Category Archives: Programme notes

Programme Notes – Handel’s Messiah

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.   Book of Job xix:25-26

Poster for Handel's Messiah concert given by Cantate Choir in January 2016

These words, which begin Part III of the mighty oratorio ‘Messiah’, were inscribed on George Frideric Handel’s tomb in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey when he died in 1759. This aria, written in the optimistic, bright and certain key of E major, opens with two notes (dominant rising to tonic) and sums up for me the entire piece; without any shadow of a doubt, with no possibility for confusion, Handel says, ‘I believe’. He genuinely felt that the whole piece was given to him by God. As Patrick Kavenaugh records in his Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Handel said to his bemused servant “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” Handel had just finished writing a movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.

How fitting it is that tonight’s performance is in aid of The Hospice in the Weald. In 1741, two letters arrived, which changed Handel’s position and musical history forever. First came an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire to come to Dublin and provide a series of benefit concerts ‘For the relief of the prisoners in the several gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay’. Then, a letter arrived from Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, who had previously written libretti for Handel. The letter contained Old and New Testament texts, which Handel read and re-read and was so moved that he immediately embarked on writing a sacred opera using them. Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 in Dublin as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison. It has not been out of performance for a single year since, a record unsurpassed by any other classical work. It was performed again and again for charitable concerts and Handel would not take a penny from the ticket sales, believing that God, not he, had written the piece. At his death, he bequeathed the manuscript and parts to the Foundling Hospital, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, which continues to benefit to this day from performances of Messiah. Charles Burney, the 18th century music historian, remarked that Handel’s Messiah “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.”

Why then, is Messiah such an enduring and monumental piece? Why is it performed every year all over the world? Why are there choral societies committed to performing nothing else? It is not a typical oratorio; there are no named characters, no plot and no narrative. There is no drama of action or personalities and no dialogue. Our usual thirst for soap opera shenanigans will not be satisfied here. So why do we keep coming back for more?

For one thing, it is a work, whose three parts, take in the entire sweep of the traditions and beliefs of the Christian faith and follows the liturgical year:

  • Part I- Prophecy of Salvation, the birth of Christ Jesus (Advent, Christmas)
  • Part II- Crucifixion and Death (Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost)
  • Part III- Resurrection and the promise of eternal life for believers (End of year and end of time)

The second reason for its recurrent popularity is that it is simply full of good tunes and rousing choruses, which enable us as Everyman to grasp something of the ineffable mysteries of these sacred texts and to go away feeling spiritually uplifted regardless of our beliefs and understandings.

The main reason, however, has to be the sheer genius of the man (or perhaps it really was his divine inspiration). Handel paints the texts so vividly and gloriously that it seems impossible not to be profoundly moved by each and every aria, chorus and instrumental interlude.

The libretto by Jennens is also monumental and scholarly. The texts are compiled from the Bible: mostly from the Old Testament of the King James Bible, but with several psalms taken from the Book of Common Prayer. He takes lines from here and there to construct ‘scenes’ of meditation upon aspects of the Messiah. We perform Part I complete, which takes us through the surprisingly restrained prophecies and announcements of Christ’s coming, through the excitement of the birth (For unto us a child is born), the appearance of angels before the shepherds (Glory to God) and on to the great optimism of the believers (Rejoice greatly, He shall feed his flocks).

Part II deals with Christ’s sufferings and betrayal. We cut numbers 27-37, which deal with the actual crucifixion and reception into Heaven, and take up the scene with the moving reaction to his death (How beautiful are the feet) and the gradual spreading of the gospel despite the world’s rejection (Hallelujah). Part III is also shortened to focus on the certainty of believers that the Redeemer is still very much alive in men’s hearts and that when ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ death and sin will be conquered and we will find ourselves with God. The final chorus maintains the focus solely on the Messiah, not the unworthy mortals who usually receive some absolution at the end of such works. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him who sitteth upon the throne and unto the lamb for ever and ever, Amen.”

Sara Kemsley

Music for a Summer Evening – Programme Notes

7.00pm, Saturday 14 June – St Martin’s Church, Brasted

Front cover


Robin WalkerConductor
Iestyn EvansOrgan


T. Campion 1557—1620 – Never weather-beaten sail
J. Bartlet fl. 1606—10 – Of all the birds that I do know
R. Jones fl. 1597—1615 – Farewell, dear love
G. Finzi 1901—56 – My spirit sang all day
E. Elgar 1857—1934 – As torrents in summer
C.H.H. Parry 1848—1918 – Music, when soft voices die
C.V. Stanford 1852—1924 – The blue bird
F. Delius 1862—1934 – To be sung of a summer night on the water (two unaccompanied part-songs)
G.B. Pergolesi 1710—1736 – Magnificat
A. Hollins 1865—1942 – A Trumpet Minuet
J. Jongen 1873—1953 – Petite Prélude
M. Lanquetuit 1894—1985 – Toccata
Eric Whitaker b. 1970 – Sleep
G.F. Handel 1685—1759 – My heart is inditing

Programme notes

Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory Percy Bysshe Shelley

The theme of this poem, set to music by Parry among several others, is the ability of sounds, sights, smells and emotions to linger and be stirred in the memory long after the fact. In some ways a thread of memories is stirred by tonight’s programme but it is an uncertain and discontinuous one. It is a trail which we now lose and then rediscover in another place and another time.

The first half may be said to encompass two periods of English Renaissance, the first in the 16th and 17th century with the flowering of madrigals, ayres and anthems and the second in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when composers stepped once more into the light of European recognition. England under Elizabeth I and James I provided a period of peace and encouragement for the arts. In a list of 67 composers from this time, 24 of them are names you will probably know or who made pieces you would recognise if you heard them. Then the land fell largely silent.

In 1904, the German critic Oskar Schmitz described Britain as a ‘land without music’. However, there was already a revival afoot in music making at all levels. There was huge growth in amateur and professional choirs and orchestras and we remain unsurpassed in our national quality of performance to this day. The Royal College of Music was expressly set up ‘to rival the Germans’ and produced the leaders of this new movement in Parry and Stanford. What they started, the likes of Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton and even Delius continued. ‘Fritz’ Delius was considered too German to count but ironically it is his music which captures the idyllic English countryside and lazy summer days better than anyone’s.

In the first English Renaissance, you could argue that the poetry was not great but the musical settings often were. Do we remember George Gascoigne, the poet Thomas Campion or anon.? Unlikely! The words are often obscure and susceptible to erotic interpretation as with John Bartlet’s Philip the sparrow, who cries yet, yet, yet, yet…..! By the time of the second Renaissance, English Literature is a major world subject with a long unbroken tradition. Parry and Stanford moved in the same circles as Robert Bridges, Mary Coleridge, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Tackling their poetry must have been both privileged and intimidating. Later generations of composers like Finzi and Delius had some latent memory for word setting built into their DNA, which makes their songs generally more fluid and natural. ‘My spirit sang all day’ is No.3 of Finzi’s Seven Poems by Robert Bridges. It captures the emotional arc of the lover’s joy in just 44 bars of sublime music. ‘The Blue Bird’ is a setting by Stanford of a Mary Coleridge poem. She was grand-niece to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and her father Arthur Duke Coleridge founded the London Bach Choir with Jenny Lind in 1875. Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, described her poems as ‘wondrously beautiful… but mystical rather and enigmatic’. Stanford’s setting still seems experimental today and hard to pull off but it paints the most wonderful image of summer blue all around you.

