The Choir's centenary recording has been awarded the prestigious
Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik.
In the words of the jury:
"If it did not have such ominous connotations of something overly slick and tedious, there would be only one word for this edition of Benjamin Britten’s spiritual choral music: flawless. Under its conductor Edward Higginbottom, the Choir of New College Oxford – a boys’ choir of an exceptional standard – sings not only with instinctive beauty, but also with a lyrical impetus which allows the music itself to breathe. Represented are, amongst others, such wonderful a cappella works as the exultant ‘Hymn to St. Cecilia’, the profoundly intoxicating ‘Ceremony of Carols’, the spirited ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ and the entrancing Missa Brevis in D. Once again, Britten’s talent for composing in a grandiose bel canto style without losing harmonic and contrapuntal charm shines through. For fans of choral music and those in search of religious choral writing, this recording is essential – though for the latter it sets a high bar!" (Für die Jury: Wolfram Goertz) Translation: Sasha Ockenden
New College Choir does not climb any bell towers on May morning, or ascend any ladders on Ascension Day (though we have a recent tradition of climbing the Garden Mound at the end of the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist). However, recently, and celebrated again this year, we have restored a tradition associated with Ascension Day which probably has its origins pre-Reformation and lasted 'till the Presbyterian Times totally abolished it'. This is the tradition described by Anthony Wood (17C Oxford antiquarian):
On the Day of Ascension, or Holy Thursday, the Fellows of New College, after their grave and wonted Manner, early in the Morning used to walk to Bartholomew’s; where they entered the Chapel (being ready decked and adorned with the seasonable Fruits of the Year) and being seated, the Chaplain of this Place used more anciently to read a Psalm and Chapter allotted for the Day. This ended, the Fellows sung an Hymn or Anthem of 5 or 6 Parts, then the second Lesson was read; after which, another Hymn sung, or else a Collect for the Day, consisting of as many Parts.– Then they went up to the Altar, where stood a Vessel decked with Tuttyes, and therein offered a Piece of Silver, to be divided among the poor Men. The Chapel Service or Ceremonies ended, they walked in Procession to a Well, called Stockwell, at the Upper-end of the Grove adjoining (which, with the Way from the Chapel thereto, used anciently to be strewed with Flowers;) where being fixt, after an Epistle and Gospel, as was sometimes used, they in the open Place, like the ancient Druids, echoed and warbled out from the shady Arbours harmonious Melody, consisting of several Parts, then most in Fasion.– But for several Times, about 24 Years ago,they commonly sung an Oriana, or else one of Mr. J. Welby’s Songs of 5 Parts, beginning thus, “Hard by a Chrystal Fountain, &c.” which done, each Man departed home.
The Bartholomew's Chapel referred to here stands at Bartlemas, a tiny cluster of ancient buildings lying off the Cowley Road, midway between Oxford and Cowley village (as it was). On Ascension Day morning this year, it was to this spot that the Choir repaired, early enough in the morning to be a surprise to some clerks, but bright enough to elicit enthusiasm for the novelty of it all. We duly sang a short office in the exquisite chapel (with the East window bursting with morning light), and made our procession to the Well, at the top of the Oriel playing field. We were looking rather for a Spring, and in the wet season you could indeed find some water seeping out of the ground, if not bubbling. Little sign of it however on our bright if blowy Ascension Day morning. Unperturbed, we sang 'Now is the month of maying', a jollier number than Morley's calculated 'Hard by the crystal fountain'. The procession was led by pipe and fiddle, and we strewed the route with flowers as tradition demanded. Plenty of curious onlookers turned out to witness this spectacle: curious and genial. A champagne breakfast concluded the proceedings, this a strictly 21st-century tradition.
