dew In Aprille’ describes the mystery of God becoming man, before the fiery battle between heaven and Satan’s forces in ‘This Little Babe’. The Interlude ornaments the opening plainchant in the resonant key of C-flat (when all the strings are at their longest). We encounter the shivering tremolos of ‘In Freezing Winter Night’ before returning to a more child-like playfulness in ‘Spring Carol’. The declamatory climax of ‘Deo Gracias’ gives thanks for the Fall of Adam, the ultimate cause of Christ’s coming, with an exhilarating ‘pile on’ of vocal entries before the work ends as it began with the triumphal ‘Hodie’.
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard
By the time Britten turned 30 in November 1943, performances of A Ceremony of Carols were proving a sell-out. Three weeks later he wrote to Elizabeth Mayer, a translator and editor with whom both he and Pears stayed between 1939 and 1940, and dedicatee of Hymn to St Cecilia: ‘I am quickly scribbling a short choral work for a prison camp in Germany where some friends of mine are.’ This was The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard written at the request of Richard Wood, whose sister Anne had been in the BBC Singers with Pears and who was imprisoned at the Eichstätt in Germany, where he had organised a male voice choir. Britten’s stance as a conscientious objector in World War II is well known but his sympathies for those caught up in its ramifications were as deeply felt as anyone’s. The music, we are told, was parachuted to the camp on microfilm and received seven performances there. Britten’s letter to Elizabeth Mayer continued – ‘Then I start the opera – for production next Summer!’.
The text is an old tale of betrayal and adultery. Lady Barnard has a secret assignation which is revealed by Lord Barnard’s page; as a result of this the Lady gets caught in the act and is murdered.
Choral Dances from Gloriana
By the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, Britten was well established as the preeminent British opera composer given the success of Peter Grimes (1945) and the all-male Billy Budd (1951). The commission to write a new opera to honour the occasion was perhaps brought about by Lord Harewood, a friend of the composer and cousin to the Queen, who Britten suggested had bullied the Queen into it. The first performance took place 6 days after the coronation at a gala event at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but the reception was less than favourable. The national press were harsh in their reviews and the audience of the gala premiere – largely made up of unmusical diplomats and dignitaries – were baffled by the work.
The three-act opera depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, through several tableaux, rather than a developed narrative. The first Elizabeth is presented as a sympathetic, but flawed, character motivated largely by vanity and desire.
The Choral Dances occur at the beginning of Act II. Elizabeth I is making her royal progress to Norwich and her loyal subjects decide to present a masque in her honour. Originally choreographed and performed by dancers from the Royal Ballet, the six short movements were introduced by the Spirit of the Masque. The sequence begins with the appearance of the demigod Time, ‘lusty and blithe’, who is followed by his wife Concord. After Time and Concord have danced together, country girls, rustics and fishermen join in the celebrations before the concluding ‘Dance of Homage’ to the visiting sovereign.
The poor reception for the opera meant it was soon ostracized. It sat virtually unheard for a decade, when it had the misfortune to be revived for a concert performance at the Festival Hall, for Britten’s 50th Birthday, the same night in 1963 that news of J. F. Kennedy’s assassination broke. By then, Britten was now an entirely ‘establishment’ figure, something Peter Pears observed was rather remarkable: ‘we are after all queer & left & conshies which is enough to put us, or make us put ourselves, outside the pale, apart from being artists as well’. One can imagine what Auden would have thought.
The Queen would go on to open the new Snape Maltings Concert Hall at the beginning of the 20th Aldeburgh Festival in 1967, coincidentally, the same year that the Sexual Offences Act came into being, decriminalising homosexuality.
When were you a Choral Scholar here?
2011-2013 - I started part way through my first year - after the lovely Fiona Spencer (Alto) recommended I go for it (and after being rejected from Viva Voce!)
What attracted you to be a Choral Scholar?
I had attended a Catholic school, and a few girls from my school were actually scholars at the time (Emily McDonald & Lucy Ashlee). The Cathedral is also one of the only cathedrals that has a mixed voice choir - so women get a lot of opportunities that wouldn’t necessarily happen in cathedrals elsewhere. Neil Page also had a great reputation in Notts as an educator, ABRSM examiner, and DoM having been ex DoM at Uppingham School - so I knew I would learn something.
What did you get out of the experience?
Musically: the ability to sight read, read plainchant, a huge knowledge of liturgical repertoire - and being able to lead a section with confidence; the choir is a mix of scholars and very good volunteers but it is expected that the scholars are the driving force of the choir. It’s also unique that you are actually employed by the church and being paid to sing to a high standard (rather than it being a university scholarship). At the time, we were also fortunate enough to have Alex as the composer-in-residence before his DoM days and whilst he was studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, so we got to sing a lot of Patterson world premieres!
Also, many friends were made, and the appreciation from the Nottingham Catholic community was great - they really made the choir feel welcome and you were a valued asset (the Cathedral was full for all choral masses).
What did you go on to do after you left?
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, so I built up a database of places to sing back at home in London and depped for various churches on a regular basis whilst I figured it out, and worked in the travel industry alongside singing where I could fit it in. I also sang with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the London Youth Choir and Rodolfus Choir as my main youth organisations whilst I still could - which brought many more opportunities my way.
I then began to work with Gareth Malone and was a part of his Voices Choir for a couple of years, going on a UK tour, doing various TV appearances with him and album recordings - and helping with various workshops that he ran (one being getting all Football Association workers to make up their own song and sing it!!).
All this whilst also working full time in the corporate world for Mr & Mrs Smith hotels, and Travelzoo as a hotel account manager...
What are you doing now and anything coming up?
I’ve just been staffing on the summer Rodolfus Foundation Choral Courses (previously the Eton Choral Courses), but now based in Cambridge where I’ve just started studying for my Secondary Music PGCE at Homerton College.
The Cathedral Music Department needs very little excuse to celebrate the artistic inspiration that is our Cathedral Church. Each year, the musical programme is always trying to explore new avenues of repertoire to engage, stimulate and, perhaps most important of all, be relevant, and so the opportunity to mark 175 years of music making here in the Cathedral was too good to pass up.
Our performance of Spem in Alium back in March was the first of our events, designed in a way to really use the Cathedral building to its maximum and to encourage the audience members to explore the parts of the building you can’t see from the back. Smaller motets were sung in the Lady Chapel and Blessed Sacrament Chapel, to great effect, before the Choir engulfed the audience in full surround-sound for the 40-part motet itself. The following morning saw the first performance of Amy Summers’ Missa Brevis, which was an important acknowledgement of our commitment to supporting new music and showcasing underrepresented female composers in order to reflect the society we live in.
Holy Week is always a highlight in the choral calendar, and the Chrism Mass, in particular, is a very important platform to demonstrate what the Music Department is all about. Traditionally, the music is lead by the Diocesan Choir and our Cathedral Choral Scholars, who this year sang a range of motets, from Brahms’ ‘How lovely are thy dwellings fair’ from his German Requiem, and the atmospheric ‘The Deer’s Cry’ by Arvo Pärt. They were joined this year by our Vivace and Cambiata groups who combined specially for the occasion to sing a new setting of ‘Blest by the sun’ by our Director of Music, Alex Patterson, during the Procession of Oils.