For the second half of our concert, we step in from the fertile territory of our green and pleasant land – quite literally if weather has permitted the first half to be outdoors. We have already seen that pupils will usually surpass their teachers but it comes to something when a pupil passes off his teacher’s piece as his own. Well, in fairness, it was not Pergolesi himself but a much more recent musicologist who wrongly ascribed Francisco Durante’s ‘Magnificat in Bb major’ to Pergolesi and the myth persists despite most scholars disagreeing. Whoever wrote it, it is typical of the School of Naples in the seventeenth century, where both men worked. Technically competent, it is an unsentimental setting of Mary’s song of gratitude, once she has come to terms with being single, pregnant, poor and homeless. She realizes that she has effectively been crowned the queen of heaven, mother of God, ‘from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed’.

Eric Whitacre is an American composer and something of a Gareth Malone of the internet. His choral pieces draw on the long back catalogue of English language word setting. They are understated, direct, yet with a personal voice. What he does with his pieces is to use cutting-edge technology to bring ordinary people together from around the world in performance. Do visit his website and experience his virtual choir performances of ‘Sleep’ and other works or listen to him on the global TED website (, which brings ideas together from Technology, Entertainment and Design.

This piece started out as a setting of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but copyright issues meant he could not use the words so he asked a friend to write new lyrics and, personally, I think they are better.

And so we come to the one strong voice in the Land without Music, which sang out between one renaissance and the next and, blow me down, he was German and this piece was written for the coronation of a German! Of course, another strong theme for this land of ours is to welcome immigrants and adopt them as our own. It is therefore entirely fitting for Handel to take words set by Purcell at the Coronation of James II in 1685 (the year of Handel’s birth but that is nothing to do with anything) and use them for his own setting at the Coronation of George II in 1727. ‘My heart is inditing’ is the fourth Coronation Anthem and the last in the ceremony when the queen is crowned, in this case Charlotte. The words from Psalm 45 and Isaiah 49 extol the virtues and rank of women. ‘Kings’ daughters were among thy honourable women’ and the queen is as ‘a nursing mother’ to the nation. The Cantate Choir sang Purcell’s version in June 2009 alongside Parry’s Songs of Farewell, settings of English poets including Thomas Campion….. ah, there go those vibrations again!

Sara Kemsley

A Gala Christmas – Programme Notes

7.30pm, Saturday 13 December – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

A Gala Christmas concert poster


Robin WalkerConductor
Mardi BrassBrass quintet
Riccardo BonciOrgan
Linsay MartinReader
Lawrence ThornburyReader


Carol arr. Robin Walker – Once in Royal David’s city
Reading John Milton – The Invocation from Paradise Lost
Choir Boris Ord – Adam lay ybounden
Carol arr. David Willcocks – Of the Father’s heart begotten
Reading Rainer Mari Rilke – Annunciation to Mary translated by Mary Dows Herter Norton
Choir Villette – Hymne à la Vierge
Carol John Goss, arr. David Willcocks – See amid the winter’s snow
Reading Henry Vaughan – Christ’s Nativity
Choir Praetorius – In dulci jubilo
Choir A. Pärt – Bogoroditse dyevo
Carol, adapted by Arthuer Sullivan – It came upon the midnight clear
Reading Sidney Godolphin – Hymn
Brass solo G.F. Handel – Symphony from Messiah
Choir Anon (ed. Stevens) – There is no rose - 15th C.
Carol arr. Mardi Brass – O little town of Bethlehem
Choir F. Mendelssohn – Rejoice and be glad all ye nations
Choir arr. Poston – The Boar’s head carol
Carol arr. Mardi Brass – Ding dong merrily on high
Reading John Betjeman – Christmas
Choir arr. Mardi Brass – God rest ye merry gentlemen
Choir arr. J. Magnussen – My heart will always wander trad. Norwegian
Carol arr. Mardi Brass – Silent night
Reading Ted Hughes – Minstral’s Song
Choir arr. Mardi Brass – The First nowell
Reading T.S. Elliot – The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
Brass solo – Let it Blow
Carol arr. Mardi Brass – Hark the Herald

Programme notes

Though wise men better know the way, It seems no honest heart can stray.” Sidney Godolphin, Hymn

I find it endlessly fascinating how differently people respond to Christmastide. You have the ‘it’s just for the children’ brigade who love all the presents and games but don’t like to admit it. There’s the ‘Bah! Humbug!’ fraternity who, like Scrooge himself, love it really when they get involved. Then there are the crusading spirits who like nothing better than to spend the time in a soup kitchen or the superior thinkers who pontificate on the true meaning of Christmas, while nipping at their port and mince pie. And let’s not forget the (British?) view that it does not really matter as long as it snows!

Sidney, Lord Godolphin wrote his Hymn in the 17th century. He was a Royalist MP for Helston in Cornwall at the time of the Civil War. His response, his Hymn, is an intelligent discussion of how the Wise Men, despite their knowledge and wealth, needed the input of the shepherds, the poor, ignorant working people, to find their way to the manger. The message is surely clear and as pertinent today as it was then and indeed two centuries ago, when Roman rule kept the poor firmly under the military and administrative boot. He suggests that, providing your heart and your intentions are sincere, then you cannot go far wrong.

So it is our intention to represent the many and varied responses to the Christmas season through our music and readings. We have the medievalism of Adam lay y-bounden to start the inevitable, pre-ordained journey from the Garden of Eden to the Crucifixion and the modernism of Arvo Pärt, whose 1990 hymn, Bogoróditse Djévo (Mother of God and Virgin), leans heavily on ancient Russian Orthodox chanting.

We have the scholarly and very French understatement of the Hymne à la Vierge by Pierre Villette. He was born in 1926 and studied with Maurice Duruflé. They shared influences from medieval music through to the melodic worlds of Fauré and Debussy. Contrast with this the far-from-erudite ‘Boar’s Head Carol’, which, despite the attempt to impress us with Latin phrases, is essentially an endorsement of the ‘eat and drink more than is good for you’ rule of Christmastide.

Michael Praetorius was a German composer and musicologist active in the early 17th century. From 1605 to 1610, he edited Musae Sioniae, a collection of 1244 arrangements of songs and hymns in nine volumes. You might assume that ‘In dulci jubilo’ from Part II would be a rather serious affair but in fact it is a dancing, imitative setting of the traditional tune with some additional harmonisations for brass by J S Bach. Our preconceptions about T S Eliot as an imposing, somewhat impenetrable poet (The only “method,” Eliot once wrote, is “to be very intelligent.”) are also confounded in his poem ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’. He wrote this as a contribution to a literary project wherein very illustrious writers contributed holiday-themed works to a collection published in Britain in 1927. He wishes that we hang on throughout our lives to the sense of wonder that the young child has at the sights and smells of Christmas. He cites St Lucy, whose day on December 13th is widely observed in Nordic countries.

A young girl with crown of flaming candles is processed through the town. It is a time for eating, drinking and giving of gifts and is the Christian version of Yol or Yule, which marked the winter solstice.

The traditional carols, which we invite the audience to sing with us, are definitely given a dusting of snow, courtesy of the Mardi Brass arrangements. These are skilfully and wittily put together by Edward Maxwell (trumpet) and Adam Wolff (trombone). They are published under the title ‘Hark’ by Mardi Brass Publishing and we are grateful to the group for the use of them tonight. “Let it Blow” is a humorous romp through modern American Christmas songs in a medley arranged by Richard Hammond, not as far as I know a mad driver, but sometime trumpeter with Mardi Brass. I apologise to Superior Thinkers for the use of the word medley but that is what it is and this is another essential Christmas element, which can cover any facet of the season. According to the BBC Good Food guide you should make a ‘honey-mustard steamed green vegetable medley’ for Christmas but this is just posh sprouts to the Crusading Spirits. Or my favourite: Chocolate-covered fruit medley from ‘Chocolate is high in antioxidants and … include dried fruits that are also high in antioxidants.’ Healthy? No! It is just more of the ‘eat and drink more than is good for you’ rule. And what’s more, 36oz is not ‘perfect size for parties or get togethers’, it is a portion for one!

