Radio 3 features Course Leader's choral works
Recordings by BBC Singers to be broadcast April 11-15th
Last year I was asked by the BBC to make a selection of pieces for a ‘retrospective’ of my choral music. The performers were to be the BBC Singers, perhaps the finest professional choir in Britain, and a week was allocated for rehearsals. For me this was an exciting prospect. It was necessary that the selected pieces had all to be ‘a cappella’ compositions – that is, choral pieces that are ‘in the chapel style’ or as we would now recognise as pieces for choir alone without any accompaniment.
The earliest choral work of mine was a huge and ambitious Easter oratorio called Christus-Requiem which had involved a vast number of performers – two choruses, a children’s choir, eight solo singers and a few dramatic narrators, and a massive orchestra, all of which filled St Paul’s Cathedral in London on an evening in March 1973. From this gigantic event I had extracted a setting of the Stabat Mater, a hymn for Good Friday attributed to the 13th century poet Jacopone da Todi, and this was to be the first item in my selection – and consequently the earliest piece.
Three years later I was lamenting the death of Benjamin Britten who died early in December 1976, and in whose memory I wrote Three Motets over the following Christmas period. Britten had been an inspiration to me for many years, and was frequently a most encouraging mentor, arranging during the mid-1960s a commission which allowed me to write a Piano Concerto. These motets were first performed in Hungary under the direction of my good colleague György Gulyas and his Kodály Choir of Debrecen.
Other choral pieces followed, but the next purely ‘a cappella’ piece was a setting of another 13th century text, that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, O sacrum convivium, an antiphon to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. This was written in 1985 especially for a remarkable Estonian choir and its equally amazing conductor Tonú Kaljuste. Again it was the Latin text that was the attraction, and for me the language has an impersonal grandeur like great Greek or Roman monuments, allowing musical flexibility uninhibited by direct textural meanings and associations.
The rehearsals with the BBC Singers and their splendid conductor Paul Brough were spread over a week, and the final recording was made in St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge. It was a revelation for me, for I had not heard these pieces for such a long time and, in the case of the Stabat Mater, it had been nearly 40 years! It was difficult for me to recall quite how I had composed this music, and a strange feeling to be hearing the music so objectively, as if it had been created by someone else – but curiously, by someone whose music I very much liked! These three pieces can be heard in the week of 11th April on BBC Radio 3 during the early afternoon in a programme called ‘Afternoon on 3’, and as part of a week that specially features the work of the BBC Singers. Stabat Mater is on 11th April; O sacrum convivium on 12th; and Three Motets on 15th.
At the same sessions in London, the BBC Singers also recorded other key choral works from my catalogue. These include a Mass for Hildegard of Bingen and The Prayer of Saint Francis, a masque in five scenes for chorus and orchestra. The other pieces have not yet been scheduled, but should appear later in the spring. A further update will follow in due course.