There's more to California than the cattle, that's safe to say. In fact there is everything, in a state boasting the world's ninth (or twelfth... depending on what you read) richest economy. New College was there for Holy Week, based at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, moving on to Stanford for a few days, before travelling east to Tulsa and Dallas. But no amount of money would buy the friendship and hospitality we received, from the parents of choristers at Grace Cathedral, the Ragazzi Boys Chorus (based in Palo Alto), and the parishioners of the Methodist Church, Boston Avenue in Tulsa and those of the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The abiding memory of the tour is the endless trouble our hosts went to to make us feel comfortable and welcomed. We also got a warm welcome from Kevin Fox's Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, who served us the best beef burgers we have ever tasted - getting back to those Californian cattle - sourced from the historic ranch of one of their parents. The musical memories that will remain with us are the performance of the Allegri Miserere at Grace Cathedral with the solo quartet in the 'West' gallery, the combined choirs singing the Easter Day Eucharist with the brass of the San Francisco Symphony (including an exhilarating Langlais Messe Solennelle), Britten sung in the marvellous acoustic of the Memorial Church on the Stanford Campus, and concerts in two other magnificent spaces in Tulsa and Dallas. In the middle of this we performed Bach's St John Passion in Grace Cathedral on Good Friday, with the solo arais all drawn from the Choir (in true 18th-century manner), with Rufus Müller - alumnus of the Choir - singing the Evangelist from memory (the French would say 'chapeau'; not sure what the Germans would say . . . ). California has possibly the strongest boychoir traditions in the USA, with the Cathedral Choir, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the Ragazzi Boychoir, and Kevin's Pacific Boychoir Academy. American parents are very keen on these experiences for their children, knowing them to be good for both sides of the brain. They also offer great opportunities for travel, as we were finding. We visited a fair amount of San Francisco, including a boat trip in the Bay (when our pasty British faces were somewhat surprised by the intensity of the sunshine), trips to Point Reyes, the Moss Beach Marine Reserve, redwoods in the hills that divide Pacific and Bay sides of the peninsula, and of course a baseball game (Stanford v Berkeley). We got also to see the de Young Museum and the American Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park, in Tulsa the remarkable Philbrook Museum, and on our trip from Tulsa to Dallas the Cowboy Museum outside Oklahoma City, a Michelin three-star stop in my book. At times we had to remind ourselves that our primary purpose in travelling nearly 6000 miles was to sing. This of course we did, and it was good to hear the Choir on such excellent form. With all the distractions of touring, new time-zones, new hosts, new sights and sounds, it is not always easy to perform at one's best. But that could not be said of this tour. Our audiences were highly complimentary, and we felt that we had provided them with a memorable experience. Undertaking a trip like this, with huge travel costs, is a considerable financial undertaking. The American Friends of New College have very generously offered to make good the planned deficit, and indeed have made the whole thing possible. A big thank-you to them, and to all our friends in the USA who facilitated our stay, and made us so welcome. In particular to Dr Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral (and former Dean of Chapel at New College) whose initial idea it was to get us out to San Francisco, and did so much to make it possible, not forgetting the work of Lawrence Thain, Assistant Organist at Grace (and former organ scholar at New College) who made sure that everything in San Francisco was carefully planned to make our visit unforgettable! EH
On Tuesday 5 March, the Choir broadcast a concert live from New College Chapel of French baroque music for Radio 3's Baroque Spring
. Amongst other things we had to get our tongues around a French vernacular Latin pronunciation. This is generally thought these days to be 'a good thing'. We enjoy doing it (or trying to do it), but it is demanding when choristers have to be Italians one day (Palestrina, Sicut cervus
), French the next (Charpentier, De profundis
), and Germans a third (Bach, Magnificat
), not to mention what we might be doing as Englishmen singing Tallis and Byrd. There is one thing you can be sure of, and it's this: Latin was sung in a vernacular pronunciation for many centuries before the early twentieth-century Papal edict that it should follow Italian pronunciation. Whatever the centralising virtue of this decree, it overturned a long-established acceptance of local speech habits. And we can be sure that if (rather than when) Purcell's Jehova quam multi sunt
was sung in the Royal Chapel at Versailles in the 1680s, the French would not have struggled to pronounce its text in a fashion understandable in Whitehall, any more than the singers at Somerset House would have struggled to give a motet by Charpentier a Parisian accent. In fact, it would be perfectly historical to propose that a foreign choir retain its speech characteristics. The bien-pensants will always object to this, arguing that the very essence of the music depends on the timbrel inflections of a particular speech quality. Nobody can be absolutely right about this. Meanwhile, it is striking just how accessible French baroque music has become. Once a backwater, the preserve of musicologists, it is now pretty mainstream. It requires the right treatment. Where you may manhandle Handel, and still come away with something, the same is not true for the French baroque repertory. This has given it a reputation for being flimsy and fragile, the preserve of connoisseurs. It is none of these things, as I hope our programme displays.