For the Cathedral itself, the focal point in celebrating the 175th Anniversary was on St Barnabas Day – Tuesday 11 June 2019, when our Youth Choir and Choral Scholars joined forces to lead the Mass, singing motets by Christopher Tambling, John Rutter, Amy Summers, Bob Chilcott, and a new ‘Mass of St Barnabas’, again written by Alex Patterson. Also featured was the hymn ‘A man to Christ committed’, Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn about St Barnabas, set to a new hymn tune composed by Robert Gower, who finished the Mass with Handel’s ‘Overture from Saul’. The occasion was a great celebration and the singers were on top form. The previous Friday, 7 June, the Cathedral held Ecumenical Choral Vespers led by the Cathedral Choir. Parry’s ‘I was glad’ opened the Vespers with great fanfare, with Howell’s ‘Behold, O God, our defender’ providing suitable intimacy and reflection on Psalm 84 – ‘for one day in Thy courts is better than a thousand’.
Our choral celebrations continue through to the end of 2019, with notable highlights being An Evening of Britten on 22 November (both composer Benjamin Britten’s birthday and St Cecilia’s Day) and our popular Carols by Candlelight on 13 December. Hopefully see you there!
2019 saw the introduction of a new recital series taking place in Cathedral Hall on Sundays after the 11.15am Solemn Mass. The idea came from one of our Choral Scholars, James Farmer, who thought it would be a great opportunity to raise a little extra for the Choir Fund as well as give singers the platform for singing solo repertoire. The response from audiences has been extremely enthusiastic and we’re delighted that the series will continue. The summer recital series finished off with an ‘extra’ in the form of a joint recital by Ellie Martin and Alex Patterson, in a special effort to raise funds for the Lourdes and Paris trip. Audience member, Jane McDermott, reviews the performance.
Being a lover of music and singing in particular, I was very keen to go and hear two people sing who I’d heard are doing amazing things with music at the Cathedral in Nottingham. Alex Patterson and Ellie Martin put together a little recital after Sunday’s Mass on 23 June with Chris Foster as their accompanist, in order to raise monies to take their Cathedral’s Youth Choir to Lourdes in July 2019.
What an absolute musical bonanza! Alex, who I understood hadn’t sung solo much in recent days, sang a work he’d composed himself called ‘Songs of Innocence’. It was a Song Cycle in five short movements based on a poem by William Blake, of the same title. The lovely interchange between piano and voice reminded me of Benjamin Britten’s music. Alex performed like a regular soloist with a focused sonorous musical tenor voice. His diction was very good too. Ellie, an established soprano soloist (I heard her sing the soprano solo in Mozart’s Requiem some months ago and was very impressed) was a delight to listen to. She chose four pieces of music by Handel, Fauré, Schubert and Schumann, all sung in foreign languages, to display different moods and showing her ability to use her voice appropriately. What a pure, clear, bright soprano voice she has. I hadn’t heard Faure’s ‘Lydia’ before but loved her performance, and her Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ in particular.
Finally, the two of them sang the duet ‘All I Ask of You’ from The Phantom of the Opera. I thoroughly enjoyed their performance both individually and together. And I mustn’t forget Chris Foster who accompanied them very musically and appropriately.
The short lunchtime recital was a great way to spend 30 minutes on a Sunday and my friend and I weren’t the only people who thought so by the audience’s clapping at the end.
Friend of the Choir, Jessica Smith, reviews our latest Cabaret evening held on Saturday 15 June to raise funds for our Lourdes & Paris Tour.
Despite having been to the cathedral many times before and hearing the fabulous music department perform in masses, services and concerts throughout the liturgical year, this was my first time at one of their famous cabarets. I had heard great things about it from previous years so I was greatly looking forward to the evening’s performances. They did not disappoint!
Tables and chairs were packed into the parish hall which still only just managed to hold the huge audience number. A free glass of bubbly waited for us by the door and a variety of nibbles were laid out on each of the tables. The front of the hall was lit beautifully and created a spotlight on the grand piano whose keys were being tinkled by Dave (who also later delighted us with two songs) as we all found our seats and waited for the singers to take to the stage.
The evening hosted an eclectic mix of vocal performances, each one wonderfully told and beautifully sung. Lots of show tunes made an appearance, from the well-known, such as ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story and ‘There are worst things I could do’ from Grease, to the less familiar ‘Gorgeous’ from The Apple Tree and ‘Sunday in the Park with George’. Several timeless classics, a few film soundtracks and a moving arrangement of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen completed the line-up of solo and small ensemble pieces. We also had the pleasure of hearing from members of the brilliant Youth Choir who gave mature and sensitive renditions of ‘Rule the world’ and ‘Dream a little dream of me’. Interspersed between these acts were group numbers sung by the whole Choir which included a very lively version of ‘Old MacDonald’ and finished the evening with the serene ‘Close to you’.
Not only were the members of the Choir providing our entertainment for the evening, they also doubled up as our waiters and waitresses, topping up glasses and bringing out a selection of canapés including scones with jam and cream to finish! Every member of the choir was thoughtful and attentive while each taking their turn to give us a whole range of hilarious, touching, upbeat and thoughtful
One necessity for the evening was some musical accompaniment for all of the singers and the seemingly effortless skills of Alex Patterson and Nick Milburn brought the whole occasion together.
None of this would have been possible without Alex and Ellie who, alongside various members of the Choir, organised a spectacular event which ran smoothly and had an informal and relaxed atmosphere throughout. All in aid of the Choir’s recent trip to Lourdes, this magical evening was entertaining to watch and a joy to listen to. Thank you Alex, Ellie and the entire Choir, see you for the next one in February!
by Alex Patterson
After their much-deserved summer break, the Cathedral Choir returned to sing 11.15am Mass a few weeks earlier than intended. This was to say thank you and farewell to Robert Gower, who stepped down as Cathedral Organist to take up a new post in Berwick upon Tweed, where he and his lovely wife Pauline are relocating.
Robert joined the Cathedral Music Team back in June 2014 when I took over from Neil Page as Director of Music. I had just turned 26 and, as Robert liked to tell people, he was the inverse age, and it was the start of a very interesting journey as we began to explore how to unleash the potential of the Music Department.
It’s rather humbling to look back to see what has been achieved in the last five years – none of which would have been possible without the support and expertise of Robert. There are events like the first contemporary performance of John Carol Case’s Requiem for an Unknown Soldier, which we gave back in 2015 on Remembrance Sunday, and which Robert was responsible for editing for publication. As well as introducing me to a whole range of neglected motets and indeed the Gretchaninoff Missa Festiva, now a staple of our repertoire, Robert also provided a catalogue of descants and arrangements of carols, and began writing a complete 3-year cycle of responsorial psalms (which
he completed in June 2019). His imaginative hymn accompaniment and extemporisations transformed our animation of the liturgy and he has certainly given us all an education in the variety of organ music which he played at Mass. It’s no secret that pieces we heard on a Sunday would be arrangements or editions he was working on for new organ compilation albums for Oxford University Press, and indeed, the latest ‘Ceremonial Organ Music Book 2’ published last month features a whole range of music that was first heard here in Nottingham over the last year, whether we realised it at the time or not.
I am indebted to Robert for many things but am extremely grateful for his dedication and outstanding musicianship which he has shown throughout his tenure. His experience and expertise has directly shaped the evolution of the Music Department over the last five years and we will certainly miss him. I’m glad that our paths will still cross as trustees of the Finzi Trust.
The music for Robert’s last Mass with us on Sunday 25 August was a very deliberate selection by Robert himself, including the Missa Festiva by Gretchaninoff, the first performance of Robert’s new arrangement of Dora Pejačević’s Ave Maria, and my own setting of the hymn Brother, sister, let me serve you, which included some very pertinent reminders – ‘when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you’.