Yes, I do sit firmly with the ‘Bah! Humbug!’ fraternity but I still love the music of Christmas, be it the simplicity of ‘There is no rose of such virtue’ in this medieval setting or the full-throated Christmas motet ‘Rejoice and be glad’ by Felix Mendelssohn. There is something heartening in midwinter to revisit these ideas and revelations every year and to perform them and enjoy them with an honest heart. I am with T S Eliot on this one and sincerely hope that I can still marvel if only at the music of the season when I am eighty.

Sara Kemsley

Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 9 March 2013 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Poster from Cantate Choir's Handel's Judas Maccabaeus concert


Hazel BrooksLeader
Sofia LarssonSoprano
Rose SettenAlto
Iain MilneTenor
Edward BallardBass


Graham FifeReviewer


Handel – Judas Maccabaeus

Programme notes

Toughness found fertile soil in the hearts of Palestinians, and the grains of resistance embedded themselves in their skin. Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin.

For more than three thousand years, the area of modern Israel and Palestine has been divided, disputed, conquered and restored again and again and again. This ancient land of the ‘12 tribes of Israel’ became the two kingdoms of David and Solomon in the 10th century BC. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his empire was divided and Ptolemy took Egypt and the lower regions, while Seleucis gained Babylon and Syria. By 198 BC the Syrians had taken Palestine and with it Jerusalem. The Jews suffered much hardship as Antiochus IV sought to impose Hellenistic culture and religion on the people. By 167 BC, all Jewish rites were forbidden and the Temple sacked.

Mattatias, a priest from Jerusalem, led the first rebellion, which was continued by his sons the Maccabees: John, Simon, Judas, Eleazer and Jonathan. Morell’s libretto for Handel’s oratorio starts here, with the death of Mattatias; “Mourn, ye afflicted children, your sanguine hopes of liberty give o’er” sings the chorus to a weary and resigned C minor accompaniment.

Part One deals with the aftermath of Mattatias’ death. Simon urges the Israelites to put their faith in God and seek a new leader. He then claims that God has chosen his brother Judas for the job. Judas steps up immediately and calls on the people to take inspiration from the struggles of their forefathers and their just cause. The Israelites offer prayers for their new leader and for the return of liberty. ‘Disdainful of danger’ they prepare for battle, ‘resolved on conquest or a glorious fall’.

Like all the best dramas of the past, the action then takes place offstage and out of sight. Would that modern film makers could show similar restraint! Part Two opens with the Israelites returning from battle pumped up with their victory, “Fall’n is the foe!” they shriek in every possible permutation of this little phrase. Like a returning football crowd they are full of Judas’ performance on the field. Judas accepts their tributes, while modestly thanking God for his triumph. But news arrives from a Messenger that “new scenes of bloody war in all their horrors rise”. General Georgias is marching from Egypt. Immediately, the people are thrown back into despondency and the Israelitish Woman, a device used throughout to represent the mood of the people, sings “Ah, wretched Israel” in C minor again – back to square one! Once again, Simon exhorts them to have faith in God and Judas calls on them to fight. He promises to restore the temple and the people vow never to worship heathen idols, “We never will bow down to the rude stock of sculptured stone”.

Part Three opens with a Festival of Thanksgiving, for the Temple has been regained and reconsecrated. This first festival has continued down the years as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, in the Jewish tradition. The Messenger returns with more news of Judas’ victories, this time at Capharsalama. Judas returns in triumph and is greeted enthusiastically by his fellow people. The famous choruses “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” were not in Handel’s original 1747 score but he borrowed them from his oratorio Joshua for his 1758 revision. Judas asks the Israelites to remember the fallen heroes, especially his brother Eleazer who was killed when a war elephant fell on him. In the final scene, Eupolemus, their ambassador, returns from Rome with a treaty, which guarantees the protection of Judea as an independent nation. At last, the people can look forward to “Endless fame” as says the Israelitish Man and “O Lovely Peace” as sings the Israelitish Woman. “Hallelujah”, of course, says Handel.

Fame certainly came to the Maccabees. For over one hundred years, scholars have searched for the lost tombs of the Maccabees and in 2012 using latest radar techniques, they think they may have found them. The city of Mod’in, now in Israel and once home of the Maccabees, celebrates Hanukkah every year with particular fervour. And Handel has certainly done justice to their story in this superb oratorio. But lasting peace, as we all know, still seems a long way off for this troubled land.

Handel composed this oratorio in 1746 based on a libretto written by Thomas Morell. The oratorio was devised as a compliment to the victorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, upon his return from the Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746), the last pitched battle on British soil. It was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Morell was a saddler’s son but educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge. He was a religious scholar and provided several libretti for Handel. Both Handel and Morell moved in illustrious circles at this time having royal, artistic and literary connections. It was intended that the public saw parallels between Judas’ story and the heroism of the Duke.

Handel has always been revered by other composers even though his popularity with audiences has waxed and waned over the centuries. J S Bach desperately wanted to meet him and Mozart said of him “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.” Beethoven emphasised above all the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel’s music when he said, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means”. Handel, as a successful society composer, could afford the luxury of experimentation with his orchestras and introduced many new and varied instruments and combinations into both his operas and oratorios. In Judas Maccabeus he uses both recorders and flutes, even though the Baroque flute was wooden and softly spoken too. Horns and trumpets are used sparingly despite the themes of battle and rebellion. Brass instruments are designed for celebration and triumph in Handel’s view. Bassoons are increasingly becoming permanent fixtures and allowed more independence than simply copying the bass line in the loud bits.

Our performance tonight with Vivace will be at Baroque pitch since the instruments they play are originals or replicas of that time. But what is ‘Baroque pitch’? Pitch is measured in hertz and is standardized purely for convenience. Around the world today the A in the treble stave is fixed at 440Hz so that performances and recordings will be the same wherever you go. This is known as Concert Pitch. However, in the Baroque Era, pitch levels as high as A-465 (17th century Venice) and as low as A-392 (18th century France) are known to have existed. String players could easily re-tune but wind players could be limited to playing only with people from their own area. Modern ‘Baroque pitch’ is generally standardized as 415hz, which is about a semitone below Concert pitch. The sopranos and tenors love it but the altos and basses can find themselves going down where they have rarely been before!

Sara Kemsley

Christmas with Cantate – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 14 December 2013 – St Mary’s Platt Parish Church

Poster for The Cantate Choir's Christmas concert in December 2013


Jemima Stephensonorgan


Audience carol – O come, o come, Emmanuel
16th French tune Arr. Willcocks – Ding Dong! Merrily on high
14th century carol Arr. Willcocks – Resonemus laudibus
H. Berlioz 1803 – 69 – The Sepherd’s Farewell
Organ solo J.S. Bach 1685 – 1750 – Nun komm der heiden heiland BWV 659
J.G. Ebeling 1637? – 76 – All my heart this night rejoices
Audience carol – Good King Wenceslas
J.S. Bach 1685 – 1750 – Singet dem Herrn
Audience carol – Once in royal David’s city
W.J. Kirkpatrick 1838 – 1921 – Away in a manger
J. Rutter b. 1945 – Nativity Carol
J. Rutter – What sweeter music
Audience carol – O little town of Bethlehem
Organ solo O. Messiaen 1908 – 1992 – La Nativité du Seigneur – Les Bergers (the shepherds)
M. Lauridsen b. 1943 – O Magnum mysterium
W. Mathias 1934 – 92 – Sir Christèmas
Audience Carol – Hark the Herald angels sing

Programme notes

What sweeter music can we bring than a carol, for to sing the birth of this our heavenly King? John Rutter

This year’s programme is very much celebrating the season with songs of rejoicing. The heavens resound with jubilant praise and we sing to the Lord a new song with timbrel and harp. Church bells ding dong merrily and Sir Christémas bids us joyfully sing nowell, nowell.