For the next seven days you can hear the broadcast again on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r0zdy
We launched our Britten recorded anthology at a Chapel Concert in January. It was good to re-visit this music in a live performance, and to allow an audience to be totally immersed in Britten’s extraordinary world. The March/April edition of Choir and Organ has made the recording its ‘star review’. Philip Reed concludes: “A first-rate release to kick start the Britten centennial year and a fine addition to New College’s own recording label. Not to be missed.” The journey of our recording has led to some fresh insights. One of them is the use of parody in Britten’s church music. A work we had not previously encountered - before putting together our track list - is Britten’s Venite in C. It was never published in the composer’s lifetime. Clearly it is the missing link in the other C major settings that constitute the canticles for Matins (the Te Deum and Jubilate Deo). These last two come from different ends of Britten’s composing career, the Te Deum, written for St Mark’s North Audley Street in London in 1936, and the Jubilate for St George’s Windsor in 1961. Different eras and very different places - an ordinary London parish, and a grand royal chapel. But Britten didn’t behave ‘grandly’ in his Jubilate. He wrote a work which the then organist of St George’s, the redoubtable Sir William Harris, thought insufferably jolly. That was typical of Britten: his church music is not ‘churchy’ in the least, and often surprisingly unchurchy. The rodeo that is the ‘Thou art the king of glory’ in the Festival Te Deum, or the muttering menace of the Hymn of St Columba, are two cases in point. Another is the lost but now found Venite, whose idiom cannot really be considered as anything other than a dig at Anglican chant. Britten clearly never got to love Anglican chant, and here he parodies it, although I think rather more in friendly than destructive terms, nevertheless aping the reciting note, the sometimes vertiginous switches of harmony after the first barline, and the role of the organ in getting things back on track. It was written for St George’s Chapel, to keep the Jubilate company. But Harris never performed it: far too close to the bone! That said, the piece has a peculiar beauty, a strangeness that is genuinely appealing. It gives an unusual twist to our expectations of what we might hear at the beginning of Matins. And that’s Britten’s genius: he bites back when you’re not expecting it.
BENJAMIN BRITTEN: THE SACRED CHORAL MUSIC
2 CD anthology by New College Choir launches celebration of Britten's centenary
Click here to order from our shop.
The discs are being despatched from the factory on Monday. Orders placed by Tuesday 18 should arrive by Christmas Day. We will continue to post orders off until 5pm on Friday 21 December.
Some thoughts on the news (Daily Telegraph and BBC Today programme) that children are experiencing puberty earlier and earlier.
The point (measured in age) when a boy's voice changes, from its piping treble to something else, has not always been the same. In fact, over the centuries it has changed dramatically. De Bacilly ('Remarques curieuses sur l'art de bien chanter', 1668) describes, among other voice types, the boy soprano. He concludes by regretting its passing between the ages of 15 to 20! Bach routinely used boy sopranos (and altos) into their late teens. The song 'Sweet Polly Oliver' (current in the 18th century, if not before) describes a girl's enlisting in the army, and passing herself off as a young man. How could that be? Not so far-fetched as you might think, since all those raw male teenage recruits would still have had their piping trebles, not a hair on their chins. At the beginning of the 20th century, trebles in the UK stopped singing the top line around the age of 16. These days it's variable: I have known boys become baritones at 11, and also continue as trebles until 15 and beyond. It always has, I think, been a moveable feast. For instance, Henry Purcell experienced voice-change at 14 (in the 1670s). At New College, in the top year of the Choir (at which point boys have their thirteenth birthday), there is generally one of the four going through voice-change, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.
The length of a New College choristership is timed to allow each boy to begin his next school before his fourteenth birthday. None in our stalls is older than thirteen, as a matter of course. So we don't feel too menaced by early voice-change. It is sufficient to have the year below hard on the heels of the top year, and also to start a whole year earlier with the probationers, thereby opening the window at the front end of the training process. Is there any age before which vocal training could not be started? I sense that at New College we can continue to aspire to excellent standards of singing and musicianship within the age-window we still have. What has obviously changed is that these trebles of 12 and 13 years are - relative to seventeen or eighteen year-olds - small in stature. Their vital capacity is less, their lung capacity less. So what they give us is going to be different. But it need not be less striking and satisfying than in the past.
