About this Recording
8.572453 - BLAKE, H.: Passion of Mary (The) / 4 Songs of the Nativity (London Voices, Royal Philharmonic, Blake)

Howard Blake (b. 1938)
The Passion of Mary • Four Songs of the Nativity


Mary, Mother of Jesus – Patricia Rozario, Soprano
Jesus as a boy – Robert William Blake, Treble
Jesus as a man – Richard Edgar-Wilson, Tenor
Prophet/Satan – David Wilson-Johnson, Bass-baritone
London Voices

(Chorus-master: Terry Edwards)

Soloists from London Voices:
Angel – Tamsin Dalley, Contralto
Simeon – Simon Biazeck, Tenor
Elder – Richard Fallas, Baritone

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
(Leader: Duncan Riddell)
Howard Blake


Blake is mentioned in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians as having ‘achieved fame as pianist, conductor and composer’. His affinity with choral music began at the age of six as a choirboy in Brighton. The organist/choirmaster had recently retired there after having been an associate of George Thalben-Ball at Temple Church in the City of London and the choral repertoire instilled was rich and varied. Blake became lead treble, frequent soloist and at twelve assistant organist, but an equally strong pull towards concert music led him at eighteen to win a piano and composition scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Harold Craxton and Howard Ferguson. He sang tenor in the Royal Academy choir and still has fond memories of Belshazzar’s Feast, the B minor Mass and Sancta Civitas with Vaughan Williams sitting attentively in the front row. On leaving the Royal Academy a meteoric London-based composing career presented few opportunities for serious choral writing until 1971 when he moved back to the Sussex countryside in order, in the words of critic Christopher Palmer, to ‘work again at the basic pillars of harmony, counterpoint and form.’ The performance of a song-cycle Three Sussex Songs which he wrote for his distinguished neighbour Helen Watts persuaded the conductor of a local choral society to commission a cantata, The Song of Saint Francis, which shared a programme with Mozart’s Requiem in nearby Worth Abbey. Blake’s work made such a strong impression on tenor Richard Lewis that Blake was asked if he would create a major choral/orchestral work with soloist. The 65-minute dramatic oratorio Benedictus completed in 1980 featured a demanding tenor rôle and was highly acclaimed by Sir David Willcocks, who was to conduct the Tear/Bach Choir/St Paul’s choristers/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording for Sony and many subsequent performances. Blake’s skill as a choral/orchestral composer was established. In 1987 The Three Choirs Festival commissioned Festival Mass for a cappella double-choir and in 1989 Sir David himself proposed the commission of The Four Songs of the Nativity for the Bach Choir and London Brass. The première was given in St Paul’s Cathedral on 13 December 1990. Sir David had taken the choir rehearsals but at the last minute graciously and characteristically insisted that Blake himself conduct.


The Passion of Mary

Through the 1990s many new works were produced but it was a performance of Benedictus in Sherborne Abbey in 1998 that sparked off the creation of Blake’s second dramatic oratorio The Passion of Mary. The Lady Digby, president of the Summer Music Society of Dorset, asked if it might be possible for Blake to create a ‘companion piece’ to Benedictus, but with the principal protagonist a soprano soloist rather than a tenor. The idea of a Stabat Mater was suggested but whilst Blake was attracted to the idea he felt that it would be interesting to broaden the concept out into a view of the whole life of Jesus as seen purely through the eyes of Mary the Mother. A book called Mary through the centuries: her place in the history of culture was recommended to him shortly afterwards by the Canon of St Mary’s, Warwick, and this book proved to be a useful guide to existing texts. A version of the work with the title Stabat Mater was given in Sherborne in 2002 employing soprano, treble, chorus and orchestra with spoken texts, but Blake was dissatisfied with this and extended, revised and finally renamed the work in 2006. In its new (all-sung) form it calls for soprano, treble, tenor and bass-baritone soloists, chorus (with additional soloists) and orchestra. In this form it was performed in St Gorans Kyrka Stockholm in October 2007, receiving a London première on 28 October 2008 in the Cadogan Hall.

Howard Blake is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and in 1994 received the OBE for services to music. www.howardblake.com.


Four Songs of the Nativity

The medieval joy in faith finds its best expression in lyrics on the Nativity and on the role of the Virgin Mary. The ideas of unique birth and everlasting triumph over death combine to remove all darkness, so that hell is no more than a hazard which Our Lady helps us to circumvent; winter and long nights are forgotten in her magical dance song, and the middle ages’ burning sense of sin itself is lost in ecstatic rejoicing. The first song is a macaronic poem, a form of verse written in two languages, in this case English and Latin, where the Latin acts as a sort of burden to the main poem. The second song is a nativity carol, very typical of the Trouvère style, comparing the Virgin Mary to a beautiful rose. The third poem is the Virgin’s song to the Christchild, and takes an imaginative leap into the Virgin’s experience, portraying tenderness and simplicity. The final song is in fact the earliest nativity carol yet discovered in English, for it appears in a Franciscan list of sermon outlines written not later than 1350. The words of the refrain clearly convey both the probable manner of its performance and the joy of the occasion.

Brian Stone (by kind permission of Penguin Books)

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