On behalf of everyone at the Cathedral, I’d like to wish Robert and his wife Pauline all the very best for their next chapter.
Local amateur singer Rik Ludlow takes a look back at our Hymnathon, which took place at the Cathedral on Saturday 18 May 2019 to raise funds for our tour to Lourdes.
As a young child, words meant little – I had scarcely started to talk before I started school. My earliest memories of church and Sunday Service were of sitting through seemingly endless periods of voices droning on…. and on….and on…. with endless dull, unintelligible and meaningless words. Ladies in large hats sat with glazed expressions clutching their even larger handbags whilst I tried to find interest in the wood-grain of the pews as I sat waiting for the 'good bits'. Eventually my patient purgatory period would be rewarded. The large hats would shuffle to their feet and I’d be left sat on the pew surrounded by a crush of bodies, ‘Sunday Best’ coats and handbags. The glorious sound of the church organ would start… Yes - a HIM! This was what made it worthwhile….all the grown ups would sing the same tune several times, and some of the men would sing a different tune that seemed to fit….I would sit and soak it up. Then on to more purgatory and voices droning. After the service, I’d be keen to get straight home and to the toy box. There, I had a dark brown and cream recorder….I could sit in the playroom and play the tunes I had just learned until called for dinner.
It was many years later that I learned that my pre-school apparent inability to talk but ability to play hymn tunes on my recorder was considered unusual – Hallelujah for the power of hymns! I remember working out that a HIM usually referred to a man called Jesus… but sometimes people sang about a 'Mary' but this was also a HIM, even though the Mary in my infant class at school was a 'HER'. This left me confused well into my infant school life. One day our teacher taught us that we must ask “Why” if unsure of anything. I am told that this prompted me to exit from my almost mute state and ask my first question. I asked about HIMs and HERs….to be told that the church HIM had a WHY in it. Hymns (with a y) it was, from then on, words started to make more sense, and the WHY helped me to think about the meanings of the words…. Quite a revelation!
My love of hymns has remained strong over the past six decades: As a church then Cathedral Chorister they became my 'bread and butter' (the anthems were the 'cake'!), and one of the few benefits of eventually losing my treble abilities was that I could at last sing “that other tune that the men sang” and I began to appreciate more fully the rich harmonies embedded in so many hymn tunes.
Now, the words of the Christian liturgy lend a therapeutic value in their regular and predictable repetition. The joy, however, comes from the HYMNS, just as it did 60 or so years on.
The opportunity to attend my first ever Hymnathon courtesy of Nottingham Cathedral was irresistible: 18th May 2019 is in my diary as a full day of joy, thinking about the ‘why’ in each hymn. Alex, Ellie and their relay teams of singers, organists and instrumentalists provided a fabulous ‘Cook’s Tour’ through hymns ancient, modern and revised, with most of the long-established favourites along with many (for me) new, previously undiscovered gems, such as ‘It is well with my soul’.
The selection ranged from the rich Victorian harmonies through to the rock’n’roll, ‘happy clappy’ modernist evangelical.
The format of the day was great: The daytime sessions consisted of several ‘Juke Box hymn collections’, where punters like myself were free to request their favourites for a suitable contribution to the Choir Lourdes fund, either at the time or via online ‘advanced sponsorship’. These were interspersed with related organ interludes from the organists including Robert Gower and Peter Siepmann, and some simply stunning a cappella quartet slots – ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by Alex, Ellie and two of their choir scholars was simply delicious!
The ‘a cappella’ treatment of several hymns, such as ‘Love Divine, all hopes excelling’ with just 4 singers, allowed the full richness of the 4-part harmony to be heard and appreciated. So much of this can be drowned when the organ is used to support, lead or deafen! ‘Panis Angelicus’ sung a cappella by the quartet was like liquid gold. Several of the choir slots included superb descant verses, with the final verse of ‘Crown Him with many crowns’ standing out. Ellie’s Youth Choir really proved their worth, with some very young children singing their hearts out and clearly uplifted by their immersive
experience. My only disappointment was that the Cathedral was not packed with hymn-lovers throughout the afternoon; the musicians and the music were worthy and deserving of more support.
The evening event made up for this, with the Cathedral well-filled with an appreciative audience, the congregation swelling the sounds of the choir for the ‘participation’ hymns to make a glorious sound, supported by the addition of singers from local choirs. To hear many hundreds of voices uplifted in harmony to the glory of God, and be surrounded by that sea of sound, has to be one of the great experiences of Christian worship.
The end result – I understand the event raised a useful sum towards the Choir trip to Lourdes. My ‘discretionary spend’ budget for the quarter was exceeded and I was hoarse for at least a week (about the same recovery time as my legs needed from my last marathon). Many participants will, like myself, now be aware of other musical gems in the hymn repertoire, and I would like to think that the event allowed many participants to think about the meanings of the lyrics in many of the hymns – the ‘why’ we believe.
Download a copy of the Gala Concert Programme, which included music by W. A. Mozart, Alex Patterson, and Stormzy.
Youth Choir parent, Andrea Lark, looks back at the Youth Choir's Summer Concert on Friday 12 July 2019.
All photographs by Ian R Marshall Photography
On a sunny Friday in mid-July (not a raindrop in sight!) the Cathedral Youth Choir gathered for their summer concert and much-anticipated performance of “Captain Noah and his floating zoo”. The excitement in the Cathedral Hall was palpable. This was to be the culmination of several weeks of intense rehearsal for the 30+ members of the Youth Choir, who range in age from 7 – 18.
To open the concert, the large and supportive audience of family, friends, parishioners and Cathedral clergy were treated to a range of individual items to open the concert. The girls’ group Vivace sang a beautiful arrangement of ‘Dream a little dream of me’ with musical sensitivity, whilst boys’ group Cambiata’s moving performance of the spiritual ‘Steal away’ created a prayerful sense of calm. Several solo instrumental and vocal items followed, including the piano works Raindrop Prelude by Chopin, JS Bach’s Gigue in G major, an arrangement for oboe of Fauré’s Après un rêve, and a piano arrangement of Alice the camel, which was played with confidence and enthusiasm by one of the Youth Choir’s youngest members.
Solo singers performed from a similarly diverse range of genres, spanning pop songs and traditional folk melodies, as well as music from films, opera and musicals. The young people’s love of music and their enthusiasm for sharing this in performance was a joy to see and greatly appreciated by the warmly supportive audience.
The first half of the concert concluded with the presentation by Bishop Patrick of certificates to the five ‘founding’ members of Vivace who will leave Nottingham at the end of the summer to pursue higher education. Their energy (the group is aptly named!) and commitment as well as their support for the youngest members of the choir will be missed.
Following a brief interval, the Youth Choir gathered to perform Captain Noah and his floating zoo. Written in 1970 by Joseph Horowitz, with often humorous lyrics by Michael Flanders, this cantata retells the story of Noah from Genesis chapters 6 – 9. The choir clearly enjoyed performing this and made the challenging music sound easy (I’m assured by Youth Choir Director Ellie Martin that it’s not!). The harmonisations, tricky rhythmic phrases and at times demanding tempo were tackled with confidence, and the singers responded sensitively to the mood of the music and were attentive to their (very accomplished!) pianist, and to Ellie’s direction. Every word was crisply enunciated and clearly audible, and the singers captured the mood of the music brilliantly. As the monotonous drumming of the rain petered out, the younger members went happily ‘running down the gangplank’ and the singers joyfully announced the appearance of the rainbow and God’s promise never to send another flood in the uplifting final waltz.