However, the tradition of special songs for Christmas is not as old as we like to think. The word carol refers originally to dancing songs or circle dances, which could be used at any time of the year. The earliest known were in Latin and hence deeply unpopular with ordinary people. It was St. Francis of Assisi who restored the popularity of Christmas with his nativity plays, which told the story through song, dance and theatrics. The development of rhyming verse in the Middle Ages led to songs with verse and refrain and this remains a dominant structure for popular seasonal songs.

Resonemus Laudibus is an excellent example of this. The 14th century Latin carol has delicious regular rhymes but the refrain based on plainchant ends up with seven and six beats in a bar. David Willcocks’ arrangement brings a modern excitement to the piece, which would not have been out of place all those centuries ago.

1. Resonemus laudibus cum jocunditatibus ecclesiam fidelibus. Let us make the church resound with the joyful praises of the faithful.
Apparuit quem genuit Maria He whom Mary bore has appeared.
2. Deus fecit hominem ad suam imaginem et similitudinem. God made man in his own image and likeness.
3. Deus fecit omnia caelum, terram, maria cunctaque nascentia. God made all things, heaven, earth, the seas and all creation.
4. Ergo nostra concio in chordis et organo benedicat Domino. Therefore let our congregation praise God with strings and organ.
5. Et Deo qui venias donat et laetitias nos eidem gratias. And to God, who gives favours and happiness, we give thanks.

The church remained unhappy with such unauthorised and doctrinally suspect songs, especially as the common folk seemed to like them! The tradition of groups of carol singers in the streets came about because the songs were banned in church. The waits, often led by a civic dignitary, were groups of singers who were allowed to collect money in the street without the fear of arrest for beggary. They sang on Christmas Eve, which is ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitsnight’, remembering the shepherds who were watching in the fields and saw the star.

Music was banned completely by the Puritans in the 17th century and it was the Victorians who restored and developed Christmas as we know it today. Many of our best-loved carols were written at this time; Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Away in a Manger and Once in Royal David’s City almost certainly were popularised in the 19th century.

In among the popular carolling, we have absolute jewels of art music written by many of the greatest composers, who take some aspect of the doctrine of God made Man, which is at the heart of the Christmas story. Hector Berlioz was a French composer well-known for his massive works for orchestra and singers. The Shepherds’ Farewell from his oratorio L’Enfance du Christ is such a slight and tender piece that it could easily have been overlooked. It is probably this very simplicity and charm that has ensured its lasting place in choral programmes.

The simple hymn All my heart this night rejoices by Johann Georg Ebeling is probably a Lutheran carol, written for a service. It would have disappeared along with many other earlier works but for the efforts of editors, composers and arrangers like William Sandys and Davis Gilbert in the 19th century, Vaughan Williams and William Matthias in the early 20th and John Rutter and David Willcocks in the present period.

The motet Singet dem Herrn was written by J S Bach in about 1726 and may originally have been a funeral piece. Another theory is that he wrote his six motets as demonstration pieces for his students, “here’s one I did earlier!” If true, the complexity of this one in particular would, I suggest, have sent all but the most determined student looking up alternative professions in the Leipzig Situations Vacant pages! Written for double choir in three sections, it elaborates the words from psalms 149 and 150 and a poem by Johann Gramann. It is a virtuoso tour-de-force both in terms of composition and the performers. More than once one choir develops the text in fugal form, which the other choir accompanies. This had never been done before. When Mozart visited Leipzig in 1789, a performance of Singet dem Herrn was put on for him. Afterwards, he is said to have exclaimed, “That is really something from which one can learn a great deal!”

Part 1 psalm 149 vv. 1-3
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, die Gemeine der Heiligen sollen ihn loben. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.
Israel freue sich des, der ihn gemacht hat. Die Kinder Zion sei’n fröhlich über ihrem Könige, Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Sie sollen loben seinen Namen im Reihen; mit Pauken und mit Harfen sollen sie ihm spielen. Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.

Part 2 words by Johan Gramann
Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet Gott, Like a father, may God have mercy on us
Nimm dich ferner unser an, And comfort us further,
Über seine junge Kinderlein, Just as with his young child,
So tut der Herr uns Armen, So the Lord acts for us poor people,
So wir ihn kindlich fürchten rein. And, pure and childlike, we fear him.
Er kennt das arm Gemächte, He knows us poor beings,
Gott weiß, wir sind nur Staub, God knows we are like dust,
Denn ohne dich ist nichts getan For without You is nothing done
Mit allen unsern Sachen. With all our affairs.
Gleichwie das Gras vom Rechen, Just as grass loses its flower and leaf
Ein Blum und fallend Laub. By the rake.
Der Wind nur drüber wehet, The wind just blows over it
So ist es nicht mehr da, And it is no longer there.
Drum sei du unser Schirm und Licht, Therefore, be our protection and light
Und trügt uns unsre Hoffnung nicht, And let not our hope be deceived,
So wirst du’s ferner machen. That thus will you do in the future.
Also der Mensch vergehet, Therefore does man pass,
Sein End, das ist ihm nah. His end is near.
Wohl dem, der sich nur steif und fest Happy is he who strongly and firmly
Auf dich und deine Huld verlässt. Relies on you and your grace.

Part 3 Psalm 150 vv.2 and 6
Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten, lobet ihn in seiner großen Herrlichkeit! Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn Halleluja! Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Alleluia.

Morten Lauridsen is the most-performed, living American composer. He is sometimes described as a mystic for his works, particularly his sacred choral pieces, seem to conjure up an other-worldly, meditative state. O magnum mysterium is possibly his best-known. His skill lies in fusing the simplest lines of melody and harmony (almost like medieval plainchant) with enough modernity to engage the listener in his sound world. And listen you must, for the nuances are so quiet and slight that, if you even breathe, you may miss them.

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
Ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! That animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in their manger!
Beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

If Sir David Willcocks has had a profound effect on the musical life of choirs in this country, then we can safely say that John Rutter CBE has done so around the world. A quick tally of the index of Carols for Choirs Bk.2 alone (known in choir circles as ‘the orange one’) shows them on 23 apiece out of the 50 in the book. However, John Rutter is not just a skilled arranger but a composer of original words and music too. Willcocks described him as the most gifted composer of his generation. What sweeter music and Nativity carol are two contrasting but very typical pieces from his considerable oeuvre. Sweetness and sentimentality characterise the modern Christmas season and so does his music – to perfection!

Happy Christémas!

