Heaven full of Stars
Throughout the 40 years of our music making, the performance of contemporary sacred (particularly, but also secular) choral music has been central to the choir’s existence, flowing through its veins like lifeblood. So, when it came to settling on an idea for a 40th Anniversary recording, the choice of a collection of anthems by (mostly) living composers was a natural and obvious one.
In recent years, by chance, we have sung a number of anthems with a star-based theme (for example, Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seven stars), and we expanded this idea to investigate other starry motets. The decision was not so much what we could fill an album with, more what we had to leave out, such was the breadth of suitable repertoire. (With apologies to those wonderful composers who missed out – we could have filled two albums!)
In the end, we kept the choice mainly to British composers, though we couldn’t resist Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque and some beautiful offerings from two Latvian composers, Ešenvalds and Dubra. We were keen to have a representation of women composers as well, so we picked three wonderful pieces by Judith Weir, Roxanna Panufnik and Cecilia McDowall. We also enjoyed selecting works that required other instruments – you will hear an exquisite cello solo and a radiant bell in Bob Chilcott’s Lovely tear of lovely eye and the ethereal sound of wine glasses (water-filled!) being played in Stars.
The star-themed link to many of the anthems will be obvious, to other pieces perhaps less so; some you might think tenuous; some have no link at all, but we loved some anthems so much we couldn’t bear not to let them feature. We believe there is a huge variety and plenty that will appeal to all tastes. We really hope you enjoy listening to our performances as much as we enjoyed recording them.
We are proud of what we have achieved over 40 years, for the contribution we have made to the choral repertoire through our many commissions and our unwavering dedication to the promotion and performance of contemporary music. We sincerely hope this recording reflects that commitment.
1 Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977): Stars (2011)
Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 2011 to 2013 and now teaches at the Latvian Academy of Music. He was commissioned to write Stars by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists and Salt Lake Choral Artists in 2011 setting words by the American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sara Teasdale. Ešenvalds has used her lyric poems on several occasions; here she muses with awe on the beauty of the night sky. Her lovely words are accompanied throughout by tuned wine glasses whose eerie sounds seem to come from and return to nothingness.
2 Jonathan Dove (b. 1959): Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995)
After studies in Cambridge, Jonathan Dove worked extensively with singers in a variety of roles and so choral music has been central to his output. He is particularly known in the UK for his involvement in many collaborative community opera projects. Seek him that maketh the seven stars was commissioned by the Friends of the Royal Academy of Arts for their annual service for artists. The anthem begins with a musical image of the night sky, a repeated organ motif of twinkling stars that sets the choir wondering who made them, initially cautiously and then increasingly urgently. The piece starts in devotional longing, swelling periodically into seraphic chords and is eventually released into a joyful dance, finally coming to rest in serenity.
3 Ēriks Ešenvalds: O salutaris hostia (2009)
This full-choir version of Aquinas’s hymn for the Feast of Corpus Christi was originally scored for female voices. It is a meditative piece which never gets particularly loud, suitable for adoration of the blessed sacrament, the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ in Christian belief. The quiet chords sung by the choir provide the foundation for the glorious soprano soloists’ duet. Their voices, high above the rest of the choir, weave in and out of each other, sometimes together in harmony, sometimes echoing each other, to make a gorgeous, prayerfully ecstatic whole.
4 Patrick Gowers (1936–2014): Viri Galilæi (1987)
Patrick Gowers was well known in his native UK for his television and film music, and that ability to paint vividly in music is evident in this dramatic anthem for Ascension. The composer’s instructions are that the opening organ should sound glittering and bell-like: the listener is called to attention for the ensuing overlapping ‘alleluias’ which build up as if sung by an angelic host. (These and the pianissimo figure played on the trumpet stop on the organ at the beginning of the piece were sampled by Björk in Unison on the 2001 album Vespertine.) Gowers’ ethereal chords narrate the disciples’ wonder and gradually the music blossoms into a glorious, majestic hymn of praise, positively galloping off the page. The piece eventually subsides back into the more reflective mode of the beginning. The organ has been overdubbed on this recording.