This collective team effort from the Youth Choir, its Director Ellie, rehearsal pianist Eden, and accompanist for the concert, Michael Martin, contributed to an engaging performance of a very high standard. As a parent of a ‘retiring’ member of the Youth Choir it was lovely to see, once again, the choir members’ enjoyment in singing together, the joy they bring to others and the strength and enthusiasm with which they contribute to the musical life of the Cathedral.
I remember a conversation a couple of years ago with our then Cathedral Dean, Canon Geoffrey Hunton, who admitted it was a dream of his that one year the Cathedral Choir would join the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes. I was very much interested in the idea and 2019 felt like the right time to do it – celebrating the joint 175th anniversaries of both our Cathedral Church and the birth of St Bernadette. Once Ellie Martin had joined the music department, it became clear that opening up the opportunity to our Youth Choir members was a vital part of the trip, and so began a long period of planning, organising and, ultimately, a huge amount of fundraising, in order to make the trip happen.
Followers of our work will be well aware of the range of events that have taken place specifically to raise funds for the trip – from our Hymnathon in May (a logistical minefield in itself!) and our Cabaret Evening in June, to a whole host of cake sales, tombolas, recitals, carolling, and more concerts. The support from the Cathedral community has been incredibly heart-warming, and knowing we had such support from the home team as we made our journey to Lourdes was a huge relief. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to all those who donated towards the costs of this trip and we hope that the accounts from those who were there and experienced it first hand will be a testament to how
important this trip was for so many people.
Putting a tour together like this doesn’t come without a lot of hard work, energy, patience and teamwork. The support of Pilgrimage Director, Fr Gregory Tobin, and Assistant Director, Fr Simon Gillespie, was integral to the success of the liturgies in Lourdes. I spent a lot of time with Fr Simon to work through the musical choices, compose new psalm settings, and select a huge variety of music. The support of the Diocesan Safeguarding Team and the tireless efforts of Ellie Martin in ensuring the safety of all on the trip cannot be overstated. We are grateful too for the support of Lisa Mackenzie and Hannah Whelan throughout the tour in helping to look after our tour members.
We are particularly grateful for the support of John-Charles Tanner, a relatively new parishioner to the Cathedral, who just happened to be close friends with Alain Cherel, the celebrated trumpeter of the Sanctuary at Lourdes. John-Charles was able to act as a conduit between Alex (who speaks very little French) and Alain (who speaks very little English), to facilitate showcasing the choir at the Marian Procession, Eucharistic Procession and International Mass. He was also responsible for arranging our concerts in Abbatiale de Saint-Savin and l'Eglise Saint Jean, Tarbes, for saving the day after hearing the news about Notre-Dame and enabling us to sing Mass at La Madeleine. His support and encouragement throughout the process (including shaking our blue donation buckets at Sunday Recitals) has been crucial to the tour and we are so grateful for all his help.
As Director of Music, it’s always good to see that the choir’s work is being recognised as an integral part of the Cathedral and wider Diocesan mission. The relationship between the two seemed to be so intrinsically linked throughout the Pilgrimage. To see members of the Cathedral congregation, wider Diocesan pilgrims, and pilgrims from all over the world visibly moved by what we were doing (such as singing hymns for pilgrims outside the Baths), beaming with pride (as we sang Bruckner’s Ave Maria at the Marian Procession, or singing throughout the International Mass), or in quiet contemplation (during the Reconciliation Service), felt like a huge validation for the work we do, not just as part of the Lourdes experience, but back at home on a weekly basis. The support of Bishop Patrick throughout the trip, alongside other Nottingham pilgrims, at our concert in l'Eglise Saint Jean, Tarbes, was a particular highlight.
We are blessed by such a wonderful community, which has been enriched, and relationships deepened, as a result of this experience. I cannot thank you all enough for the role you’ve played in making it happen.
There is always some sense of trepidation before embarking on the mammoth task of organising, fundraising and going on any choir tour, and our tour to Lourdes and Paris was no different. This was heightened even further by the fact that this year was the Cathedral’s 175th anniversary and the first time that the Choir has visited Lourdes. For me, however, it was the perfect way to round off my first year at university and my first year as a choral scholar at St Barnabas.
A few hours before flying to Lourdes we embarked on learning some of the varied and often technically challenging music. We constantly refreshed and revisited this music throughout the week, meaning that by the end it felt much more familiar than it had at the start. Musically, the highlights for me included Tavener’s ‘Mother of God Here I Stand’ and Durufle’s ‘Ubi Caritas’. It was also very
special to sing the ‘Mass of St Barnabas’ which was written specially for the Cathedral’s 175th anniversary by our Director of Music, Alex Patterson, and felt like we were bringing a piece of Nottingham over the channel to Lourdes.
I found that one of the best things about the tour in Lourdes was the variety of locations and services we had the opportunity to sing at - from the International Mass, where thousands of people from all over the world joined together and we heard mass sung in six different languages, to singing for only a few people at the Baths. The reception everywhere we sang in the Sanctuary of Lourdes was excellent and I felt really lucky to positively impact people’s time of worship in Lourdes. Every place we sang offered its own unique atmosphere, but the Marian Procession was unlike anywhere I’ve ever sung before. Thousands of people processing with their candles made it extremely atmospheric, especially when hearing everyone sing the Ave Maria.
We were lucky enough to do two concerts during our time in Lourdes, as well as singing all day within the Sanctuary. The two venues for our concerts, Abbatiale de Saint-Savin and l'Eglise Saint Jean, could not have been more juxtaposed from one another. Nevertheless, receiving a brilliant reception in both places made the hard work worth it. Furthermore, the support from members of the Nottingham Diocese who were on the pilgrimage really added to the tour experience. It was great to add something extra to their experience of Lourdes and it was lovely to hear how much it had influenced them.
After a long train journey on the Friday we had a definite change of pace when we arrived in Paris. Having never been to Paris before I was really excited to explore the city and to sing in some incredible venues. La Madeleine and St Eustache both lived up to and exceeded expectations, and were very different from the more intimate venues in Lourdes. We also had the chance to go and see the Notre-Dame Cathedral and to sing outside. Whilst tinged with sadness, I felt so lucky to be able to see a world landmark and sing the French ‘Hymne à la Vierge’ outside. We rounded off the tour with a group meal; it was lovely to have the whole choir together and reflect on what had been a jam-packed but unforgettable week.
Although the music was the focal point of this tour, the chance to spend time with the friends I’ve made from the Cathedral Choir this year and to get to know the Youth Choir better was also a massive highlight. I’m really pleased to be coming back next year and can’t wait for more tours in the future. Thank you to Alex and Ellie for organising such a fantastic tour!
Our son Benjamin is a new member of the Youth Choir, joining in January 2019. Everyone has been very welcoming, and we were really pleased when Benjamin was invited on the Lourdes-Paris trip. Benjamin was keen to go, as the choir were going to sing at Notre-Dame and we thought it would be a lovely opportunity for us to visit Paris ahead of the choir and do some sightseeing. Then on 15th April, we all received the tragic news that Notre-Dame was on fire. Singing in Notre-Dame was off, but the Choir would still sing in Paris.
The 14th July arrived quickly, and we waved the choir bon voyage on their journey to Lourdes. It was great to see and hear the choir on the Lourdes YouTube channel. They sounded fantastic. We arrived in Paris on 17th July. Our apartment was in the 5th Arondissement, near Rue Moffetard, which is full of food shops, cafes and restaurants.We bought a Paris museum pass and visited lots of art galleries. We love our son, but it was refreshing not to have a 15-year-old with us saying how bored he was!