At all costs, whatever the future brings, there is nothing we can do to arrest the development of boys. I had wondered for a time whether to persuade all my trebles onto a vegetarian diet, only to have the only boy already a vegetarian experience voice-change well before any of his peers! We could blame the hormone-rich dairy products, and we could certainly blame the parents (since there is a strong genetic component). It would however be tricky to audition the parent rather than the child! If the time does come when we have boys of 10 singing bass (or tenor), we will have to roll up our sleeves and give them our support. The crucial thing is to keep children singing, and singing really well.
The Benjamin Britten centenary has begun. We kick start the celebrations with a 2 CD set of his sacred music. Our recording contains everything you might expect, and more; from Rejoice in the Lamb to the Missa Brevis, via some rarities such as Whoso dwelleth and Venite exultemus in C. It is the most comprehensive collection of his sacred music to appear, recorded by the type of ensemble Britten had in mind when writing. The collection reveals an astonishing range of approaches to church music; his contribution really stirred things up in what was quite a conservative world. New College made some of the earliest Britten recordings in the 1960s under Sir David Lumsden, and has since those times retained a lively interest in his repertory. In addition to performances of great zest and colour, the release includes comprehensive notes on the music by world-leading expert, Christopher Chowrimootoo, and a personal introduction from James Bowman, whose illustrious career spanned a time singing alto in New College Choir as well as close collaborations with Britten himself.
The sessions for the recording were held over two years, and so the recordings features two-years' worth of choristers and clerks. It is certain to become an important contribution to our appreciation of Britten's sacred music, in a sound-world absolutely matched to his expectations and wishes.
How long does it take to get a choir going in the new academic year? Last summer, our five top trebles sauntered off (with their various music awards) to their new schools, three still with plenty of treble headroom. Then one alto, two tenors and three basses escaped, though we managed to claw a bass back. Out of some 30 voices that's a third, and an important third (the guys we lose are those who have learnt the ropes). Amazingly enough, the Choir can fly with an engine or two down, and does so for a couple of weeks as air worthiness is regained. Then it's back to normal: 30 voices singing as though they had been doing so for years. New College Choir at least is built on the personalities and aptitudes of individuals, and when these change so to an extent does the character of the Choir. So, here we are with the class of 2012, a strong set of leading trebles, and exciting potential in the lower voices.
Recently we have been sharing our experiences with other constituencies - in early October with the Warwickshire Youth Choir, an initiative of Garry Jones to get young tenors and basses involved in choral activity; a week later with the much younger set of boys from year 2 of New College School, whose imagination might be fired by joining in our evensong; and the week after that with the maîtrise of Metz Cathedral. With them we sang a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by Charles Gounod, and of course Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine. I have to say, their French pronunciation was even better than ours. Three very different constituencies, but all three fitting very naturally within the dimension of our chapel and our work.
One thing becomes very clear on these occasions: it's not the raw talent alone of our singers that makes New College Choir special; it is also, and decidedly, a regime with a sufficient critical mass of choral activity. It's that which allows us to get up to speed within two weeks. EH
Ben Bloor, our second-year organ scholar at New College, has just distinguished himself by winning the first prize at this summer’s Northern Ireland International Organ Competition. Speaking after the competition the Chair of the Jury, international organist, Kimberly Marshall, Goldman Professor of Organ at Arizona State University said: "The standard of the organists in the senior class was very impressive. The Jury voted unanimously for Ben Bloor as winner. He is an outstanding player and a versatile musician." This is the programme he played which so impressed the jury:
Prelude in E minor BWV 548 - J.S. Bach
Canonic Study in Ab - Robert Schumann
Scherzo from Symphonie No. 2 - Louis Vierne
Finale from Fiesta - Iain Farrington
At New College we have become accustomed to Ben’s unflappable accuracy and musical poise. He is 100% reliable in the loft. He is reading Music, and achieved a first in his first-year examination. A man to watch! You can follow him more closely on www.benbloor.com.
As a result of the competition, Ben will be coming somewhere near you over the next 12 months to give a recital: Cambridge (Trinity College), London (Westminster Abbey), Belfast (St Anne’s), Dublin (Christ Church), and St Alban’s (Abbey).