5 Philip Stopford (b. 1977): Ave Maria (2017)
Philip Stopford’s musical education includes having been a chorister at Westminster Abbey and organ scholar at Keble College Oxford. Since 2016 he has been director of music at Christ Church Bronxville, but it was when he was filling that same role at St Anne’s Cathedral Belfast that he wrote this Ave Maria. Originally scored for the men’s voices of the choir there, the two soprano lines were added a year later when the work was sung at a joint advent carol service of the choir of St Anne’s and its sister cathedral St Peter’s. This version in fact starts with tenors and basses singing the beautiful flowing melody in unison and the tune then passes round the choir with harmonies added. Although essentially uplifting in mood with a soaring soprano line, the introduction of unexpected flattened notes lends a greater reflective emphasis, appropriate for the words of this prayer familiar to Catholics the world over.
6 Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951): Aurea luce (2010)
In 2017 Cecilia McDowall was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music, an accolade which firmly establishes her among the best writers of contemporary liturgical music. Her strong sense of rhythm, such as in the repeated quaver motif in the organ and the irregular interjections from the choir, and her expressive, sonorous lyricism are both very much in evidence in Aurea luce. It was commissioned and first performed by the choir of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, setting words said to be by Elpis, the first wife of 6th-century Roman senator and philosopher Boethius. She wrote this hymn for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, celebrating the beauty of the Roman sunrise and Rome as a city made truly imperial red-purple by the blood of martyrs. McDowall’s setting does justice to both these aims, combining a sense of joy with moments of reflection.
7 Rihards Dubra (b. 1964): O crux ave (1994)
Rihards Dubra is a Latvian composer whose output all has spiritual roots, most of it overtly sacred. Dubra believes that music’s main purpose is to affect the hearer through the emotions, seeking to do this with musical simplicity rather than technical fireworks. This brief and exquisitely formed motet achieves this perfectly: the first line is repeated at the end with no embellishment, encasing the inner lines of verse. The whole is a calm and reflective setting of this hymn of adoration of the cross, such as might have originally been intended to be sung in the Good Friday liturgy in Christian worship.
8 Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968): Deus est caritas (2017)
Roxanna Panufnik is a prolific composer for a wide range of types of ensembles and forms, including opera and film music as well as works for choirs. Deus est caritas was commissioned for the choir of Peterborough Cathedral by one of their lay clerks, Marius Carney, in memory of his parents. Panufnik said of this piece that ‘Marius asked for “profound joy”; I hope I’ve managed to convey this with bright and vivacious harmonies and church peals.’ It sets words from the first letter of John in the New Testament focussing on the loving nature of God.
9 Will Todd (b. 1970): Christ is the Morning Star (1995)
Will Todd’s oeuvre encompasses choral works large and small, opera, musical theatre and orchestral pieces, as well as jazz compositions and chamber works. Jazz influences can often be heard in Todd’s music and this work is no exception, with dense chordal writing embedded in the repeated motifs. The effect is one of radiance: the morning star rises in our minds’ eyes. The text, originally chosen to set for a wedding, is paraphrased from one of the Venerable Bede’s prayers which appears on the wall above his tomb in Durham Cathedral, in Todd’s native city.
10 John Rutter (b. 1945): For the beauty of the earth (1980)
A prolific composer of sacred choral music since his days as a student at Cambridge, John Rutter needs little introduction to anglophone aficionados of choral music. He returned to Clare College, Cambridge to be its director of music, later founded the Cambridge Singers and is now one of the most famous choral composers, arrangers and conductors worldwide. This deceptively simple setting of the popular eucharist hymn features a flowing melody initially sung in unison. When the harmonies appear they are unfussy and the composer instructs the accompaniment to be played ‘happily’. That and the several upward modulations do indeed convey joy in and thanks for creation.