The choir arrived on Friday 19th July. We had a couple of hours with Benjamin and heard all about singing in the International Mass in front of 5,000 people and how well the choir had been received at a couple of concerts outside of Lourdes. On the Saturday morning we met up with the choir near Notre-Dame. They may not have been able to sing in Notre-Dame, but they performed two songs outside it and were well received by all the tourists (including a good number of parents who had also decided to visit Paris).
The choir sang at two masses over the weekend, firstly, on Saturday evening at Saint Eustache, which is a very impressive gothic style church. It houses the largest organ in France and Mozart held his mother’s funeral here. The choir sang really well, but due to the height of the church their sound was slightly lost. The second mass, on Sunday morning, was at La Madeleine. This church was originally built as a temple of glory for Napoleon’s armies. At one point it was going to be a railway station and finally in 1842 it was consecrated as a church. The acoustics here were great and the choir sounded fantastic. They were accompanied by a countertenor cantor who had a very unique voice. La Madeleine also has a famous organ, and Gabriel Fauré was an organist here. The organ was very loud and electrifying.
Our time in Paris was over. We said our goodbyes and raced back to Nottingham via the Eurostar ahead of the Choir. Huge thanks needs to be given to Alex, Ellie, Hannah and Lisa for leading the Choir and looking after everyone. I’m sure it was very tiring for them, but they enabled all the young people to have experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Benjamin had a great time and is still talking about the music, all the places where the choir performed and the people he sang with.
My tour to Lourdes and Paris was fabulous. Apart from all the late nights and then waking up early, it was so fun and a great experience. My favourite parts of the trip to Lourdes were the international mass, the garden party, and the concerts.
In Paris, we mainly only had free time, and I enjoyed visiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame and the Louvre Museum. We took many pictures and got a small tan.
I hope we can fundraise enough to go every year. As well as us enjoying the trip, the people who got the experience of listening to us appreciated it thoroughly as well. We even had a couple who put in 20 euros and then swapped it with 50 euros at our concert.
As well as having this experience, I also got to know everyone more and grow stronger faithfully.
A reflection on the Cathedral Choirs' role on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes from former Cathedral Dean, Canon Geoffrey Hunton
The annual pilgrimage to Lourdes is a significant event in the life of the Diocese of Nottingham.
This year as usual three hundred people from across the Diocese made the pilgrimage by air, coach and train.
Lourdes can and does evoke several emotions; this year was no exception.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy five-day pilgrimage there was I felt amongst our pilgrims a great sense of calm and an entering into of the spirit of Lourdes – of oneness with each other, the Lord and his Blessed Mother.
Why was that? I will leave the reader to come to their own conclusion.
A reflection on the Cathedral Choirs' role on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes from Pilgrimage Director, Fr Gregory Tobin
Music is vital in our lives.
It can set the mood, raise morale and draw people together. On our Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes, we rely heavily on musicians to assist all pilgrims as we journey through life with the pains and loads that are ours.
This year we were blessed on our pilgrimage to have with us the Cathedral Choir of St Barnabas under the leadership of Alex Patterson.
During the preparation for this years pilgrimage Alex went to Lourdes with the Directorate to visit the Churches, Basilicas and the sacred Grotto where the choir would be singing. These few days during February, which coincided with the Feast day (February 11th) of Our Lady of Lourdes, also gave Alex the opportunity to meet the Sanctuary leads on liturgy and music, including the trumpet player who dovetails beautifully with the organ for the big occasions. In a previous life Fr Simon Gillespie spent a lot of time at the Cathedral, and so is very familiar with the personnel, including the Cathedral Choir. He was therefore able to co-ordinate the travel arrangements, accommodation and programme, together with the endless paperwork and T-shirts, which are a must for a journey of this kind.
Our first Mass was outside in the autel de l’esplanade adjacent to the rosary square, so very difficult with the acoustics, but we knew the choir would attract a lot of attention as people crossing the square were drawn over by the quality of the singing.
The following day (Tuesday) a certain sensitivity was needed with the anointing of the sick and the reconciliation service.
Every Wednesday in Lourdes we have an international Mass in the underground basilica (capacity 25,000) with all the pilgrimages in Lourdes at that time from the world over, coming together liturgically. The choir were resplendent as part of the larger Basilica choir and were given the opportunity to sing a motet. All 269 pilgrims from Nottingham were bursting with pride!
Each evening at 9pm there is torchlight procession for an hour. It is a spectacular occasion with the candles, thousands of people and of course the music, which is amplified around the domain. During our pilgrimage we participated twice in the torchlight procession and led it on the Wednesday. The choir took a lead with the Sanctuary leads, and again were give the opportunity to sing an impressive solo piece.
Our garden party gave everyone the opportunity to share their party piece in a sunny relaxed venue. How lovely to see and hear the choir sing some witty ditties to great effect. A nice change from the formal fare.
A concert in a local abbey was enjoyed by all who made the journey up the mountain and was an ideal foretaste for what was to come in Paris.
You expect the Cathedral Choir to be technically perfect and professional in their delivery. What I enjoyed was the moments between the musical performances when the members were just part of the Nottingham pilgrimage engaging with the sick and lifting their spirits.
Music is indeed vital to our lives. The presence of the Cathedral Choir on this year’s Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes brought musical perfection and beauty in a place that challenges us all to excel in all that we do.
How did you first become involved with the Cathedral?
Amusingly, I originally intended to join just one choir upon coming to University to keep my interest in singing ‘ticking over’. This very quickly became five and is now the focus of my life. I heard through the grapevine in University of Nottingham’s Music Department that the Cathedral was looking for choral scholars. I had imagined either that places would no longer be available after the start of term or that I would not be at the required standard, but luckily being an (almost) tenor can do you a lot of favours where skill might be lacking.
What did you get out of your experience with us?
I developed an interest in conducting around the same time I came to University. I managed to secure a couple of conducting opportunities with choirs during my first year, the summer of which Alex introduced me to the Association of British Choral Directors. I had a number of lessons and met many useful contacts at their summer convention, which led to Alex offering me the position of Assistant Director of Music at the Cathedral. I continued to sing with the Cathedral Choir, but was also given opportunities to conduct them, both in rehearsals and services. Since the Cathedral Choir were the most capable singers I had stood in front of at that point, imposter syndrome was at a high and confidence was at a low. The challenges I faced were compounded by having to simultaneously learn how to collaborate effectively with an accompanist. In conjunction with my ongoing piano studies, Robert kindly taught me the organ during my first year, so I knew enough about the instrument to have a head start in this area at least.
During this time, I also became involved in the running of the Youth Choir. I conducted them to begin with, but once Ellie joined us I accompanied from the piano instead while she led from the front. This adventure brought with it more new challenges: crowd control, the need to be even more engaging, and the requirement to explain complicated things simply, to name a few. I found working with younger people to be rewarding in a way that was slightly different to the satisfaction I derived from working with adults.
While it is probably my weaker suit, the experience certainly helped me figure out what exactly my career focusses will be and I have continued to enjoy working with the Youth Choir and seeing them thrive under Ellie’s leadership.
I am still stunned by the extent to which the Cathedral facilitated my education across so many fields (and even paid me for the pleasure). I have intended to pursue choral conducting as a career since that summer of my first year, and every experience the Cathedral has led me through has complemented this ambition. I will be forever grateful to the Cathedral’s Music Department, its sponsors, and the community we are all part of, for their support.