Sara Kemsley

Birthdays, Bubbly and Berries – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2013 – Kippington Church, Sevenoaks

Poster from Cantate Choir's June 2013 concert - Birthdays, bubbly and berries


Iestyn EvansOrgan


John Dowland – Come again! Sweet love doth now invite
John Dowland – O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness
John Dowland – Flow not so fast ye fountains
John Dowland – Fine knacks for ladies
Benjamin Britten – Rejoice in the Lamb
Giuseppe Verdi – Ave Maria
Giuseppe Verdi – Stabat Mater
Giuseppe Verdi – Laudi Alla Vergine Madre
Giuseppe Verdi – Te Deum

Programme notes

The only thing better than singing is more singing.” Ella Fitzgerald

When the only connection between the composers in a programme is the accident of their births, the challenge is on to find a harmonious way through for the listener. John Dowland was born 450 years ago in 1563, Giuseppe Verdi 200 years ago in 1813 and Benjamin Britten in 1913, a century later. Birthdays are always something to celebrate and the fact that they are all dead does not deter us from this celebration with ‘Berries and Bubbles’. Perhaps that is a good image to have in our heads; each of the pieces tonight involves curious words or curious settings of words in short bursts. Some perhaps are persimmon, bringing an unusual taste and texture, while others, like cranberry, explode in a short, effervescent puff.

The Composers

John Dowland was probably born in London but not much is known about his early life. As a Roman Catholic he was not comfortable to accept a post with the Royal Court and instead spent many years on the continent working in Paris, in Germany and for several years for the King of Denmark. He was a skilled lutenist and singer and absorbed many developments from Europe. He is primarily known for his works for lute and for his songs, many of which have a melancholic character.

Giuseppe Verdi is ranked alongside Richard Wagner, born in the same year, as the most influential operatic composer of the nineteenth century. All his music is dramatic and theatrical, including his best-known sacred work, the Requiem, written upon the death of his political friend Manzoni. He said of himself that he was the least learned of composers but this lack of formal training allowed him to exploit the orchestra and the vocalists to suit his own dramatic ends and many of his effects remain unique.

Benjamin Britten began composing prolifically as a child and had private lessons from Frank Bridge. He later studied at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland. In the 1930s he made a conscious effort to set himself apart from the English musical mainstream. Many critics of the time, in return, distrusted his facility, cosmopolitanism and admiration for composers such as Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky, who were not considered appropriate models for a young English musician. For many musicians, however, his flawless technique, broad musical and human sympathies and ability to treat the most traditional of musical forms with freshness and originality place him near the head of composers of his generation.

The Pieces

The four songs by John Dowland are a representative selection from his Books of Songs and Ayres. Many of these first appeared as songs with lute accompaniment but also were written out as madrigals for four voices. They each develop some idea about the tribulations of love and of finding the right partner but there is humour here also. For those with an ear for the double-entendre, little is left to the imagination. The four voices complement each other simply in the strophic style of his earlier years.

The four sacred works, Quattro Pezzi Sacri, by Verdi, were finally completed in 1897 and can be performed together or separately. They were not conceived as a unit and, in fact, Verdi did not want the ‘Ave Maria’ published as he considered it an exercise. It is in four sections for unaccompanied SATB choir. In each section, one of the voices slowly intones what he calls the ‘enigmatic scale’ ascending and descending, while the other voices elaborate the words in highly chromatic harmonies around it. The second piece, ‘Stabat Mater’, is for mixed chorus and orchestra. The poem is in carefully constructed three-line stanzas with a complex rhyme scheme. Verdi maintains these short sections but allows his dramatic, operatic background to give each a musical character to match the meaning. ‘Laudi alla Vergine Maria’ for female chorus is a setting of a section of Dante’s Paradiso from the Divine Comedy. The switch to Italian seems to allow Verdi even more dramatic licence. The final piece is the liturgical ‘Te Deum’ for double chorus and orchestra. The power of these forces is immense.

Rejoice in the Lamb Op. 30 by Britten was written in 1943 and dedicated to Walter Hussey and the choir of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton. Christopher Smart (1722—1771), an English poet, was born in Shipbourne, of an old north country family. He spent much of his life in an asylum, producing long rambling works but with flashes of brilliance and philosophic genius. His extraordinary words provide a rich vein for Britten’s imaginative use of choir and soloists, admirably offset by the organ colour and drive. The cantata has ten short sections providing mystery, quiet elation, high energy and feverish ecstasy.

Sara Kemsley

The First Nowell – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 15 December 2012 – St Mary’s Platt, Borough Green


Riccardo BonciOrgan


Vaughan Williams – The First Nowell – an Oratorio
Audience carol – O come, all ye faithful
H. Darke – In the bleak mid-winter
W. Byrd – O magnum mysterium
F. Poulenc – Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël
E. Elgar – The Snow
B. Britten – A New Year carol
Audience carol – O little town of Bethlehem 
A. Adam – Oh holy night

Programme notes

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. Anon, on a car bumper sticker

I tried searching for The Christmas Message on the internet to remind myself of the words of the first nowell to the shepherds more than 2,000 years ago. How depressing! Up came any number of suggestions for cloying messages to friends and business associates that will fit your average SMS text allowance. “In the daytime if sun shin so shall Ur espectation come true, At night when moon comes out so shall U recieve blesses”. Someone give him/her a spelling lesson for Christmas, please! What is more depressing is that people expect to find words for every occasion to cut and paste onto Facebook or Twitter or whatever. Just as we buy ready-cut carrots, so we can get ready-cut words, anywhere, anytime. No thinking or knives required!

I know that Cantate audiences expect rather more stimulation of mind and soul and our Christmas programme should provide just that. The First Nowell (or Noël) brought tidings of great joy when the news of the birth of the Son of God was announced to poor shepherds. The word noël is derived through old French from the Latin ‘dies natalis’ (birthday). ‘In all the world religions, angels seem most concerned with calling on us to examine our souls, to improve our treatment of our fellow human beings, to resist passing judgment on others, and to put aside intolerance and prejudice in favor of becoming more loving and forgiving’. (B & S Steiger) But here the message is just pure joy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams set a libretto by Simona Pakenham called The First Nowell as a nativity play, which was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 19th December 1958. We are performing the concert version, which spares us the sight of the men dressed up in tablecloths and paper crowns or deciding which soprano is the prettiest to play Mary. It consists of some thirteen short movements, which are settings of well-known carols and elements of RVW’s own composition. The music is simple and the message direct. Should you get bored, why not tweet your vote to @mary but please keep phones turned off at all times!

The second half of our programme perhaps tackles the mystery behind the Christmas story. Whether it is Christina Rossetti’s poem In the bleak midwinter, which somehow marries the hugely diverse ideas of Heaven, God’s power and the lowly scene of his arrival on earth, set beautifully and movingly by Harold Darke. Or, the Cantique de Noël (O Holy Night) with complex words by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (you couldn’t make it up!) explaining nearly the whole of Christian theology in about five minutes, set nicely, but perhaps tritely, by Adolphe Charles Adam, the composer of the ballet Giselle.

The Snow by Edward Elgar is an 1894 setting of words by his wife Alice and dedicated in characteristically English fashion to Mrs E. B. Fitton of Malvern. If Alice had not been his wife, Elgar would probably not have touched this poem with a bargepole. It gets few marks for eloquence or depth but the sentiment is fine. Our hearts and souls should be pure like the snow but, unlike snow, our purity should endure all our lives. Elgar breathes life into her words with his gift for melody settled on strong harmonic structures.

William Byrd was also a master of melodic and harmonic invention writing his Christmas Motet O Magnum Mysterium nearly three hundred years earlier. These words place greater emphasis on Mary, Mother of God, who was herself subject to an angelic messenger, nine months earlier. Byrd seems to be able to build up layers of music effortlessly to bring out the depths of meaning in the words. In this version, we repeat the Beata Virgo section and then return to the beginning once again. The words and translation are reproduced here.

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio.
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum.
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin, whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.
Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you.

