Michael Hurd (1928-2006)
Michael Hurd did not invent the pop cantata but he was certainly a pioneer in composing brief, witty, sometimes challenging and above all performable choral music for children to enjoy. When Jonah-Man Jazz arrived in 1966 to supplement the usual diet of sea shanties, folksongs and spirituals, young singers and their teachers had modern-sounding music to make and share. Pastiche jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll rhythms, memorable tunes and entertaining lyrics proved a winning combination. This recording is the first to be supported by the British Music Society Charitable Trust Michael Hurd Bequest, established to further an appreciation of the composer’s output.
Jonah-Man Jazz, a delightful romp, had its première in December 1966 with the boys of Bexley-Erith Technical School, under Eric J Jones. Bouncing us through the biblical tale of Jonah in just under eleven minutes, the composer noted, “There is no point in approaching the work in any other spirit than the determination to have fun.” Providing his own libretto enabled Hurd to indulge in outrageous wordplay (“Jonah had a whale of a time”) and this piece is by far his best known and most frequently performed.
Prodigal was commissioned by the South Australian Public Schools Music Society for the Adelaide Festival of 1989. Again a sparky reworking of a familiar Bible narrative, the “doo-be-doo” swing section perfectly captures the spirit and anachronistic wit of these cantatas. This commission is but one example of the performance and appreciation of Hurd’s work throughout the English-speaking world.
The story of Chanticleer, Pertelote and the cunning Fox, Rooster Rag was first performed on 2 May 1975 at the Cookham Festival. Local children were under the direction of Sara Wood, for whom the work was written. Although composed as a cantata, the piece was originally staged, evidence of the flexibility in performance of all these pieces encouraged by the composer. “The thing is to enjoy it,” he urged.
Swingin’ Samson was first performed in 1973 by the Southend Boys Choir, for whom it was written. Again drawing on familiar scripture material, this is a sprightly favourite with an acidly witty barber’s shop scene at its heart. Opening with a lively description of Samson himself, the work explains his enormous strength and outlines his prowess on the field of battle. The finale describes the Philistine’s party—set as a square dance—at the end of which Samson pulls down the whole building on their heads.
The composer notes that when the audience is invited to join in with “Weak as a kitten” they should have no trouble in picking up the melody, since memorable tunes are a conscious feature of his work for children. In the music, the composer states: “You could, of course, play safe and teach it to them before the performance, but I do not really recommend this.”
Captain Coram’s Kids
Captain Coram’s Kids was commissioned by the Heritage Education Trust and given its première on 12 November 1987 at the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall. Described as an eighteenth-century pop cantata, the piece draws material from the history of the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children most notably from The Story of the Foundling Hospital by Maureen Boyd, edited and produced (1981) by Gene Adams, Museum Adviser of the Inner London Education Authority. What might have been dryly educational stuff in less gifted hands is lively and accessible, demonstrating Hurd’s strength in writing for children without writing down to them.