What have been your highlights?
The large scale concerts we have put on really stand out in my memory. One of the reasons I believe the Cathedral to be such a special place is the manner in which it unites the community through music. For instance, collaborating with the Youth Choir, children from the diocese, and Streetwise Opera in last summer’s production of Tobias and the Angel was a poignant experience and, for me, summarises what music is all about.
What other musical experiences have you had outside of the Cathedral?
External highlights include conducting the University Music Society’s chamber choir and symphony orchestra, holding a conducting assistantship for the University’s choral society and chamber choir, and being one of the lucky few who were flown out to Malaysia for the Tri-campus Arts Festival in the summer of 2016. I also write, record, and produce pop music as an ongoing hobby.
What does the future hold?
I am starting a two-year MA in Choral Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music this September with a partial scholarship and hope to enjoy quite a varied career afterwards. I have always felt called to education, but another of my aims is to found and conduct a professional chamber choir.
Following the successful ‘Big Sing’ last summer, our partnership with the Nottingham Music Service (the lead organisation for Nottingham Music Hub) has continued to flourish through a range of projects and new initatives.
Last Autumn, Ellie and Alex worked in 22 schools to prepare young singers for two ‘Christmas in the City’ concerts, which took place in Nottingham’s Albert Hall and the Royal Concert Hall. These concerts included performances from the Hub’s Area Bands, the Robin Hood Youth Orchestra, and Sing City winners. Led by Alex and Ellie, the massed primary choir gave rousing renditions of Santa Claus is coming to town and Avicii’s Hey Brother, and the massed secondary choir delighted us with The Beach Boys’ God only knows. The two choirs joined together for a heart-warming performance of Sing, written by Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and an a cappella Zulu lullaby, Thula Mama, both of which featured audience participation taught by Ellie during the concert.
Discussions with colleagues at the Music Service quickly unearthed the desire to have a Hub choir and it was decided that there was enough enthusiasm in the room to make it happen. The Robin Hood Youth Choir was formed in January and has got off to a flying start. Led by Alex and Ellie, rehearsals are on Wednesdays at 4.30pm-5.30pm in Cathedral Hall (during term time). It’s free and open to 8-18 year olds, and there are no auditions.
We have continued to work with the Music Service this last term in helping prepare young children for the Hub’s annual Great Orchestra Experiment. This event provides an opportunity for children, many of whom have never attended a live performance, to see an orchestra play and to participate with high quality musicians. These young people (usually in Year 4) will have been learning a musical instrument as a class through Whole Class Ensemble Teaching or ‘In Harmony’ programmes run by the Hub. They are brought together to experience a whole range of orchestral music presented in a theatrical and engaging way. This year’s programme included Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and John Powell’s music from the film, How to train your dragon. The young people were also treated to performances by the Villiers String Quartet, which included music by composer Elizabeth Kelly, Professor of Composition at the University of Nottingham, who was present on the day too. Part of the success of the event is that young people get to play their instrument (which they’ll only have been learning for a few months) on stage with the Robin Hood Youth Orchestra. Alex and Ellie’s role was to help the children get up to scratch with the vocal parts so they could sing along with the orchestra too!
Over 1,400 children took part across two concerts held at the Albert Hall on Wednesday 27 March. The aim of these projects is to enthuse and inspire these young people, sparking a curiosity about music in them that will hopefully develop into a life-long love, both as audience members and participants.
Responding to the needs of the dedicated young boys in the Cathedral Youth Choir, a new group for boys with changing voices started in September 2018. Like Vivace, the new Cambiata group meet on Fridays at 5pm, an hour before the Youth Choir rehearsal.
During these sessions, the boys work on specially arranged music with the Cathedral’s Director of Music, Alex Patterson, singing one or two per part. As with the nature of the teenage boys’ voice, which is constantly developing, it has been an interesting journey exploring the boys’ emerging voices, which one week could be a raw baritone quality, the next week a deep bass range, and the following week something completely different!
To deal with the need to have flexible music that can be performed at a different pitch quite quickly, we turned to plainsong. The boys were introduced to neume notation and picked up a few plainsong Mass settings. We then moved on to the Advent ‘O’ Antiphons, which we recorded in the Cathedral Crypt alongside some of our Choral Scholars. The videos were then uploaded to our YouTube Channel and shared via social media and mailing list on the appropriate days in the run up to Christmas.
The challenge of having constantly developing voices hasn’t stopped the group being able to perform at a range of events throughout the year. They gave their debut performance as part of the Autumn Cabaret Evening, singing Oliver Tarney’s arrangement of Shenandoah. For Carols by Candlelight, they performed the lively arrangement of Gaudete by Ian Crawford. Their recent performance at Lincoln Cathedral saw them perform a beautiful arrangement of Steal away by Russell Pascoe and Take That’s Rule the world arranged by Ian Crawford.
The boys performed Rule the world again at the Youth Choir’s 1pm Recital on Mothering Sunday in Cathedral Hall. They then joined with the Vivace girls to perform William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus. We are looking forward to hearing more from the combined forces of these two groups in the coming months.
Vivace is a small singing group for girls aged 15-18 and rehearses on Fridays at 5pm, an hour before the Youth Choir rehearsal. The group sing a varied repertoire, and learn music in three or four parts. Vivace started around a year ago, and in recent months has given several performances, both in masses and in concerts. They also feature on the Nottingham Cathedral Music YouTube Channel.
Here are some thoughts from the members themselves, and from Youth Choir Director, Ellie Martin, who leads the group:
For me, Vivace has been an opportunity to connect with other singers and learn to sing independently. Singing a cappella and without a conductor have been significant challenges for me, but having the support of the other singers has helped me to greatly improve my confidence in my abilities. The Youth Choir has allowed me to work as part of a larger group of singers, and learn to better understand how to sing harmony parts. Vivace has furthered this, with the songs we sing often being one to a part. I have most enjoyed performing in concerts with Vivace, as they give us a goal to work towards and encourage us to work harder as a collective.
I have been part of Vivace since it first started, and it has been a great experience. The group has really helped me to develop my confidence in singing in front of other people and the fact that we usually only have one or two people to a part means that there is nowhere to hide. I have also found it very helpful for improving my sight singing skills and my ability to work together with others in a choir; we have often sung pieces a cappella and/or without a conductor, which has meant that we've had to listen to each other a lot more. Being part of Vivace has definitely been a challenge at times, but it has also been very enjoyable and rewarding.
Being in Vivace has really improved my aural and sight-reading skills, as well as helping me make new friends and introducing me to so many new and different styles of music. I have really benefitted from being in the group, and in the year I have spent singing with them, I have
Youth Choir has given me the chance to be part of a group of all ages which can sometimes be fun and sometimes challenging. Vivace means I can develop my musical skills even more but still in a group. My singing has definitely improved and I’ve really enjoyed the singing at performances and evening masses.
Vivace has been a really enjoyable part of my singing at Nottingham Cathedral. I’ve particularly enjoyed singing a diverse range of music and the challenge of singing without a conductor. I’ve formed close friendships with the older girls in the choir and I’m looking forward to singing in Lourdes with them. Vivace and the Cathedral Choirs have given me a wonderful opportunity, as a young Catholic, to participate in the life of the Church. Vivace has been a really important part of my musical development and the skills, experience and confidence I’ve gained from my involvement with this group, and with music at the Cathedral, will be invaluable when I begin my studies at conservatoire in September.
