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
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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).
New CD available September
Update 3/9 Nelson Mass released NOW
After introducing the public to the exquisite if esoteric world of the motets by François Couperin (NCR1384), New College Choir passes now to repertory with which we are wholly familiar: Haydn's Nelson Mass. But the unfamiliar also figures. The scoring used is Haydn's original primary-coloured orchestration for strings and trumpets. This brings to the performance an arguably more characterful sound-world than when the woodwinds are employed (after the first edition by Breitkopf & Härtel). In addition, we source the solo voices from the Choir, making the vocal ensemble fully cohesive with the chorus. This makes complete sense for the alto, tenor and bass soloists, whose technical demands are no more exacting that the chorus parts. But it raises questions for the soprano solo part, written for a singer of a very different cut. Here, New College sticks to its belief in the capacity of boys (some boys at least) to measure up to the highest demands of vocal artistry. You won't find another recording which so fully celebrates the capacity of a boys' choir to scale this particular summit.
The motet 'Insanae et vanae curae', contemporary with the Mass, and occupying the same dramatic world, is sung as an Offertory motet. The scoring of the motet has been adapted to the scoring of the Mass: woodwinds have been excised and in their place the organ (as in the Nelson Mass) provides the figurations otherwise lost.
Here is the first track: Kyrie
A new 6-part series for 2012, 'Oxford in Voice', takes a look at Oxford's world-renowned choral music-making, featuring performances and footage of New College Choir. The first film of the series, which aims "to understand what it takes to sing at a world-class level", has been released this week, and includes interviews with director Edward Higginbottom, footage of the Choir, and accompanying music taken from recent Evensongs at New College. The video is embedded below, and you can read more about the new series on the Oxford Today website.
Gramophone Magazine have reviewed our disc Exultent Superi - a recent disc of solo Couperin Motets by the Soloists of New College Oxford. Read on for the full review...
Higginbottom returns to his favoured French repertoire
Considering that in his three Lecons de ténèbres he produced an unsurpassed gem of Baroque vocal music, it is surprising that Couperin's petits motets for one or more solo voices and continuo (sometimes with violins as well) have never attracted greater interest.While they do not inhabit the same soul-searching territory - the nine works on this disc include hymns to the holy virgins Susannah and Cecilia, four elevation motets and a psalm - they show all the elegant perfection one would expect from this composer.
As Edward Higginbottom points out, their style is unmistakenly French while also being influenced by the formal balance and controlled harmonic logic of Corelli's trio sonatas. Lovers of Charpentier's powerful use of chromatic dissonance may thus find Couperin's motets comparatively polite at first but stronger acquaintance reveals that they are never routine, as well able to express the tenderness of the Elevation as the brave, manly tone of O Domine quia refugium. Domine salvum fac regem is set to a gently lilting ground bass, while Ad te levavi oculos meos, for solo bass, traverses several moods with effortless ease of movement. Seven soloists from New College Choir showcase this music with impressive ease. The star turns are some astoundingly assured and mature singing from treble Jonty Ward, delicious haute-contre work from Guy Cutting that ought to ensure interest from other Francophile ensembles, and a fine delivery of Ad te levavi from bass George Coltart, but in truth there are no weakness here, no allowances that have to be made except, perhaps, to wish for more strongly coloured French pronunciation.
An extra treat is that Higginbottom has skilfully reconstructed the missing violin parts of the otherwise unperformable Resonent organa, Ornate aras and Exultent superi, thus releasing these works to modern ears for the first time. Like the performers, they certainly merit the exposure.
Gramophone July 2012
The webcast of the service on Saturday 9 June reflects an evolving situation in the Choir's top line. As we go through the year, we can experience some attrition. This year has been no different: in Hilary Term we lost one of our five top-year trebles to voice-change. This Trinity Term we have gently lowered another year-8 chorister onto the alto line. On Saturday, two of the other three were busy revising for the Common Entrance. So our top line included only one of the remaining year-8s. Meanwhile, the Music List looked pretty daunting: Britten Hymn of St Columba, Howells St Paul's Service, and Howells Take him earth for cherishing. You can hear how these remaining trebles got on by going to the webcast. This is the moment in the year when there needs to be an entirely realistic view of what's in store for next year. Ideally, the year-8s, on the point of moving on to their new schools, should be the icing on the cake: not necessary but very welcome. This process of stepping up to the plate (if not into dead men's shoes) is the essence of a choir such as ours. At the end of this year, I am able to look forward to the next without feeling I should have taken out an insurance policy against the loss of a top line: far from being lost, our top line will be replenished on time and on target.