I wish that I had heard the opening Three Marian Carols
during the Christmas season. They are amongst the most beautiful
examples of the carol writers art that I have come across in
a long time.
These evocative numbers have been collected from the composer’s
previously published works and are grouped for this recording:
they cover a span of 48 years. The earliest, ‘Mary laid her
child’ dates from 1964 and is a setting of a poem by the 20th
century ‘Lakeland’ poet Norman Nicholson. This is a poetic mediation
based on the idea that Jesus was born near a ‘miry frozen farm’.
The location of the nativity has been moved from Bethlehem to
Bassenthwaite, maybe. The music reflects the cold, the frost,
and a glimmer of warmth from a fire in the barn. The poem concludes
with an intimation of the crucifixion.
‘Dormi Jesus’ was written nearly a decade later and is based
on an anonymous 15th century text. This is a heart-achingly
beautiful carol that balances bitter-sweet harmonies with a
lovely soprano solo. The most recent is ‘I sing of a maiden’
(2008) which is based on another anonymous text. This well-balanced
carol utilises a semi-chorus alongside the main body of singers.
All three numbers work well as a group. The composer has written
in the liner notes that ‘writing carols has been a constant
pleasure throughout [his] career, as relaxation from sterner
stuff … as a way of participating in the great tradition of
music for the community.’
I found the Mangan Triptych difficult to come to terms
with. It is not that the music is ‘difficult’ or unapproachable:
it is just that the work as presented here is too long –at least
for me. However, this is not a huge problem as each of the three
‘panels’ were composed for a different occasion and appear to
have been performed separately. Taking them one at a time would
be my recommendation for a listening strategy. James Clarence
Mangan was born in Dublin in 1803. After an education at a Jesuit
school, he worked as a lawyer’s clerk, then for the Ordnance
Survey and latterly as an assistant in Trinity College Library.
His early poetry was apparently ‘a-political’ but after the
Great Famine, he began to explore Irish nationalistic themes.
He had a tragic life, being afflicted with illness, depression
and irrational fears. He was an eccentric – appearing on Dublin
streets wearing a long cloak, green spectacles and a blonde
wig. In 1849, he died of cholera; his health had in any event
been compromised by malnutrition, poverty, opium and alcohol.
W.B. Yeats considered Mangan to be one of the best Irish poets.
John McCabe states in the liner-notes that he was ‘immediately
impressed … with the characteristically Irish rhetorical power
and vivid imagery’ [of the poetry]. He considers that it has
‘a powerful visionary quality’.
Three things need to be said. The text is full of allusions,
metaphors and symbols. The meaning does not jump out at the
listener. I was reminded of the English poet Christopher Smart
in the complexity and convoluted nature of the imagery. Secondly,
John McCabe has brought some impressive music to these settings.
It is characterised by almost continual invention. The musical
content has McCabe’s usual characteristic of a wide-ranging
harmonic language ranging from the acerbic to the meltingly
beautiful. There are times when the poet’s mental turmoil is
reflected, although there is much that is pensive and heart-easing.
Finally, this work could (should?) be regarded as a ‘choral
symphony’ for eight-part choir. As such the composer has stated
that he prefers the ‘movements’ given in the order presented
on this disc. It is a work that will challenge the listener.
‘Amen/Alleluia’ was written in 1981 for the William Ferris Chorale
in Chicago for their twentieth anniversary concert. Apart from
the title, there are no words in this composition: it is effectively
a ‘deconstruction’ of the syllables. The ‘amen’ part of the
work is slow whilst the ‘alleluia’ begins quietly and builds
up to a scorching climax. It could be argued that the repetition
of two words over a five-minute span is either a bit experimental
or somewhat Handelian. However, as an exercise in sound it makes
an interesting point, even if the text is not too imaginative.
I enjoyed the descriptive setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Proud
Songsters’. It does indeed capture ‘the vigour of young birds
singing and the evanescent nature of their existence’. ‘The
Lily-White Rose’ is extracted from a larger work, Songs
of the Garden (2004/2009) for soloists, chorus and full
orchestra (or ensemble). The present motet is a moving arrangement
I imagine that the ‘Morning’ and the ‘Evening Watch’ will often
be performed ‘back to back’ in spite of some 36 years separating
their composition. Both texts are derived from the Welsh poet
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) who was a ‘metaphysical’ poet. There
is an interesting stylistic contrast between the two texts and
their setting. The organ is used to considerable effect in the
‘Great Lord of Lords’ is a good piece to follow the introverted
dialogue between the body and soul of the ‘Evening Watch’. This
is a big powerful setting of a song of praise that creates an
impressive balance between choir and organ.
‘A Hymne to God the Father’ (1966) is a reserved setting of
a poem by John Donne. The harmony is often bitter-sweet with
only occasional relaxation. McCabe uses three soloists to impart
The final setting, ‘The Last and Greatest Herald’, opens with
an impressive organ flourish. The text is by the Scottish poet,
William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) and examines the
contribution to the Christian story made by St. John
the Baptist during his sojourn in the desert. The choral writing
is typically massive and vibrant, with contrasting sections
of thoughtful music. The work ends with a huge climax urging
the listener to ‘Repent! Repent!’ Throughout, the organ is busy
providing an intricate accompaniment that is almost ‘jazzy’
in places. A great finish to the programme.
This is a handsomely presented production. The singing by the
BBC Singers under David Hill is perfect. Every nuance of McCabe’s
music is clear and well-defined: the words are always audible.
Most of the music on this disc is a cappella; however
the remainder has an organ accompaniment. I must not forget
the excellent playing by Iain Farrington, who is also a composer,
as well as an organist and pianist.
The liner-notes are by John McCabe – so no potential for argument
there. The texts of all the works are included along with a
translation of ‘Dormi Jesu’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
This disc can be recommended to anyone who appreciates modern
but accessible choral music. For those listeners who only know
this composer through his large-scale works such as the ballets,
the Chagall Windows or Cloudcatcher Fell for
brass band, this disc will be an eye-opening exploration of
a facet of McCabe’s music that is little represented in the
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