Vivace started when Ellie wanted to challenge us older girls from youth choir with more advanced repertoire. In the beginning we didn't know what to call ourselves but we thought it should be musical so we thought of a word which could describe us all, which is 'lively!’ Vivace is the Italian musical term for lively. I have gained a lot from this group. My sight singing has improved greatly, which was a huge challenge for me, but working as a group we support each other in rehearsals. One of my favourite experiences was performing at Lincoln Cathedral where us girls performed two beautiful songs - one with a conductor and one without, which is another skill we have gained by listening to each other and to how everyone's voices work. I am looking forward to what else we have yet to achieve, especially when we go on tour with the Youth Choir and Cathedral Choir.
I initially started this group in order to address the large age range in the Youth Choir (age 7-18). I wanted the older girls in the choir to have more of a challenge, and it was important that they had a sense of ownership of the group, which is why they named it themselves (after much deliberation!). The girls all still sing in Youth Choir, and some of them sing in Cathedral Choir as well.
It has been a very busy few months for our ever-growing Cathedral Youth Choir, who are going from strength to strength. There are now over 30 dedicated members who turn up for rehearsals week in, week out. Rehearsals are on Fridays at 6-7pm, and are led by Youth Choir Director, Ellie Martin, and accompanied by Eden Lavelle or Alex Patterson.
In November, the Youth Choir were asked to lead the music for the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes Reunion Mass. Attended by the Bishop of Nottingham, this was a more momentous Mass than their usual 6pm Mass, but they rose to the occasion, giving beautiful and sensitive renditions of Caccini’s Ave Maria and Frisina’s Anima Christi.
The choir, along with our two sub-groups, Vivace (girls aged 15-18) and Cambiata (boys with changing voices), also played a significant role in our Carols by Candlelight service, joining in with the Cathedral Choir, and also singing their own pieces. The evening was quite magical, and for the Youth Choir to make such a valuable musical contribution is real testament to their hard work and dedication. That every member (some as young as seven) also managed to carry a candle, whilst negotiating walking, singing, sheet music and limited space, without setting fire to anything, is also a remarkable achievement!
On 24th December, the Youth Choir led all the music for the 6pm Christmas Eve Vigil Mass - one of their most important events in the liturgical calendar. There were special performances from Vivace and Cambiata, and as is tradition, the choir sang for half an hour prior to Mass on the altar steps to an already full Cathedral. Stronger than ever in number and in voice, the choir delighted the congregation with popular favourites, such as Michael Neaum’s Winds through the Olive Trees and Rutter’s Star Carol, and with lesser known pieces, such as Larkin’s Adam lay ybounden and Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, set to the folk song ‘O waly waly’, arranged by Alan Bullard.
In January, it was decided that it was about time the Youth Choir had a social trip together. Accompanied by Alex and Ellie, they went to see ‘Heroes and Villains’, a family concert at the Royal Concert Hall presented by Nottingham Philharmonic Orchestra. Children were encouraged to dress up in a superhero costume and enter a competition for the opportunity to conduct the orchestra on stage. Amazingly, Youth Choir member Frances-Anna’s name was picked out of the hat, which provided some extra entertainment for the other members. It was an enjoyable evening all round, and a lovely opportunity for the choir members to socialise without the pressure of rehearsing or performing.
Rather excitingly, the Youth Choir were requested to perform at a wedding in the Cathedral in February, which was a welcome first. By request, they performed Chilcott’s Londonderry Air, Schubert’s Ave Maria and Rutter’s The Lord bless you and keep you, expertly conducted by Eden Lavelle. By all accounts (the most notable from the bride and groom) their behaviour was exemplary and their singing beautiful. The members of the choir were very pleased to have been specifically asked, and all enjoyed being part of the couple’s special day. They have since been asked to sing at another wedding this Summer.
One of our major ventures for the Youth Choir this term was the trip to Lincoln Cathedral. Kate Bailey, parent of Youth Choir member, Flossie Bailey (aged 9), writes:
It is March 2019 and there are many exciting ‘world firsts’ happening in the modern world - the invention of the first robotic valet system for airports and the launch of a magazine solely for music festival goers...... but none of them are quite as exciting as the first ever trip out of
On Mothering Sunday, the Youth Choir joined with the Cathedral Choir for all the music at the 11.15 Mass, with conducting from both Alex and Ellie. Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth and Franck’s Panis Angelicus are known to the young singers, but Vaughan Williams’ magnificent Mass in G minor is not, and is no mean feat. Once again, the young people rose to the challenge admirably and held their own in Mass alongside the Cathedral Choir. Following Mass, the youth choir gave a short concert in the Cathedral Hall as part of our 1pm Recital Series, featuring some of the music they had recently performed in Lincoln. There was also a cake sale to accompany their lovely singing, for which many youth choir members and parents baked cakes. There was a considerably large audience, made up of parents, members of the congregation, and members of the Cathedral Choir. The response, in terms of applause and comments from individuals afterwards, was overwhelmingly positive, and an impressive amount of money was raised to help support the Youth Choir.
This next term will be hugely exciting for the choir. They will feature in the Cathedral’s Hymnathon and Gala Concert on Saturday 18 May, singing music with the Cathedral Choir and on their own. Vivace and Cambiata will take part in the Summer Cabaret on Saturday 15 June, alongside members of the Cathedral Choir. On Friday 12 July, the Youth Choir will give their own Summer Concert. The first half of the concert will feature solo or small group singing and instrumental performances from members, followed by Joseph Hotovitz’s lively cantata, Captain Noah and his floating zoo in the second half – not to be missed! Then, a couple of days later, many of the Youth Choir members will join the Cathedral Choir on tour to Lourdes, where they will provide music for the various liturgies and give concerts in the local area. The choirs will stop off in Paris on the way back to sing Mass in Notre-Dame Cathedral and Saint-Eustache. This will be the first time Youth Choir members have been on a Cathedral Music tour, and will be exciting musical and travelling experience for them, and an important opportunity to form or develop friendships.
Older members of the Youth Choir in need of an extra challenge are being encouraged to sing more regularly with the Cathedral Choir in the 11.15 Mass, which provides a supportive environment for them to develop further in confidence and musicianship. It is hoped that some members may wish to join the Cathedral Choir in the future.
The Youth Choir is open to children aged 7-18, and is free to join, with no audition. Please keep following and supporting the Youth Choir in their endeavours. It is very much appreciated by them and by the Cathedral Music Department.
Amy Summers discusses her Missa Brevis, written to celebrate the Cathedral’s 175th Anniversary.
Singing with the choir as a Choral Scholar, I developed some quite broad ideas about how I would personally set the text for each of the movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and so this commission ended up being my first go at letting them out. I knew I wanted the overall feel to be fairly ‘traditional’ and something that the congregation and choir would feel ‘at home’ with, but definitely with a couple of my own twists. Furthermore, my composition teacher in London, John Ashton Thomas, had started to introduce me to the wonderful world of jazz harmony. We found common ground in our interest in theory/the more mathematical side of music, and found ourselves discussing things like the octatonic scale and resulting polychords on manuscript paper and at the piano in great depths. I still feel very much a novice and am currently sketching a string quartet where I can explore this fully, but I can’t say that this didn’t have an influence on my mass - particularly the Gloria.
