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!
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
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.
Described as Thomas Tallis' 'crowning achievement', the 40-part Spem in alium was set to be a challenge. One of the first pieces I sang with the Cathedral Choir was Tallis' Salvator Mundi, and at the time, sight-reading it was an immense task for me, and for the new recruits from the Youth Choir. Since then, having sung a wide range of music, from Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' with Vivace (the girls' group at the Cathedral) to Bach's Mass in B Minor, singing a solo line amongst seven other choirs didn't seem such an impossible task.
Rehearsals began in the new year and it became evident that we needed to commit in order to perform all the music we had set out to perform. The phrase 'focus on the rhythm first, then the notes' became an important motto throughout both the Handel and the Tallis. The relentless rhythms and challenging harmonies taught us to really listen to each other and work as a whole choir, which has since benefited us in rehearsals and at Mass. Performing the pieces was nerve-racking and intensely dramatic, yet an amazing experience. Singing alongside such an incredible orchestra elevated what we had done in rehearsals and encapsulated the grandeur of the works. It proved an excellent celebration of the Cathedral's 175th Anniversary and demonstrated the hard work of the choir.
Being a part of both the Cathedral Choir and the Youth Choir has prepared me well for further study of music at university. I'm excited to pursue choral music as part of my degree, and to see what the future holds for Cathedral Music. I'm most looking forward to singing at the Summer Cabaret and in Lourdes, where I will continue to learn more about music and improve on the skills I've built so far.
As I sat in the nave of the Cathedral listening appreciatively to Bach’s Mass in B minor in March 2018, I never imagined that I would be singing there in March 2019. Friends and former members returned to augment the cathedral choir for a performance of Tallis’s Spem in Alium. This unaccompanied motet is only about ten minutes long but, with its forty independent voice parts arranged in eight five-part choirs, it makes such demands on the singers that it does not often feature in choral concerts. Every live performance is a special experience, difficult to capture in sound recordings, and I couldn’t resist the invitation to take part.
In the second half of the concert, the augmented Cathedral Choir and the Helix Ensemble performed Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a lively five-part setting of Psalm 110. As part of our preparation for Dixit Dominus we joined the cathedral choir’s regular Friday evening rehearsals, and it was a pleasure to listen to them at work on the music for Sunday mass. But for Spem in Alium the singers could only be fully assembled on the evening before the concert, so everything had to come together in a remarkably short time. That this was possible is a testament to the skill of the singers and their director Alex Patterson.
As we moved into the Cathedral on the day of the concert, we saw that the audience in the nave was to be surrounded by groups of singers in a horseshoe running from north to south. I realised that my allocated spot in choir four was to be due east, so I would not escape the gaze of the audience. But this turned out to be a good vantage point from which to appreciate the music. Out of the silence single alto and soprano voices emerged from the north side-aisle, soon joined by everyone in the first of the eight choirs, and a Mexican wave of singing passed clockwise then anticlockwise around the audience.
Although in theory I should have been able to sing at the right time just by counting beats, there are such long waits between some entries that I didn’t trust myself to rely on that alone. In most choral works the conductor can help cue the singers, but there are so many independent entries in Spem in Alium that this is not feasible much of the time. For me it was listening to the soprano singers in other choirs that helped me to keep my place in the intricate musical texture. So perhaps my years as a listener came in useful after all.
Our Director of Music, Alex Patterson, shares his thoughts on our recent concert of Spem in Alium / Dixit Dominus
Ellie Martin, Youth Choir Director, sat down with Alex Patterson to discuss the success of our recent Spem in Alium / Dixit Dominus concert on Saturday 2 March. Here is the interview transcript.
Why did you decide to do this concert programme?
The past two years, we’ve done a major work around the end of February / beginning of March time. As well as being very popular and successful with audiences, they work quite well for the choir; people seem to enjoy working on a big piece of music. But how do you top the Monteverdi Vespers and Bach’s Mass in B Minor? Spem in Alium by Tallis was the most obvious choice as it was a very different piece which could also be performed in an interesting way using the space in the Cathedral. Another good reason for doing Spem was that it needs lots of people, so it was a good opportunity for us to go back to our former scholars and cathedral choir members to see if they were interested in coming back to join us. It was also great to open the opportunity up to some of our older youth choir members, some of whom have been singing in mass with the Cathedral Choir regularly for a while now, and some of whom are fairly new to the Cathedral Choir experience.
Once we had settled on doing Spem as the climax of our first half, we had to figure out what to do alongside it. I didn’t want to do another piece in 40 parts as I’ve heard this done before and found it detracted a lot from Spem as a piece. I decided that we’d have some other music by Tallis, which we sing quite frequently at the Cathedral, but instead do it one per part. The Cathedral being ordered the way it is, if you’re sitting in the Nave watching a concert, you can only really see half the building, so having choirs singing from the Lady Chapel and from the Blessed Sacrament Chapel could potentially result in people being intrigued enough to have a wander down there. I was really happy to see people walking round the East End of the Cathedral during the interval, perhaps experiencing that part of the building for the first time.
