We are delighted to be the first to break the news of Benjamin Bloor's success at securing the organ scholarship at Westminster Cathedral. He will take up his new post in September 2014, after finishing his degree course at Oxford. Our loss will be London's gain. Those of us who have had the privilege of working with Benjy over the last few years are not in the least surprised by his success. We are delighted that he will have a wealth of new opportunities in the heart of the metropolis, and sufficiently close to Victoria Bus Station to pay us the occasional visit without too many complications.
John Tavener was a phenomenon and a half: his own life-story rich enough in interest and depth to stand by itself; his aesthetic and religious principles strong and eloquent enough to demand no further pleading. But he added to this an extraordinary canon of his own music, both telling his personal story and pronouncing his faith.
All of us have had our particular encounters with his work. Mine have not been without some bewilderment. Was it really possible to propose so little 'material' in a piece of music? Take 'The Lamb', for instance, which we all know. With its mirrored voices and retrograded melodic construction, the one idea is a mere couple of measures. This is an extreme example of conciseness, or maybe economy, but it tells us clearly of Tavener's intentions. After the 'busy-ness' of his early scores (like 'The Whale'), he thought to create a virtue out of musical inactivity. So we find space in his music, unencumbered, open, whose horizons are vast if not indeed limitless. Through ritualistic gesture, simplicity, and boldness, the transcendental and infinite come into view.
Tavener was not without his musical stubbornness and outlandish demands, otherwise he would not ask the basses in his 'Song for Athene' to spend the whole piece singing a bottom F, nor score 'Total Eclipse' for over 20 kettle drums. But these are the demands of a genius unable to work in any other fashion, and who pushed his vision to the limits of godly naivety. We could in one sense reckon him to be a minimalist, were it not for the fact that minimalists like Philip Glass sought to subvert tradition. Tavener worked within it. May he now rest in peace, within the tradition and faith of the Christian Church which he so eloquently served through his music.
Music of John Tavener recorded by New College Choir
Hymn to the mother of God
God be with us
Song for Athene
It always amazes me that we can come to the end of three days recording sessions and the roof has not fallen in, nor indeed the sky. It could so easily. (a) Whatever the time of year, someone can be ill: not so bad if an adult (replaceable), awkward if a treble (you can't ring round for another of those), and disastrous if it happens to be the leading treble soloist. Then you're completely stuck. Postponing sessions is more or less impossible given the myriad other things your singers (and their families) will have in the diary, not to mention the orchestra you have booked. (b) In live acoustics like chapels and churches you are certainly not alone: it can be an uninvited bird flapping around inside, pigeons cooing on the outside turrets, the next-door house having scaffolding erected, a farmer ploughing in an adjacent field, a nearby military airfield on exercise, unusually high winds battering windows, intense sunlight sending the chamber organ out of tune, the heating making a noise, the local council workers replacing the kerb with a stone-cutter. All this has happened to us, although you have been spared hearing it on the finished product. A fist-full of fivers is never enough to see off pigeons, though a bottle of Scotch is a currency recognised by council workmen. However, when it came to our Mozart sessions in June earlier this year, I'm delighted to say we were not menaced in this way. There was - to be sure - the odd plane, ambulance and dustbin lorry, but nothing worse. Nobody ill. And we had the most engaging music to record. The scores which Mozart wrote for Salzburg Cathedral, when he was finding conditions of work insufferable (the Archbishop having similar thoughts about his exasperating employee), reveal nothing of this (just as we reveal nothing of the ambulance siren that wrecked take 321). On the contrary, his music is uniformly sunlit, overflowing with invention and wit, inhabited by the best sort of Gemütlichkeit. It's interesting how musicians respond to these scores, which are both naif and yet highly sophisticated. It is music which pays huge dividends, and effortlessly keeps everybody fresh. We hope this all comes across in the final result - which will be yours to experience on the release in November of "W.A.Mozart: Music for Salzburg Cathedral" (Novum NCR 1388). The two main works are the Litaniae Lauretanae (K195) and the Vesperae de Dominca (K321), with the orchestral Epistle Sonata in C (K329) thrown in for good measure. Our producer thinks it might our best yet on the Novum label. Find out for yourself after 1st November! EH
_Our very talented organ scholar at New College, Benjamin Bloor, who is just going into his third year, has won a fistful of prizes from his recent FRCO examination. This is a gold-plated qualification of Music-degree standard, not for the faint-hearted. Benjamin swept the board with the Limpus, Frederick Shinn, Durrant, Harding and Samuel Baker prizes. These are for the highest marks in both the practical and the written parts of the examination over the year, and specifically also the July examination. In New College we have gotten rather used to his prowess: it's pleasing that it is recognised elsewhere. Many congratulations to Benjy!!
Charpentier has emerged from the shadows in recent times thanks to the advocacy of Les Arts Florissants, whose title indeed is taken from a work by the composer. It's tricky music to pull off, and Charpentier himself does not always make it easy. But the view that he is the most accomplished French composer of sacred music of the seventeenth century is impossible to refute. And not just because of the considerable quantity of his motets, canticles, masses, histoires sacrées, etc., but because among them are works of remarkable imagination and technical accomplishment. We have chosen three such works for this New College release (now available from our shop). The most substantial is the 'oratorio' Caecilia virgo et martyr. It recounts the sensational story of Caecilia's determination to face death rather than give in to Almachius' threats. There is a strong operatic character to the work, not only in the presence of dramatis personae, but also in the set pieces (Caecilia's pompe funèbre, and then the rejouissement surrounding her elevation to the status of martyr). The music - as befits a piece commemorating the patron saint of music - is on a lavish scale, double orchestra and double chorus. Charpentier is no slouch, even writing a concertato part for the grands jeux of the organ in the final chorus, an effect we accomplished by superimposing the sonority of the magnificent Aubertin organ of St John's Oxford (played of course a tone lower to fit the low French pitch) on the recording made in quite another place! The other two pieces are substantial motets, Conserva me Domine from the last years of Charpentier's career when he was director of music at La Sainte Chapelle, and the fantastic setting of De Profundis, written by Charpentier to mark the ceremonies surrounding the death of Marie-Thèrese, Louis XIV's queen. In both these works, Charpentier reaches a level of inspiration which places him alongside the greats of the French baroque. This recording continues the involvement of New College Choir in this tradition. EH 31.08.13
There are plenty of boys out there who enjoy a bit of dressing up and finding out what it's like to be a chorister in New College Choir!
The Chorister Open Day on Saturday 8 June attracted a wonderful turn out from families with boys aged 2 to 6, who came to sample a slice of chorister life. The director of the choir, Professor Edward Higginbottom, painted a colourful picture of the many opportunities, excitements and challenges in this unique experience. Visitors listened to the current choristers, and then joined them round the piano to sing a familiar round, 'London's Burning'. They were soon surprised to find themselves singing it in four parts!. Finding a cassock or surplice to fit was sometimes a challenge, but nothing got in the way of a spectacular procession into chapel to the sound of a burst of organ music, before singing in the choir stalls. While their parents joined a question and answer session in chapel, our younger visitors dispersed to the Cloisters for games and activities, before everyone met for tea.
Everyone seemed to enjoy their taste of New College Choir, and we look forward to spotting the choristers of the future, The next auditions, for boys then in Year 2, will be held in mid-January 2014. Anyone interested in discussing any aspect of chorister life is encouraged to contact Professor Higginbottom.
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