The four Christmas motets by Francis Poulenc are pieces we have performed before and doubtless will again. They are absolute pearls in the choral repertory and so typical of Poulenc’s style. Written in 1951-2 for unaccompanied choir, these are each a perfect miniature, which captures the nature of the traditional Latin texts with extraordinary precision and finesse. Not a single note, rest, dynamic or accent is out of place. Like an admired gem setting, each is understated so as not to be garish yet is subtle and rich enough to be breathtakingly beautiful. That is the music of Poulenc.

Four Motets for the season of Christmas

1. O magnum mysterium
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum.
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

2. Quem vidistis
Quem vidistis, pastores, dicite, annunciate nobis, in terris quis apparuit?
Natum vidimus et choros angelorum collaudantes Domino.
Dicite quidam vidistis et annuntiate Christi nativitatem
Whom did you see, shepherds, tell us, proclaim to us: who has appeared on the earth?
We saw the newborn child and choirs of angels praising the Lord.
Tell us how it happened, and announce the news of Christ’s birth.

3. Videntes stellam
Videntes stellam, Magi gravisi sunt gaudio magno:
et intrantes domum obtulerunt Domino aurum, thus, et myrrham.
When they saw the star the wise men were greatly delighted,
and they entered the house and offered to the Lord gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

4. Hodie Christus natus est
Hodie Christus natus est, hodie Salvator apparuit:
hodie in terra canunt Angeli, laetantur Archangeli:
hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo, alleluja.
Today is Christ born; today the Saviour has appeared;
today the Angels sing, the Archangels rejoice;
today the righteous rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!

Sara Kemsley

Royal Celebrations – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 16 June 2012 – St Martin’s Church, Brasted

Poster for The Cantate Choir's Royal Celebrations concert in June 2012

A golden treasury of English music – Music for Royal occasions from Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Elizabeth II


Ian Shaworgan


O. Gibbons – Preludium organ solo
O. Gibbons – O clap your hands together
Anon C16th – Rejoice in the Lord
H. Purcell – Funeral sentences
T. Bateson – Hark, hear you not?
W. Boyce – The King shall rejoice
C.H.H. Parry – I was glad when they said unto me
S.S. Wesley – Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace
R. Vaughan Williams – Rhosymedre organ solo
R. Vaughan Williams – O taste and see
Paul Mealor – Ubi caritas
G.F. Handel – Zadok the Priest

Programme notes

Parliaments and Ministers pass, but she abides in lifelong duty, and she is to them as the oak in the forest is to the annual harvest in the field.

These words could have been said of Queen Elizabeth I or II but in fact were written by William Gladstone of Queen Victoria. We have been particularly fortunate in this land in our female monarchs, who generally steered us through times of great prosperity and advancement. Even Queen Anne gave us chairs! Hopefully, therefore, you are sitting comfortably for this programme of Music for Royal Occasions, which really does open up a treasury of English music at its finest.

I will not go into the biographical details of tonight’s composers but it is possible to trace unbroken threads of connections like a family tree from our earliest 16th century piece, Rejoice in the Lord Alway, to the most recent, Ubi caritas, by Paul Mealor. These threads have touched composers, performers and listeners alike over five centuries and epitomise the English cathedral tradition, which was and remains unique in the world.

Redford, Gibbons, Bateson, Boyce and Wesley worked as organists in the leading cathedrals. Gibbons, Purcell, Handel, Parry, Vaughan Williams and Mealor have associations with Westminster Abbey, home to the unique pageant of British history. Purcell was influenced by the Tudor masters. Handel learned from Purcell and Parry taught Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Oxford, Cambridge and York are common places of learning. Four of the ten composers were members of the Chapel Royal, the monarch’s official body of musicians, and three others contributed pieces to royal collections in praise of their queens. Our island setting has meant that, while not averse to absorbing some continental fashions, British composers have always been aware of the best work in our own musical and spiritual centres. Composers preserved aspects of style and emotional language, which are distinctive, and developed a knack for setting our language sympathetically.

There was a gap in proceedings in every sense with the Civil War and Interregnum which followed the death of Charles I. A puritan Act, passed in 1644, required the removal of all superstitious monuments, which included organs from places of worship. At the time of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was also a lack of choristers and other musicians. Charles II embarked on rebuilding the stocks of music, musicians and instruments, starting with the Chapel Royal. Perhaps William Boyce’s greatest legacy was the compiling of some 300 years of compositions in score rather than part format for the first time in a book called Cathedral Music. And so the legacy continued.

Best known as a writer of straight-forward but engaging symphonies, Boyce was tasked with writing all the music for the coronation of George III in 1761, something never asked of the Master of the King’s Musick before or since. He recycled music from George and Charlotte’s wedding just two week’s earlier and refused point blank to do a new setting of Zadok the Priest, saying that ‘it cannot be more properly set than it already has been by Mr Handel’.

George Frederick Handel was the most cosmopolitan and a foreigner to boot (not that we have ever worried about adopting foreign talent as our own if it suits) and he did struggle with the nuances of the language. However, he above all others was master of the grandiose effect. No wonder then that the anthem, Zadok the Priest, which was originally composed for the coronation of George II in 1727, has been used at every coronation since and still exhilarates however often you hear it.

Queen Mary II (as in William and Mary) was a bit of a rebel. Daughter of catholic James II, she married protestant William of Orange and then, just to rub salt in the wounds, overthrew her father in the Glorious Revolution. While this made her something of an irritant in official circles, it made her very popular with the masses. After ruling jointly with her husband for five years, she died of smallpox in 1695. Purcell’s setting of the Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer really is the most priceless gem in our treasury. ‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery’. Together with those in the King James’ Bible, such words resonate in every English person’s soul and enrich our language. Purcell’s mastery of melodic invention, clear structure and chromatic intensity harnesses and articulates the mood of a nation, unaccustomed to emotional outpourings at the best or worst of times.

Parry and Wesley worked at a time when cathedral music was in a slump and the continental giants of Romanticism were doing things very differently. Nonetheless, their works have measured class. And what of Paul Mealor? Is the tradition safe in his hands? There is a reminder of plainchant here and the dissonances, like those of Gibbons, are interesting not aggressive. Above all the emotion is one of calm warmth and assurance. Just what you would expect from a Welshman, educated in York and working in Scotland with five hundred years behind him!

Sara Kemsley

J.S.Bach – Mass in B Minor – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 17 March 2012 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks


Alice PrivettSoprano
Kathryn WalkerSoprano
Leo TomitaAlto
Tim LawrenceTenor
Alistair OllerenshawBass
Hazel Brooksleader


Bach – Mass in B minor

Programme notes

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Johannes Sebastian Bach

The Mass in B Minor is the only full mass or missa tota, which Bach wrote and it was also his last major composition. Working as a Lutheran composer in eighteenth century Germany, it was the short mass consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria, which was used for church services. The B minor mass was pulled together from movements written earlier in his life: the Kyrie and Gloria in 1733 for the Elector of Saxony, the Sanctus in 1724 and the Qui tollis based on a cantata chorus of 1714. To these he added newly composed sections. There is speculation that Bach wrote this full mass, not for liturgical use, but as a statement of Christian beliefs for all people and for all time.

Musically, it represents the pinnacle of High Baroque style, a style which had already given way to the simpler galant style of Bach’s own sons and composers such as Stamitz, Quantz, Couperin and Telemann. This clean, clear homophonic style with easy melodies and gentle decoration laid the foundations for the mature Classical style of Haydn and Mozart by the end of the century. In this sense, Bach was already behind the times and his music all but disappeared until the nineteenth century rediscovery of this hardworking and unassuming genius.