You started the concert with plainsong. What was your thinking behind this?
Well, once I’d settled on doing Tallis, and thinking that the first half would showcase some more of Tallis’ music, I wanted to have a bit of a palette cleanser and go completely the opposite way of doing something in 40 parts, and just revert it down to one melody. I’m quite a passionate advocate of promoting female composers as well as music that generally isn’t as well-known as it probably should be, so I wanted to include some of the music of Hildegard of Bingen. It almost became like taking people on a journey, doing two pieces by Hildegard where it was just one melody, through to the full 40 parts of Spem. Her music has such a different colour and texture, particularly as we did it with just upper voices with a held pedal note (long note held underneath) in the altos, or with everyone in unison, which I thought would give a nice contrast to Tallis and all the English music.
And the plainsong is something you do every week at the Cathedral as well, so was that another reason to showcase it?
Yes, the style of it is quite up our street really, but what I love about the Hildegard is that it is quite different from the plainsong we normally do and the range can be quite extreme. It was the translation of O virtus sapientiae which really sparked my imagination, as it pre-empted how I saw the shape and spirituality of the first half:
O strength of Wisdom who, circling, circled,
enclosing all in one lifegiving path,
three wings you have:
one soars to the heights,
one distils its essence upon the earth,
and the third is everywhere.
Praise to you, as is fitting,
It was also important to have the strings perform just before we performed Spem, and the Chacony by Purcell (who was Tallis’ successor at the Chapel Royal) was perfect in setting the tone. It also ended in G, which is the starting note for Spem.
So lots of thinking behind the programme?
Yes, definitely. But it all goes beyond the programme of music too. I really wanted to tie it all in with the Cathedral’s 175th Anniversary this year too. It was clear that this would be a great opportunity to launch the celebrations and would also highlight the gems of the Cathedral, like the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which still retains the original Pugin decoration. With the 1st March being Pugin’s birthday, it was nice to align our performance to the closest Saturday to it – 2nd March. The publicity is also Pugin-inspired - the ceiling of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with its yellow stars on a blue sky, was a starting point for the flyer, which had yellow text on a blue sky background.
Tell us about Spem in Alium as a piece – why is it special?
It’s just quite a remarkable piece of Renaissance polyphony and a piece that I think begs a live performance. You need to be in the space with the performers. There’s a lot of ebb and flow, a real tug-of-war for the listener’s ear with some different antiphonal effects where the choirs are in constant dialogue with each other, but critically, he reserves all 40 parts singing together for key moments - the first one isn’t until bar 40. Later on in the piece there are also moments where he gives a beat’s rest for the entire choir before they’re all in again at the same time, but just for a few beats of the music. It’s exhilarating and full of such variety of emotion. There are times when the music is very still and so tender, but times where it’s incredibly syncopated and there are so many rhythmic ideas happening at the same time. It’s constantly changing and you just enter this different sound world – it’s got this magical quality, almost like you are swimming underwater.
Tell us a bit more about why you decided to do it with the eight choirs standing around the Cathedral, rather than just having everyone at the front in a traditional set-up. That will have affected how you heard the piece, depending on where you were sitting, so what was the thought process behind that?
One of the downsides we have at the Cathedral is that the nave is actually quite small, resulting in quite limited seating. You might end up stuck behind a pillar or in the side aisles without a good view. One of the things I wanted to make sure we did was to make sure that the people in the side aisles were close to something in the concert, which is another reason why we did different motets around the cathedral, in the chapels and behind the altar. We knew that it was going to be a sell-out concert, so we wanted the 100 people sitting in the transepts to be able to have a unique view of the choir.
Spem is one of those pieces that, as a conductor it’s quite an amazing experience conducting it, because you feel everything, all the choirs pulling against each other or handing musical ideas over to each other. To be in the middle of that is something quite special, so to be able to share that with other members of the audience was a really lovely experience. I wanted them to feel part of it, almost participating in it, despite not singing it.
So you mentioned people coming back to sing in Spem. How did you go about getting at least 40 singers on board?
We’re in regular contact with our alumni due to some of the long-standing friendships that have developed, so there are people who do regularly come back and sing. It was about trying to piece everything together in a spreadsheet and figure out where the blanks were. As well as the alumni, we also brought on board some friends of the choir who sing with other choirs in the city.
Why do you think people were so keen to take part?
For some people, I think it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I know quite a few singers wanted to do it because they’d never done Spem before. I think the reputation of the Cathedral Choir has also grown quite considerably over recent years and given its wonderful acoustic, the opportunity to sing in the Cathedral is really appealing for a lot of singers.
Let’s talk about Dixit Dominus. You worked with the Helix Ensemble for this piece. Can you tell me about the group and your experience working with them?
