For the second time in recent weeks I have been a little disappointed
when a CD arrived on my doorstep. I had glanced at the title
of this present offering and was delighted to see that a new
recording of A Garland for the Queen was on offer. However,
it is in fact a re-issue of an old Gamut CD from the early nineteen-nineties.
There is nothing wrong with programme, the performance or the
sound quality, however it may catch a few people out. The presentation
of the disc and the liner-notes is totally different. The clue,
I guess is in the record label – HERITAGE: this suggests old
material, re-presented. However, if the CD is sealed, there
is nothing to tell the potential purchaser that it is a re-release.
I have long been an enthusiast of A Garland for the Queen,
in spite of the fact that it is conventionally regarded as being
a generically substandard work from its ‘composer collective’.
Perhaps this view is best summed up by Felix Aprahamian writing
in the Sunday Times (7 June 1953) ‘Ten distinguished native
composers contributing ... have shown happier discrimination
in their choice of notes .... those with the best chance of
survival are ... the more ... harmonically harmless settings
by Bax, Ireland and Vaughan Williams.’
The Garland was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great
Britain, to celebrate the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth
in 1953. One wonders if that ‘quango’ would be active in anything
so ‘establishment’ in our age? The ten poets and ten composers
were bidden to create settings for mixed voices. The idea was
to craft a 20th century ‘replica’ of the famous The
Triumphs of Oriana (1601) which was presented to Queen Elizabeth
I. The present series of songs is not a parody of the earlier
cycle but it is certainly influenced by it. The madrigal is
a creative inspiration for both of these composite pieces.
Interestingly, there is another exemplar, which did not have
such an influence and that was the Choral Songs in Honour
of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, which were published in 1899
to celebrate that Queen’s eightieth birthday.
Nigel Dodd, writing in the liner-notes for the competing Priory
recording of this work suggests that although, ‘the content
of many of the poems is forward-looking, the style of several
of the songs [music] is much more conservative.’ It is a good
summary of the overall effect of this work.
All of these ten songs offer challenges to the singers. The
most straightforward would appear to be those by Arnold Bax,
Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland. Arthur Bliss has created
an appropriately fresh opening number with his ‘Aubade’, whilst
the deeper sentiment of Edmund Rubbra’s ‘Salutation’ brings
the sequence to a fitting conclusion. Listeners may detect the
influence of Henry Purcell in Michael Tippett’s offering, ‘Dance,
Clarion Air’. I believe that Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Spring at this
Hour’ and Herbert Howells’ ‘Inheritance’ are the most complex
from a harmonic point of view. Finzi’s contribution is well
summed up by Ivor Keys: “Now the white-flowering days, the long
days of blue and golden light, wake nature’s music round the
land’, and Finzi is the man to fit the words not only technically
like a glove, but in mood, enlivened by some quintuple rhythm
and surprising modulation, of mellowed rejoicing in ‘Old England
of the Shires.’” Finally, Alan Rawsthorne’s ‘Canzonet’ to words
by Louis MacNeice is the most challenging and forward-looking
of all these songs.
My personal favourite is John Ireland’s gorgeous ‘The Hills’
to a text by James Kirkup. This has convincingly survived the
‘changes and chances’ of the succeeding 58 years.
One of the most fascinating exercises when considering the ‘Garland’
is to wonder at who was ‘missed out’. Why no contribution from
Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, Benjamin Britten, Armstrong Gibbs,
John Gardner, Elizabeth Maconchy, and William Walton ... the
listener can add their own? Maybe some were asked and refused?
It may be a tale waiting to be told.
Finally, out of interest the poets are Henry Reed, Clifford
Bax, Christopher Fry, Ursula Wood, Paul Dehn, James Kirkup,
Walter de la Mare, Edmund Blunden, Louis MacNeice and Christopher
Hassall respectively. This information is given in the liner-notes,
but not in the track-listings.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam was one of the first works that
Benjamin Britten began after arriving in America in June 1939.
It is a setting of seven of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems and
was composed during August of that year. It was dedicated to
Peter Pears and his Round Table Singers. Due to the outbreak
of the Second World War, the premiere was abandoned, and the
work was laid aside. After Britten’s death in 1976, the score
was returned to Aldeburgh and was finally performed in 1984.
The seven poems set by Britten are Prayer I (‘Jesus that dost
in Mary Dwell’), ‘Rosa Mystica', ‘God’s Grandeur', Prayer II
(‘Thee God, I come from, to thee I go’), ‘O Deus, ego amo te’,
‘The Soldier’ and ‘Heaven-Haven’.
The music is in a trajectory from A Boy Was Born, although
Britten balances the complexity of his setting of ‘God’s Grandeur’
with a much simpler texture in ‘Heaven-haven’ and ‘Thee God,
I come from, to thee I go’. However, the entire set is demanding
for singers: the sheer variety of the texture, the considerable
vocal range and the complex rhythms make it a virtuosic tour
I have never really got my head around Britten’s Sacred and
Profane. For some reason, it just does not ‘do’ for me.
However I recognise that it is a great work that deserves its
place in the repertoire. Its technical difficulty precludes
it being regularly performed.
Sacred and Profane was dedicated to the Wilbye Consort
and was duly given its first performance at Aldeburgh on 14
September 1975, which was the year before the composer’s death.
The programme notes rightly point out that this is a ‘cyclic’
setting of eight medieval lyrics. The corollary of this is that
they have to be performed as a whole and cannot, with any artistic
justification, be excerpted.
This is a virtuosic piece that challenges performers to the
limit. The five-part chorus explores a wide variety of moods
and emotions and melodic and harmonic devices. The work is a
contrast between the sacred and secular and musically between
consonance and strikingly effective dissonances. However, these
distinctions are often blurred. I suggest that any listener
discover the texts and read them before listening as without
them the words are barely understandable to any but a medieval
scholar. They can be found in the liner-notes for the competing
I was disappointed that Heritage did not print the texts of
these works: they were given in the 1991 edition of this recording,
so it cannot be a copyright issue. Secondly the liner-notes
have been ‘dumbed down’ with a few ‘adequate’ notes by an anonymous
author replacing an excellent and highly informative essay on
the ‘Garland’ by Clive Bartlett. The notes about the choir have
contracted and have not been rewritten, in spite of the fact
that twenty years have elapsed since it was originally penned.
Even the director of music has curtailed his name from Timothy
However, this being said, the quality of the performance is
second to none, the Cambridge University Chamber Choir being
capable of dealing with the various styles and complexities
of the programme.