I had a rough idea for the atmospheres I wanted to create in each movement: a relatively upbeat, slightly mysterious Kyrie, a very lively and contrasting Gloria, a fairly swift, more relaxed Sanctus (with echoes of the Kyrie), and a very stripped-back Agnus Dei which could embody elements of each of the movements. Once I had this draft in place, ideas came fairly naturally. I drafted several completely different versions of the Kyrie over a few weeks and let them sit in my head for a while, before starting afresh and writing something that combined what I felt were the best elements of my sketches. After I composed the main melody in the tenor line, the Kyrie wrote itself, and fairly quickly. At the same time, I was sketching the Sanctus (knowing I wanted it to reflect elements of the Kyrie) and I had rough plans for the Gloria.
As for the Agnus Dei, I knew I wanted to trial something that I had accidentally created last summer: whilst stitching together audio files of a choral piece I’d recorded, I accidentally placed two different bits of the recording on top of each other. The way they happened to fall meant that when I played it as one, the choir was sustaining a chord and they were suddenly interrupted by a chunk of another section of the recording where the choir were singing an ever so lightly higher chord. The result was a clash, but it wasn’t too dissonant and somehow felt uplifting. So, I attempted to recreate this in the Agnus Dei (to the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’), dividing the voices so that it had the effect of splitting the choir in two. Additionally, like in my accidental creation, the first ‘choir’ then is cut off, leaving the second hanging. I had this idea, along with others for the Agnus Dei, floating in the back of my mind for a while and when I was supposed to be finishing the Kyrie one evening, I felt suddenly inspired and sat down and ended up writing the whole thing!
Having finished the outer movements, I completed the Sanctus quite quickly and ended up leaving the Gloria until last (which, as I mentioned, had not been my original intention) but it was somehow more rewarding to do it like this and in a way made more sense. Given the length of the text, I knew it was going to be the most time-consuming part of the mass to write, and the proportion of energy that its jubilant, celebratory nature demanded was certainly higher than the other movements. Leaving it until last meant that I could now give it my crystal-clear attention. I think I definitely had the most fun writing the Gloria. Stylistically it ended up sounding quite different from the other movements, but I felt I really had to go with my gut, perhaps because I was setting this text for the first time and the ideas felt fresh.
It was a real honour to write for the choir and for this event and, as always, I have a lot to thank Alex for. Just like with any other first performance, I know I have a lot of corners to now reflect on and revisit, but I am excited to keep writing and keep developing.
Thank you, Nottingham Cathedral Choir!
When you were a Choral Scholar here?
During my glory days: 2010 - 2012
What attracted you to be a Choral Scholar?
The promise of great music every week, excellent colleagues and all the incense I could eat.
What did you get out of the experience?
Fantastic friends, the ability to read plainchant and the knowledge to not say ‘sorry’ in the middle of solo lines (which unfortunately did happen once).
What did you go on to do after you left?
After I left Nottingham, I had a year off to learn new things and audition for music colleges. I went on to do a Masters in Vocal Performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, followed by their opera course. After that, I spent a further year at the National Opera Studio before heading out into the real world.
What are you doing now and anything coming up?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been singing professionally and working around the UK and France.
I’ve been a Harewood Artist at English National Opera since 2017 and have performed several roles there. I’m about to start rehearsals for my largest role so far - Leporello in Garsington Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni - which will be staged this Summer. I will make my Welsh National Opera debut early next year as Figaro in their production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro - a role I’ve performed once before during my student days at the University of Nottingham.
I have also a range of concert engagements including Gloucester: Three Choirs Festival in July singing the role of Brander in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust alongside Sarah Connolly (Marguerite), Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès) & Peter Hoare (Faust)
Further details can be found at www.davidirelandsings.com
Photo credit: Ian R Marshall
Overwhelming and unforgettable!
An evening of spine-tingling brilliance. Hearing Spem In Alium live and in the round would have been worth the ticket price all on its own, but nothing could have prepared me for quite how superb some of the other performances were too. The group of pieces including Tallis's O Nata Lux, sung by a small ensemble hidden from view behind the altar, was almost unbearably beautiful, with singing easily as good as anything I've ever heard from more well-known groups such as The Sixteen. What an extraordinary jewel in Nottingham's musical crown St Barnabas is!
Spem in Heaven! That was a landmark performance. Particularly good was the ‘sense surround’ of the singing circle. Coupled with a well-played Chacony from the band and vigorous rendition of the Dixit, all was well. The standing ovation was well deserved.
Spem in Alium last night - sublime! Thank you thank you thank you. My favourite piece of music which has been central in my life since the 80s, simply suffused my being. I was breathing the music deeply whilst quietly sobbing. I was privileged to be sitting in the centre and was delighted that you had set the choir in a circle. Perfect. Thank you again.
Thank you for the most wonderful evening. I thought I had died and gone to heaven as it sounded like angels singing. It was so nice to see a full Cathedral.
The Tallis motet was the most uplifting, amazing thing I’ve heard in a long time. Having a seat without a view might have actually contributed, because closing my eyes allowed the magical waves of sound to flow around me without visual interruption. Totally sublime.
The whole piece was a moving and profound experience.
Former Choral Scholar, Fiona Spencer, describes her experience returning to Nottingham to sing for Spem in Alium
Photo credit: Ian R Marshall
There are few pieces as beautiful as Tallis’ spectacular 40-part motet, Spem in Alium. Written in the 17th century, for eight different choirs, performing Spem is a choral right of passage – not to mention a feat of counting and concentration! So, when Alex sent out a call for singers to bolster the ever fabulous Nottingham Cathedral Choir, I jumped at the chance.
Now living (and of course singing) in Bristol, I travelled up to Nottingham on the Friday evening, looking forward to catching up with old friends in what was sure to be another fantastic concert under Alex Patterson’s baton. Stepping into the Cathedral Hall, the buzz was already palpable. Familiar faces, choral scholars and choir members old and new were assembling in a large circle around the room, scores at the ready. Spem is a big sing. So after two hours of rehearsal, it was time for a quick round of refreshments at the pub, before a good night’s sleep, ready to return again at lunchtime on Saturday. Concert day nerves and excitement were in the air, and after a successful run through of the programme, including Handel’s epic Dixit Dominus, we were ready to welcome a very excited audience into the cathedral.
The concert started with three beautiful motets, carefully selected to compliment the main event. The full, beautiful breadth of the cathedral acoustic was used, with small groups performing in the Lady Chapel, the Blessed Sacrament chapel and on the Sanctuary itself. The fabulous Helix Ensemble gave the choir a short rest, performing Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, the beautiful melody floating around the cathedral as the choir readied themselves for the main event. For Spem in Alium itself, the eight choirs circled the audience for a true surround sound experience. The performance kicked off with the iconic motif which starts in choir one and travels throughout the eight choirs as the piece progresses. Every member of the choir was intent on Alex’s conducting, soaking up the energy he was giving and pouring it into every note and every word. The audience were transfixed throughout, and must have enjoyed what they heard, as they gave a standing ovation as the piece came to a close.
Buoyed by a brilliant first half performance, in the second half we were joined by the Helix Ensemble to perform Handel’s Dixit Dominus. A notoriously difficult piece to perform, the choir had clearly spent time committing the piece to memory. A confident, and moving performance ensued. My personal highlight of the concert was the outstanding performances from the soloists during the Handel. The Nottingham Cathedral choral scholarships have long been a platform for talented young people to share and hone their gift every Sunday morning. These solos gave them a chance to showcase this. The standard of singing was truly outstanding, particularly when you consider that many other choirs bring in professional soloists to cover this.
It was a fantastic performance, and I was so pleased to be a part of it, and hugely proud of the Cathedral Choir in both the standard of singing, and the ever welcoming, fun atmosphere that surrounds it. Well done everyone.