“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” Try telling that to the orchestral musicians who accompany our performance this evening. They have committed years to mastering their instruments and hours to maintaining their period versions in good playing order. Bach’s musicians must have been no less skilful as the orchestra plays a vital role in securing Bach’s vision and technical brilliance. The different colours of each movement, and of sections within movements, are created by absolutely unique combinations of wind, brass and string timbres. This is quite literally his canvas upon which the words of the mass are layered.

The opening movement, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) sets up all that is to follow. A short, chromatic declamation in B minor is followed by an instrumental prelude of dark and subdued nature from strings and oboe d’amore, an alto-voiced oboe. The Kyrie proper then comes in the form of a 5-part fugue but one with such a long subject melody and at a gentle walking pace so that all you notice is the luxurious interlacing of parts and none of the theoretical genius behind its composition. This is like mining a seam of unspeakably gorgeous Belgian chocolates, the flavours constantly changing, some a little surprising. When it suddenly ends, you are already looking for the next layer.

Christe eleison (Christ have mercy) is in D major and sung elegiacally by two soprano soloists over a typically busy string and continuo accompaniment. The traditional repeat of Kyrie eleison is another fugue, this time in 4-parts, that is four voice parts. This one is a sinuous and slippery character full of shifting semitones and is another third higher in F sharp minor.

The Gloria is split by Bach into nine sections each with its own character arising from careful selection of voices, keys and instrumentation. It begins with a dancing, triple time piece with glittering flutes and trumpets adding to the joy. The changes of gear on occasion are unsettling but the words are usually in charge, for Bach is the master of imagery through music. For example, the dainty flute and violin accompaniment for Domine Deus is a crystalline sorbet compared with the fiddly and nervous soufflé for the solo soprano in Laudamus Te or the pensive alto solo with accompanying oboe d’amore for Qui sedes (who sitteth at the right hand).

The bass aria, Quoniam tu solus sanctus (Thou art the only holy one) seems to argue this theory; with hunting horn and two bassoons, it is almost comically absurd. But surely this is Bach at the height of his powers enjoying a hand-stopped natural horn and the human bass voice performing near-impossible leaps and wriggles to express the one, almighty, most high. This is exhibition stuff from an old master.

The next major section is the Nicene Creed (I believe in one God, Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth). This is also split into nine sections beginning with a fugue for choir based on the original Gregorian chant for Credo in unum Deum. There is great energy in these movements and a sureness of touch. For example, the duet of the third movement, which is written like a round just one beat apart, still sounds completely natural and assured despite the compositional dexterity.

The word-painting of the next three movements speaks for itself in the descending phrases for ‘was made flesh’, the heart-rending Crucifixus and the elation of ‘on the third day, rose again’. The bass aria which follows is this time genteelly pastoral with oboes and continuo for a dignified setting of ‘the holy spirit, Lord and giver of life’. The Creed ends with the longest movement, Confiteor unum baptisma (We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church). This section looks forward to the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection after death and life ever after. The full forces of choir and orchestra are brought to bear in this joyous affirmation of faith.

Much of the mass so far has been for 5-part chorus, the extra soprano line giving light and brilliance to the textures. From the Sanctus to the end, Bach builds the choral forces more and more strongly. Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, is for 6-part choir, the extra alto line enriching the middle register and providing glue in the oscillating triplet lines. It also means that a 6-part fugal section is much busier to describe Pleni sunt coeli (the heavens are full of his glory), trumpet-blowing cherubim flitting all over the place.

The final group of movements, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, opens with the only unison and unaccompanied cry of the whole work. In D major, the most nearly-related key to the pervading B minor, this is unequivocal joy and does little to prepare us for the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, have mercy upon us). In G minor (two flats instead of two sharps), this is musically the most distant key of the entire work. The yearning phrases of the alto soloist are almost painful, set against the hesitant but constant bass line. Nearly every long note in the entire movement is a dissonance waiting to be soothed.

Unusually, Bach takes the final words of the Agnus Dei (grant us peace) and treats them as a final movement, a straightforward, last short fugue in an affirmative D major on a rising theme. Ite, missa est, the priest would say by way of dismissal. Bach seems to be telling us to do likewise, our souls refreshed.

Sara Kemsley

Durufle Requiem and Gareth Wilson’s Decalogue – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 26 November, 2011 – St Mary’s Platt Church, Nr Borough Green

Poster for Cantate Choir's Durufle Requiem concert in November 2011


Gareth Wilsoncomposer & conductor
Nicholas O’Neillorgan


Gareth Wilson – Decalogue
Duruflé – Requiem

This concert included Gareth Wilson’s first performance outside London of ‘Decalogue’.

Performing new music, and working with composers is a real thrill for musicians: getting the music ‘hot off the press’. The Cantate Chamber Choir worked with Gareth Wilson, conductor, composer, theologian and educator, preparing his new work ‘Decalogue’ for their concert on Saturday 26th November in the Parish Church of St Mary Platt.

The work, sets biblical texts from both the old and new testaments, to music as a set of eleven motets for choir and organ. Each text is chosen to highlight one of the Ten Commandments, with the eleventh movement being the words of Jesus; “I give you a new commandment”.

The composer, Gareth Wilson, conducted the work and the choir’s musical director, Robin Walker, played the substantial organ accompaniment.

For the second half of the concert Robin conducted the choir as they performed one of the choral repertoire’s most loved works: Maurice Duruflé’s ‘Requiem’, with its haunting ‘Pie Jesu’ and heavenly ‘In Paradisum’.

Programme notes

Everyone ought to bear patiently the results of his own conduct‘. Phaedrus (1st century AD)

Both of tonight’s composers bring to their work great attention to detail and a theological interest, which adds layers of meaning to otherwise traditional techniques. Both have served as directors of music at distinguished capital city churches: Duruflé at St. Etienne du Mont in Paris and Wilson at Christ Church, Chelsea. Maurice Duruflé was such a perfectionist that he only allowed around a dozen works to be published and even then, he often tinkered with them after publication. He studied the organ and then composition at the Paris Conservatoire and followed a career as an organist in partnership with his organist wife, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier- Duruflé, until a serious car crash in 1974 left him almost completely housebound. He died in 1986.

Gareth Wilson’s Decalogue is a working of the Ten Commandments, which received its first performance in 2010 at King’s College Chapel, London, where Gareth is also choral director. The work merits the detailed reading of the composer’s own notes, which are reproduced with this programme, but for those wanting the short guide, some essentials follow here. Each commandment is a treatment of a biblical text, which is in some way an illustration of humanity’s ability to get it wrong – over and over again. Gareth is interested in our tendency to make pronouncements and judgements upon other people, without looking at ourselves or improving our self-knowledge. The bible, he asserts is ’if nothing else, an exploration of what it is to be human’.

He uses several conventions throughout the work to help our understanding of the texts and the theological points he raises. He has set Latin versions of all the biblical texts, an unusual choice given 400 years of the King James’ version of the Bible in English. The voice of God is invariably represented by the choir singing in octaves. Where there is harmony, this is humanity, or sometimes Christ, speaking. He also uses melodic fragments to represent ideas like Good and Evil, which occur in several movements and contribute to that sense of ‘will we never learn?’ which seems to pervade the texts.

Nos. I and X deal with Man overreaching himself with the expulsion from Paradise and the building of the Tower of Babel. III, IV, VI and VII all remind us of the hypocrisy of those in authority who pass down judgments when their own actions leave much to be desired. II, V and IX deal with the frailty of the human will, which has too little faith, a lack of appreciation for what we have and a lack of backbone when times get tough. No. VIII ‘You shall not steal’ treats the Judgement of Solomon. It is a story retold by Bertolt Brecht in the Caucasian Chalk Circle. Two mothers argue over a child they believe to be theirs. The true mother is the one prepared to give up her child rather than harm him. Wilson adds an eleventh commandment, just as Christ did. It is sung unaccompanied in English, “I give you a new commandment that ye love one another. As I have loved you, so must ye love one another.”

