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!
How and when did you become composer-in-residence?
I’d been previously commissioned to write a setting of the Salve Regina for the Cathedral Choir in October 2016 which was recorded as part of the choir CD of Marian music last year. Upon graduating in music from University of Nottingham in July 2017, I was keen to start out as a composer and write as much music as possible for live performers. As a composer himself and having been the Cathedral’s Composer-in-Residence before he became Director of Music, Alex was extremely mindful and suggested I write some more things for the choir. I was thrilled when he offered me the official position of Composer-in-residence!
What have you been writing for us as Composer-in-Residence?
My first commission was an unaccompanied Asperges me performed in November 2017, followed by my Advent carol I sing of a maiden for soprano soloist, choir and organ accompaniment. This was the first time I’d ever written for organ so I was very grateful to have the support of our organist, Robert Gower, who gave me full feedback and answered all of my questions about pedaling! I started off 2018 with a Nunc Dimittis and shortly after chose the text Salvator Mundi to set for Passiontide. I was honoured to write not only for the main Cathedral Choir but also the Youth Choir in my Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost for Pentecost, and then to set Rupert Brooke’s text The Soldier to music and have it performed in the Festival Mass during the Nottingham Cathedral Music Festival as part of the WW1 Centenary.
What did you get out of the Composer-in-Residence experience?
Having a choir whose sound and voices I know so well allowed me to experiment a lot. The longer-term nature of my post meant I could do more than just trial and error things in a one-off project; I could develop skills I wanted to improve on, such as working on my part writing. This has definitely enhanced the context for singers who’ve generously offered me feedback; all of which has been extensively valuable.
As a composer it’s also vital to be able to write for specific conditions, so writing for live services and real performers is an unquestionably useful skill and something I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to do. For example, composing Asperges me was a very attractive exercise as I had to incorporate optional restricted length and repeats into the music in accordance with its function and place in the service.
Are you writing for other choirs and ensembles outside of the Cathedral?
This year I’ve written several pieces for the City of Bristol Choir including a piece for male voice choir, organ and harp and a Christmas carol which was accompanied by the Bristol Ensemble. I was also honoured to write a couple of pieces for the University of Nottingham’s Viva Voce and Tour Choir. More recently I’ve had a commission from the RSCM which will be featured in their 2018 Anthems for Choirs book!
What have been your musical highlights with performances of your music over the past year?
Being able to sing my Salvator Mundi and Alex’s Missa Brevis with the Cathedral Choir as part of our trip to Westminster Cathedral in July was a real privilege this year, and I was also delighted to have the Cathedral Choir’s recording of my Salve Regina played on BBC Radio 3 as part of International Women’s Day back in March. That said, I’ve been so pleased with and so grateful for every performance and rehearsal of my music this year by Alex and the choir.
What does the future hold?
In September I’ll be starting an MMus in Composition at Trinity College of Music in London where I hope to specialise in choral writing, so I’m very grateful to have had this head start as Composer-in-Residence. Moreover, I’m excited to be writing my first Missa Brevis for Nottingham Cathedral Choir, which has been commissioned specially for the 175th Anniversary of the Cathedral and will be premiered in 2019!
Highlights from William Ruff’s review of our Music Festival published in the Nottingham Post.
Just when you thought that Nottingham's musical calendar was full, along comes Nottingham Cathedral and presents an exciting new Music Festival, mixing some of the top names in the world of classical music with an array of local talent. And the centenaries which inspired last week's concerts could hardly have been more relevant and worthy of commemoration: the ending of World War One and the first steps towards giving all women the vote.
The Festival presented six concerts, as well as a special Mass featuring music exclusively by female composers. Variety was a keynote: guitarist Hugh Millington (pictured left) and soprano Grace Bale both gave solo recitals whilst all-female vocal group Papagena (pictured above) had something for everyone with their Nuns and Roses programme.
They brought equal intelligence to Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel, settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. The song cycle seems to start decisively with the music evoking the purposeful tread of the wanderer striding out on the open road. But life isn't straightforward and both singer and accompanist were at the their finest in the song Youth and Love when life's choices seemed trickier to make. Which is preferable: love and the settled life it offers or solitude and the freedom to wander? In between the Butterworth and Vaughan Williams song cycles came many surprises: none more so than Anthony Payne's setting of Adlestrop, first shimmering and then exploding with a sense of wonder at the miraculous beauty of the natural world as seen through the window of a train.
Hugely successful was the Festival's central event, Jonathan Dove's opera Tobias and the Angel, which combines musical and dramatic power to celebrate faith and the human capacity to triumph over adversity. The story features Tobit, a man who loses his sight and sends his son Tobias on an eventful journey: not only giant fishes, murderous demons and romantic encounters - but also where he discovers that a stranger who befriends him is the angel Raphael. Ensuring that everything ended happily, conductor (and Festival Director) Alex Patterson had assembled some impressive soloists (notably Wesley Biggs as Tobit and James Beddoe as his son Tobias) as well as a spectacular array of singers and instrumentalists, including Streetwise Opera, Music for Everyone and the Cathedral's own choirs. It was a joyous, uplifting occasion, inspiring for all those performing and spectating - and whetting the appetite for future Festivals.
Our Composer-in-Residence, Amy Summers, has been very busy this year writing new pieces for the Catholic liturgy - all performed for the first time at Sunday 11.15am Masses.
A new sublime setting of the Asperges Me was first performed on 5 November 2017 (also receiving numerous performances since) and a new carol, I Sing Of A Maiden, quickly followed on 10 December. 2018 has been extremely fruitful with a Nunc Dimittis on 4 February and Salvator Mundi performed on 18 March (despite the snow!) and again during this year’s Chrism Mass.
It was a real privilege to hear our recording of Amy’s Salve Regina (written way back in 2016) broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 7 March. This was part of BBC Introducing highlighting the work of female composers.
Amy continues to write for us with great aplomb and there are many new pieces in the pipeline. Both Cathedral Choirs will give the first performance of Gracious Spirit at Pentecost, Sunday 20 May. Amy is also working on a special piece for our Music Festival commemorating the centenary of World War One which will have its first performance on Sunday 10 June in our 11.15am Festival Mass alongside music solely by female composers.