We worked with the Helix Ensemble for the first time in the B Minor Mass concert last year, and they seemed to really enjoy it. They seemed to get a lot out of working with us as a Cathedral Choir and some of the players who joined us for Tobias and the Angel last June were still buzzing about the Bach. For this concert I wanted to make sure that we did a piece where they could come back and be a part of it, which is why we included Handel’s Dixit Dominus. They are a wonderful group of people to work with. There’s no sense of snobbishness or elitism with that group, it’s just about music and trying to make the music as good as possible whilst also being supportive of each other and enjoying themselves. It was great to be joined once again by John Keys (Director of Music at St Mary’s Church, in the Lace Market) on the chamber organ. We’ve worked with him quite a lot and maintain a very positive relationship with St Mary’s, which goes back to my predecessor Neil Page.
What was the thinking behind having step-out soloists from the choir for Dixit, rather than bringing soloists in like for the Bach?
Well one of the key things about the Cathedral Choir is that it’s a developing choir and we want to give our singers platforms and opportunities for them to develop as musicians. With the nature of Dixit Dominus, I thought it would be good to offer those solos to members of the choir who were singing in the concert. I was really blown away by the dedication to learning the music and wanting to work on the music before the concert to get it completely right and to do it justice. I think it’s quite nice that it’s not about ‘I’m the soloist’…there’s no ego there and we’re all working towards the same goal. I think that’s quite a nice thing and it seemed to work well with the piece because the number of solo arias is quite small.
The concert was a sell-out with lots of people buying tickets on the door for seats with no view of the choir. Why do you think people were willing to buy a ticket even though they wouldn’t necessarily see the performers?
I know just from anecdotal feedback that we had before and after the concert, that people wanted to hear Spem in Alium live, so that was quite a huge draw. I do think the reputation of the Cathedral Choir has grown quite considerably and that people thought, ‘Oh, the Cathedral Choir are doing something, let’s go and support that because it’ll be good’. I’ve seen that with a lot of the events we’ve done over the past year, like with the Cabaret, which is something completely different. But people seem to sort of trust the Cathedral Choir brand now, and know that they’re going to be in for a good evening of music, whether it be jazz and barbershop, Carols by Candlelight, which was also very busy, or this concert.
What was the biggest challenge about the whole concert?
Definitely getting Spem together. As we had people coming from all over the UK to sing in it, we couldn’t have a proper rehearsal with all 40 parts until the evening before the concert so it was quite unknown as to how it might come together, never mind whether it would work with the choirs spread around the Cathedral.
So you weren’t sure if that layout you wanted would work until you actually rehearsed it the night before the concert?
I had no idea. We had a Plan B, which I was reluctant to do, but luckily we didn’t need it!
What were the highlights of the concert for you?
The response to Spem was incredible. The applause went on for quite a long time. You could see that people were visibly moved, and then they gave us a standing ovation. It was overwhelming really, when you think, actually yeah that was something quite special. You could sense, from where I was anyway, that people were transported and were having a very rich experience, be that spiritual, musical, religious…there was a lot going on, and it reminded me why I do live music, and why I enjoy working with choirs in that building.
I was also very proud of the soloists in Dixit, particularly with some of the soloists who had come on quite a long journey in the 3-4 weeks beforehand in developing their performances and then knocking it out the park in the concert. That was really great.
The concert as a whole seemed to have quite a profound impact on people in a variety of ways. It reminded me that what we do as a Cathedral Choir is actually quite important and reaches way beyond the 11.15 Mass.
So what would you like to do next?
That would be telling! I don’t want to fall into the trap of what a lot of other choirs do and just keep doing the same standard repertoire. I’m always trying to think of new ways to do things, so if we’re going to do a standard piece of music, can we do it in a new way or can we present it in such a way that it’s giving opportunities to other people. We’ve built up some great relationships over the past few years, most notably the Nottingham Music Hub, so perhaps we can develop opportunities for young players to sit side by side with the adults, replicating what we already do with our singers in the Youth Choir. We’re in regular contact with them about how we can develop projects for the future and create further opportunities for children and young people, regardless of background, and I see our concerts playing a big role here.
Do you think that you wanting to do things in a new and interesting way, or involving other organisations, comes from your experience working for the Arts Council, or do you think it’s a more personal thing?
I think it’s always been a personal thing. I’ve always felt like an outsider when it comes to classical music, because I came to classical music via film music, which I know is frown upon by some people. I’m just passionate about music, be that film music, plainsong, Benjamin Britten, 80s pop, whatever, and I love working with people to try and make music with them, regardless of background of training. I think it’s very easy to be bogged down in the way things ‘should’ be – be that the actual music theory or the sort of social construct of concerts, which I’m quite keen to break. For me, the music is not what’s on the page but what happens in the room between people.
What are the best things about being Director of Music at Nottingham Cathedral?
To be able to work with such a wide range of people and to see how they develop over time, and to see them go off and do a varied range of things and come back to sing with us. It’s about the people. That’s at the heart of what I want to do. The set-up that we’ve got here provides a nurturing environment for people to develop as musicians and grow in confidence, and I like that we can do that whilst maintaining quite a high standard of music-making so that Masses are well served musically.