11 Paul Mealor (b. 1975): Ave maris stella (2013)
Paul Mealor was thrust into the limelight when his motet Ubi caritas was sung at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and he has since become one of the most performed living composers. As a boy in Wales he studied with William Mathias and is now professor of composition at the University of Aberdeen. His choral music tends to be measured, calm and ethereally beautiful and Ave maris stella is no exception. The text is a hymn from the Office of Vespers to Mary, the Mother of God, and as it describes her as star of the sea it has often been used to seek her protection for travellers, particularly sailors. Mealor starts and ends his setting with female voices only, emphasising the ethereal nature of the music, and while the piece does reach fff, it nevertheless retains a sense of peaceful calm.
12 Judith Weir (b. 1954): Two Human Hymns – No. 2. Like to the falling of a star (1994)
Judith Weir studied with John Tavener at school and continued her studies at Cambridge. She is the first female composer to hold the position of Master of the Queen’s Music. This charming piece is one of a pair which the composer calls Two Human Hymns, both setting texts by 17th-century English poets, which although clearly relating to Christian beliefs, could be applied to all human experience. Weir sees these words as resembling a Calvinist sermon: the hearer is uplifted by the beauty of creation and then reminded, perhaps crushingly, of their sinful destructive place in the world. She perfectly captures the beautiful image of a falling star which starts the work’s optimistic account of the wonders of nature, but the music reaches, in the composer’s words ‘an almost operatically sinister denouement’, descending in pitch and volume, echoing the descent all doomed sinners must make in the belief system of a 17th-century preacher.
13 Eric Whitacre (b. 1970): Lux aurumque (2000)
Eric Whitacre studied at The Juilliard School in New York and has since become one of the most successful composers working today; his innovations such as the virtual choir have helped the world’s music lovers take him to their hearts and provided an unexpected blueprint for music making at home during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020. This simple but beautiful poem encapsulates in almost haiku form the singing of angels at the birth of Jesus. Whitacre takes these words, now rendered into Latin, and enables us through his music to envisage and experience the peaceful but ecstatic prayerful atmosphere. The composer is clear that the key to this piece is a simplicity of approach; so from the opening burgeoning chords from which rises exquisitely a solo soprano voice, to the final intense ppp note in the sopranos held for eleven bars while the rest of the choir provides stabilising chords beneath, the harmonies shimmer and glow like the gold and light described in the poem.
14 Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962): Creator of the stars of night (2000)
Gabriel Jackson has had a long association with Vasari Singers and this piece encapsulates perfectly features of his choral music which are both familiar to and beloved of the choir. A rising melody embellished with grace notes starts in the soprano line over a single held note in the tenors; as this piece was commissioned for the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh it is difficult not to hear the influence of traditional Scottish music. By the time the organ enters with fast, high, sparkling arpeggios, the choir has swelled to a glorious hymn of praise, subsiding eventually to a reprise of the beautiful opening motif, this time the concluding word ‘Amen’ sung by a solo soprano over a denser ethereal, drone-like chord shared by the three lower voices.
15 – 18 Bob Chilcott (b. 1955): Salisbury Motets (2009)
Bob Chilcott has always been immersed in the UK’s choral tradition having been a chorister and choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, and a member of the King’s Singers for 12 years, before turning to composition full time in 1997. The four motets which make up this set are taken from his substantial sacred work, the Salisbury Vespers, which was premiered in 2009 with 500 singers from seven Salisbury choirs, the conducting being shared at either end of the nave by the cathedral organist, David Halls and Jeremy Backhouse. The motets are settings of Marian texts, reflecting the dedication of Salisbury Cathedral to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first is a Christmas text from the 15th century, and the second, which tells of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, sets a 16th-century text by Johannes Eccard translated by the 19th-century cleric John Troutbeck. The third is a 14th-century contemplation on Christ’s Passion, and the last is a song of praise to Mary taken from the Sarum Rite, a 1516 liturgy.