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There is a Spirit - Music from Worcester College, Oxford

There is a Spirit - Music from Worcester College, Oxford cover picture

The Chapel Choir of Worcester College

Director: Thomas Primrose
Organ: Daniel Chambers
Ave verum corpus Andrew Gant

A Christmas Caroll Kenneth Leighton

Infant holy Polish arr. Edmund Rubbra

The child of light Robert Saxton

Missa Aedis Christi Robert Sherlaw Johnson
Agnus Dei

Psalm 150 Stephen Oliver

Let us now praise famous men Edmund Rubbra

There is a spirit Edmund Rubbra

Except the Lord build the house Edmund Rubbra

Missa brevis Kenneth Leighton

Agnus Dei

And when the builders Edmund Rubbra

A hymn to the Virgin Edmund Rubbra

A good-night Andrew Gant

Total playing time 64m 16s

There is a Spirit - Music from Worcester College, Oxford

There is a Spirit - Music from Worcester College, Oxford

Worcester is one of the oldest and prettiest Colleges in the University of Oxford. Founded as Gloucester College, a Benedictine house, in 1238, it became Gloucester Hall at the dissolution and Worcester College in 1714. Its varied history has left the College with a remarkable collection of buildings, including some of the original mediaeval Benedictine cottages alongside Wyatt’s Hall and Chapel and Hawksmoor’s magnificent library, set in landscaped grounds with a lake and the only contiguous cricket pitch in Oxford.

Worcester has a unique musical tradition. Traditionally the Fellow in Music at the College has been a composer, beginning with Edmund Rubbra, who held the position from 1947-1968, Kenneth Leighton, 1968-1970, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, 1970-1999, and since 1999 Robert Saxton. In addition to this heritage, the College Chapel uniquely maintains two choirs, a mixed choir of male and female undergraduates drawn from the College (many of them choral scholars), and a traditional Anglican-style choir with the lower voice parts sung by students, the top line by boy trebles who are pupils at the nearby Christ Church Cathedral School and hold chorister scholarships at Worcester. Each choir sings two services each week. The choirs are rehearsed and directed by the College’s two undergraduate Organ Scholars, who thus have the unique opportunity of working with both a mixed choir and an all-male choir, assisted by the Chapel Music Consultant, who is a professional musician and deals with recruitment, scholarships, and the choirs’ work away from Worcester - in recent years the choirs have sung in Norway, Sicily and Finland and given a range of concerts in the U.K. including a performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Philip Pickett’s New London Consort.

All of the College’s distinguished Music Fellows have written for the church, some at a time when this was not a fashionable pursuit for a modern composer. Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) was motivated throughout his compositional life by a deep sense of spirituality, a personal, almost mystical interpretation of Christianity (he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1948), and an abiding interest in other religions, including Buddhism and Taoism. His early composition teachers were the English mystic Cyril Scott (whose music he championed at the age of sixteen in a single-composer concert in his home town, Northampton) and Holst, his tutor at the Royal College. The influence of the modal style of the latter is easy to discern in the early choral work Dormi Jesu (1922), but equally important for Rubbra at this time was his study of sixteenth-century counterpoint with the celebrated teacher and scholar R.O.Morris. The application of ancient and technically rigorous procedures to a modern harmonic language perhaps sums up Rubbra’s compositional approach: the deepening and personalising of an existing tradition rather than the revolutionary’s attempt to destroy that tradition and start anew.

A Hymn to the Virgin is the earliest work in this programme. Composed in 1925 for the singer Joan Elwes, it is the second of three songs which form the composer’s Op. 13. Rubbra probably found the anonymous mediaeval poem in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, published just a few years earlier in 1919, and treats it to a typically elegant melody in the Aeolian mode, much in the prevailing Holstian vernacular (and beginning not dissimilarly to the setting begun by the 16-year-old Benjamin Britten on the day of his visit to the Royal College of Music a few years later). Infant Holy dates from much later in his career, 1963, and is one of a number of highly distinctive arrangements of traditional carols that Rubbra made throughout his life, in this case a Polish melody, while the Three Motets date from 1952. Written for the (Quaker) Friends’ School, Saffron Walden for its 250th anniversary celebrations, the first motet, Let us now praise famous men, takes a typically personal look at common-chord harmony, in this case over an organ pedal note (for example ending on an unresolved 3rd inversion dominant 7th), the second, There is a spirit, sets two texts, one by the Quaker writer James Nayler (1616-60), in a lyrical combination of solo and chordal choral accompaniment, and the third, Except the Lord build the house, begins with a reinvention of the Tudor composer’s favourite inverted canon, building to an impressive climax. Perhaps oddly, Rubbra’s Op. 125 setting of words from the book of Ezra, And when the builders, is the only work in this collection to have been composed for the chapel and choir of Worcester College. It is dedicated to “the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College, Oxford, on the occasion of the 250th Anniversary Commemoration” (that is, the anniversary of the refounding of 1714) and makes suitably festive use of choral writing in parallel chords in high-lying vocal registers, again using an organ pedal note to begin and end the work.

