All the works on this debut album from the Mousai Singers
have a ‘Welsh Connection’ be it literary, musical, birthplace or residential. Additionally, the music was recorded in St. David’s Cathedral ‘a hidden treasure on the most western peninsula of Wales’.
The CD gets off to an impressive start with William Mathias’s ‘An Admonition to Rulers’, Op.43. This was commissioned by The Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1969 and was first heard on 26 July of that year. The text is adapted from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom and is a ‘warning’ to earthly rulers that god will wreak his judgement on them ‘terribly and swiftly’ if they are deemed to have governed unwisely: power must at all times be tempered by wisdom. The work is largely episodic and uses a number of choral and instrumental techniques to create a moving and ultimately triumphant effect. These include beautiful tenor and soprano solos, some typically Mathias ‘angular’ commentary from the organ and vocal fanfares. The final part of the text is a vision of Wisdom, personified as a lady: it is the most moving part of this work.
I have not come across Neil Cox as either composer or organist before. Born in Llanelli, he was Organ Scholar at Downing College, Cambridge and is currently Director of Chapel Music at Lancing College, West Sussex - one of my favourite buildings in Britain. His compositions have in recent years been gaining acceptance. The present eight-part motet ‘O Maria, vernans rosa’ (O Mary, Rose of Spring’) is a heartbreakingly beautiful work that is timeless in its musical language and effect. Cox has noted that the inspiration of this work is a ‘dazzling canonic motet’ ‘Nesciens mater’ by the French composer Jean Mouton (1459-1522). In fact, he has derived a couple of melodic phrases from this early work. It is sung out perfection.
The other work on this disc by Neil Cox is his eight-part setting of the ‘Magnificat’ heard in the Latin text and The Book of Common Prayer translation simultaneously. The liner-notes are correct in suggesting that this is a ‘visionary’ treatment rather than a triumphant one. I was impressed by the part-writing throughout, especially the mystical opening lines. There is much that is striking in this rich and rewarding setting of this well-loved text. Once again, Cox has written a work that is in the trajectory of great ecclesiastical music over the past five hudnred years.
Herbert Howells’ dramatic setting of George Herbert’s ecclesiastical poem ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, commonly called ‘Antiphon’, has had surprisingly few recordings over the years. I have never heard it performed ‘live’ in church, cathedral or concert hall. The liner-notes describe it well by suggesting that it is written in an ‘uncompromising’ manner and in a musical language that may not be regarded as typical of the composer.
I have always struggled with Edmund Rubbra’s music: I have yet to get to grips with his symphonies, chamber works and choral pieces. However the present work is immediately approachable and is simple in its execution. Rubbra’s ‘Welsh Connection’ is that he had a ‘deep affection’ for St David’s Cathedral and holidayed there each year. ‘That Virgin's Child Most Meek’ Op.114, No.2 is a hymn or carol tune called ‘St. Non’, who was the mother of St David. The notes remind the listener that there is a ruined chapel dedicated to her on the coast a few miles from the cathedral: it is reputedly the birth place of the Welsh Patron Saint. The work was commissioned for the Cambridge Hymnal
and published in 1967. The words are by John Gwyneth, c.1530.
The most challenging piece on this CD is Kenneth Leighton’s powerful and substantial anthem ‘Awake my Glory’, Op.79. It was composed as part of the centenary celebrations for the Episcopal St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh during 1979. The text is by the ‘mad’ eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart. Yet from the perspective of the 21st
century Smart’s words are full of life and vision. The strength of his faith - in spite of any illness - is intense: the poetic colouring is vivid. Smart was of Welsh descent. Leighton has cleverly chosen to structure the anthem around the progress of the text, which is seen as dividing into three parts. After a long organ introduction a soprano solo sings the opening words. Gradually other voices enter and build to a climax. The second section musically mirrors the ‘night-exploding bird’ as it sings to ‘welcome the dawn’. After a considerable climax on the text: ‘My fellow subjects of the eternal King, I gladly join your matins and with you confess his Presence and report his praise’ the composer brings the music to a quiet end.
Arnold Bax is better known for his cycle of seven symphonies - nine if we include the early Symphony in F recently released on Dutton Epoch and Spring Fire
- his imaginative tone-poems for orchestra and extensive catalogue of chamber works and piano music. His choral works are relatively few and far between. Bax had paternal Welsh blood, yet drew much of his inspiration from the legends and landscapes of Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia. ‘This Worldes Joie’ was composed in 1922 in the same year as the Symphony No. 1 and is a setting of an anonymous late 13th
century text. The work is bleak in its mood and reflects the winter’s day alluded to in the opening line - ‘Winter wakeneth all my care/Now these leaves waxeth bare.’ Yet occasionally, the composer manages to inject a hint of warmth into the proceedings. It is no surprise that it was one of the choral pieces used at the composer’s funeral at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 28 October 1953. The liner-notes state that this work is a ‘firm favourite’ of the Mousai Singers. Certainly, this familiarity with this rare work communicates itself to the listener.
Charles Hubert Hasting Parry’s Songs of Farewell
contain some of the most moving music composed by any composer of the Victorian/Edwardian era. Written towards the end of his life between 1916 and 1918 these rather introverted six songs can be seen as the composer’s response to the Great War and partly to his personal circumstances. Parry felt, that at seventy years old, he had reached the ‘last milestone’. He was to die in 1918.
The present seven-part ‘song’ is a setting of the poignant lyric ‘At the round earth's imagined corners’ by Donne, who was of Welsh descent. This text appropriately concludes with the words ‘’Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace’ and asks the angels to ‘Teach me how to repent …’ For a composer who had rejected conventional Christianity, this is a deeply religious and mystical work. The ‘masterful counterpoint harks back the English renaissance.’
The final work on this CD is ‘Strengthen ye the weak hands’ by Sir William Harris. Harris’s Welsh connection is that he was assistant organist at St David’s Cathedral at the surprisingly tender age of 14. The present work was written in 1949 for ‘The Commemoration of the Science and Art of Healing’ at the Canterbury Festival. This anthem must be one of very few works that has a medical theme, albeit Biblical. The texts are derived from Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah and the Book of Common Prayer. The basic form of the piece is an arch. After a soloist opens the proceedings in reflective mood, the music builds to an optimistic central section. It dies down to a quiet conclusion on the words ‘Save us and help us we humbly beseech the, O Lord’. The vocal writing is typical of Harris with long flowing lines, perfectly considered climaxes and warm harmonies.
The Mousai Singers, founded in April 2011, were named after the mythological Greek muses who inspired literature and the arts. The majority of the singers are former cathedral and ‘collegiate’ choristers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals and St. John’s College Cambridge. They have a wide repertoire that includes Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb
and Stanford’s Latin Magnificat in B flat major. More recently the Mousai Singers have given a performance of Messiah
to mark their London debut. The choir currently consists of four each of sopranos and altos and two each of tenors and basses. Their musical director, Daniel Cook is the current Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey.
Joseph Wicks makes an important contribution to this CD with his organ accompaniment for a number of the pieces. He is currently organ scholar at St John’s College in Cambridge. Wicks has also provided the excellent and informative programme notes for this CD. Each of the works has the text provided as well as a short programme note. Biographical notes of the performed are also included. My only complaint was that I could not find any track timings included with the documentation.
Nine pieces are given on this CD. Almost all of them are relatively unknown to the musical public -with the possible exception of the Parry. Yet this choice of repertoire is inspirational: each work is stimulating and approachable. The performance of all these pieces is superb: the choir cope admirably with the differing styles of music presented. I look forward to subsequent releases from the Mousai Singers in the near future.