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) began his musical career as a chorister at the Cathedral in his home town of Wakefield, Yorkshire. Like Rubbra, Leighton’s music for the church seeks a personal utterance within an existing tradition, re-inventing and drawing on the resources of modal melody, imitative counterpoint and added-note triadic harmony to find a fresh voice. A Christmas Caroll of 1954, his Op. 21, is an almost symphonic setting of Herrick’s lyric, showing the composer to have as natural feel for the expressive possibilities of the English language, particularly Elizabethan English, as any of his contemporaries. Missa brevis was composed for the choir of Liverpool Cathedral in 1968, and again shows the composer rethinking traditional techniques (the opening of Lord have mercy is a canon at the interval of a minor third) and wringing tremendous variety of rhythm and texture from the four and five-part a cappella scoring.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson (1932-2000) is the first of this group of composers to have had the opportunity to study abroad, in Paris, where he had composition lessons from the celebrated Nadia Boulanger and attended Messiaen’s classes. Like Rubbra a devout Catholic, he combined this spirituality with a passion for mathematics, computers, bell-ringing and electronic music (he introduced the electronic music studio to the Music Faculty at Oxford University), and was a tireless champion and performer of new music, particularly that of his teacher Messiaen, whose piano music he recorded and about whom he wrote a definitive book in the 1970s. For all that, his sacred choral music shows little interest in playing the avant-garde iconoclast. Kyrie eleison from the Missa Aedis Christi, uses a plainsong melody, Rex Genitor, entirely in the Myxolydian mode much as Rubbra had done, clothed in inversion, canon and parallel bare 5th harmony like a hieratic, atavistic evocation of a mediaeval world of sound and faith. The composer’s son Austin recalls the genesis of the work: “My father mentions working on a "Worcester Mass" in a document from '90/'91 - the work was originally intended for Worcester College Choir but proved too difficult for them and that's why it became Missa Aedis Christi” [i.e. Christ Church Mass]. The Mass was first performed by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 18th February 1993. Stephen Darlington, the conductor on that occasion, recalls “Robert approached me when it became clear that the work was too difficult for Worcester choir to take on and I readily agreed to perform it. It was extremely well received.” The current Worcester choir is proud to be able to restore this fine work to the home its composer intended it to have. Austin Sherlaw Johnson refers to a striking feature of the writing for voices: “I remember my father saying to me that in the Sanctus the lower voices are imitating an effect he heard on a recording of some Eastern church where the men chanted ad lib. - my mother recalls my father playing her this recording and I think it is an effect he tried to reproduce in a few works from this period (and later). My mother and I remember him trying this out at Spode Music Week once with the lower voices just improvising but this didn't work; hence the complex notated version as in the Sanctus here.” This Sanctus perhaps reveals some influence of the composer’s work with electronics: the Dorian mode is allowed to swirl and swim in four rhythmically free parts for tenors and basses under a floating tune for sopranos, similar to the manipulation of sound by a computer and interestingly foreshadowing the techniques applied to writing for choir by later composers like Jonathan Harvey.

There is a genealogy of composers here. Stephen Oliver (1950-1992) studied at Worcester College as an undergraduate, having composition lessons with both Kenneth Leighton and Robert Sherlaw Johnson. He composed music at a phenomenal speed and produced a vast output- some forty operas in twenty years as well as music for television, film and many other mediums. This setting for two-part upper voices and organ shows his fluency and professionalism to great effect.
Robert Saxton (b.1953) began composing as a child, and after early advice from Benjamin Britten continued his studies with Elisabeth Lutyens, with Robin Holloway at Cambridge, with Robert Sherlaw Johnson at Worcester College, and with Luciano Berio. The Child of Light was composed in 1985 for The Chester Book of Carols, and sets the composer’s own poem describing how the shepherds journey to Bethlehem and achieve the wisdom of the Magi. Their plodding steps are heard in the insistent pedals of the organ, over which the voices, at first wordless, weave a series of modal canons at various pitches in elegant, vocally grateful lines which reach a glorious climax when they converge with the clusters of the organ part at the work’s conclusion. Modes, pedals, a sensitivity to the human voice, the English language and the liturgy, a willingness to restrain modernist utterance in favour of directness and simplicity: there is a family tradition in the work of these Worcester composers as there is in English music generally throughout the period.

Andrew Gant (b.1963) is the current Chapel Music Consultant at Worcester. Ave Verum was composed in 1995. A good-night was written in memory of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and sung at morning service in the Chapel Royal on Easter Day 2002, the day after Her Majesty’s death. The still point around which the piece turns is another pedal tone- a continuous E in the alto part.

This music is part of a tradition. Services in Worcester College Chapel are open to the public, and listeners are welcome to join us. For times, music, and information about membership of the College choirs, please see the Chapel's new website.

Andrew Gant
with thanks and acknowledgement to: Stephen Darlington,
Robert Saxton, Austin Sherlaw Johnson and Adrian Yardley

Thomas Primrose

Tom Primrose received his first musical training as a chorister at St. Peter and Paul, Chingford (London), and later, at the age of fourteen, was appointed Assistant Organist there, as well as Director of Music at All Saints, Chingford.

In 2003 he was awarded an organ scholarship to Worcester College, reading for a BA in Music. As Senior Organ Scholar, Tom is responsible for directing the Mixed Choir, as well as training and directing the boy-choristers, and the choirs have toured to Norway, Sicily, and Finland under his direction.

Tom studies the organ with David Titterington, and is an Associate member of the Royal College of Organists.

Recorded in the Chapel of Worcester College, Oxford on 3rd, 4th and 5th December 2005 by kind permission of the Provost and Chaplain

Produced by Andrew Gant and Jonathan Arnold
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews
Recording Assistant: Andrew Bell