The Requiem Mass of Duruflé was written in 1947 and follows in a long line of settings all the way back to the plainchant version set down by Pope Gregory in the sixth century. As a choirboy at Rouen Cathedral, Duruflé became very familiar with the transcriptions of Gregorian chant and all nine movements of the Requiem, as well as others of his works, make extensive use of the original chants. Whereas, most previous settings of the Mass for the Dead make full use of the dramatic elements of the words, Duruflé, like his compatriot Fauré before him, leaves out the long Dies Irae, which deals with all the fire and brimstone stuff. He inserts instead the Pie Jesu and ends with In Paradisum. This, combined with the flowing plainchant rhythms and limpid, impressionist harmonies, gives the piece a contemplative and encouraging character and stands in contrast with the works of Mozart and Verdi for example.

The composer produced three versions of the Requiem, with organ or orchestral accompaniment, with and without soloists. Our version is the most pared back and, some might say, most in keeping with its monastic roots. The opening Introit is sung very gently by the men over a moto perpetuo figure on the organ. The women, as ever, are being ethereal. The Kyrie builds a more elaborate polyphonic texture from the plainchant opening, which builds and builds so that every voice is soaring in luscious harmony.

The third movement, Domine Jesu Christe, prays for release from the jaws of hell. After a hesitant start, the music is more angular and chordal. The keys rise higher and higher as the desperate souls beg not to end up in the abyss. This all changes as first the ladies and then the men remind God of his promise to spare Abraham and his seed.

Sanctus is very reminiscent of Faure’s treatment, soft slow chords over constantly moving arpeggio figures in the accompaniment and the effect is almost the same: a static (even ecstatic) moment of peace. This is followed by Pie Jesu set for Mezzo-soprano solo, a heartfelt prayer for eternal rest. The calm seems to continue in the Agnus Dei but appearances are deceptive here. An agitated little accompaniment sits underneath the elegiac phrases throughout. The phrases of the singers are short and uncertain and the effect is heightened when the altos follow the sopranos in a tight little canon. However, all consternation dissolves at the words ‘dona eis requiem sempiternam’ (Grant them eternal rest).

The seventh movement Lux Aeterna has a lucidity and charm which is reminiscent of some modern carol settings with a simple high melody over hummed chords. The contrast then in the next movement Libera Me is extraordinary. Trombone and trumpet sounds signal the Last Judgement and the voices of the men sound as if they are calling from the deep ‘release me, Lord, from eternal death’. This movement is theatrical, albeit a restrained treatment, in its setting of the words. Finally, we glimpse In Paradisum among the angelic chorus. Long held notes suspend us in the stratosphere and the final chord remains unresolved. We must wait a while longer, it seems, patiently considering our own conduct.

Sara Kemsley

Auguri Italia! – Programme notes

Tuesday 31 May 2011 – Methodist Church, Florence, Italy
Wednesday 1 June 2011 – 13th century church of Saint Augustine, San Gimignano, Italy
Thursday 2 June 2011 – La Badia Fiorentina (Florence Abbey), Florence, Italy
7.30pm, Thursday 16 June – St Margaret Patten’s Church, City of London
7.30pm, Saturday 18 June – St Martin’s Church, Brasted

Poster from the choir's Auguri Italia! tour to Italy

On 30th May, ‘Cantate’ set off for Florence, for a week of performances in Tuscany. They take with them a delightful summer programme celebrating 150 years of Italian Unity and will return to England for their UK concerts in London and finally Brasted. These ‘a capella’ concerts will feature music from the 15th to the 20th century, with a particular focus on Italian and English composers, including Giovanni Gabrieli, Antonio Lotti, Charles Wood, William Harris, John Dowland and Edward Bairstow. The concert will finish with Joseph Rheinberger’s wonderful Mass in E flat major.

In Florence, all three concert venues are ancient churches with rich histories. The first is the Methodist Church in Florence, built in the 12th Century as a monastery, and the place where the clavichord was perhaps invented. It is also only a few doors away from the palazzo in which dramatic recitative was first heard, the birthplace of modern operatic style. The church is only a few hundred yards from the church of Santa Croce, where Rossini is buried, whose Messe Solennelle the choir performed in March this year.

Photo of San Gimignano Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, one of the venues for the Choir's tour to Italy
San Gimignano Chiesa di Sant’Agostino

The 13th century church of Saint Augustine in the UNESCO World Heritage town of San Gimignano, south of Florence, is the choir’s second port of call. San Gimignano is famous for its many tall towers, used to dry long lengths of cloth dyed with local saffron, and visible for many miles around. The town was used in the film Tea with Mussolini, and is the setting for the video game Assassin’s Creed II !

For their final concert the choir perform in one of Florence’s most ancient churches, La Badia Fiorentina (Florence Abbey), which dates back to the year 978, and where Robin is currently organist. The monastic community there have given the choir special permission to give a rare concert, which will be the final highlight of the trip.

The choir also performed this summer programme on two occasions in England. First on Thursday 16th June when the choir sang in the City of London at St Margaret Patten’s Church and then on the opening night of the Sevenoaks Festival at St Martin’s Church Brasted on the 18th June.


Hugo Kelly – Magnificat
J. Arcadelt – Ave maria
G. Gabrieli – Jubilate Deo a 8
T. Weelkes – When David heard
A. Lotti – Crucifixus a 8
A. Bruckner – Ave Maria, Locus iste, Os justi
C. Wood – Great Lord of Lords
S. Rachmaninov – Blessed is the man
A. Bax – Lord, thou hast told us
E. Bairstow – I sat down under his shadow
J. Rheinberger – Double mass in E flat
W. Harris – Bring us, O Lord God

Programme notes

Music is the harmonious voice of creation; an echo of the invisible world. Giuseppe Mazzini

In March 1861, Victor Emmanuel II became the first King of a unified Italy thanks largely to the work of politicians Mazzini and Cavour and the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy had developed as a number of city states and small republics such as Venice, Florence, Siena and Naples. The Pope governed the Papal States but there was constant political upheaval and insurgence as the Holy Roman Emperors in the north vied with the Popes for power.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the constant power struggles, Italy was the centre of the world for both trade and the arts. Florence, especially under the Medicis, was a forcing ground for art and architecture. Venice was at one time the most powerful trading state in the world and its art and music flourished alongside. Musicians learned their craft in Italy and the instrument makers provided their tools. Song was everywhere.

The first half of our programme consists of music, which was either written during this time of renaissance and cultural domination or was inspired by precepts of vocal purity and faithfulness to the liturgical text, associated with sacred Italian music. By 1861, the Italians were really only interested in opera and so we turn to composers from other countries for our second half of astonishing sacred choral works. All lived in times of struggle of empires and revolution. All found inspiration in religious texts and all owe something to the choral traditions first laid down in Renaissance Italy.

Henry Kellyk is the earliest and least known of our composers. An Englishman of the mid-15th century, only two of his works survive. He starts us in the late Medieval world, opening with plainchant, which the monks knew by heart. His music elaborates the words in layers of rhythmically complex melismas, which render the text incomprehensible but the sound would have rung around the lofty churches as ‘the harmonious voice of creation’.

Ave Maria, like the Magnificat, is one of the Marian texts and we have two settings in our programme. The cult of Mary was strong in the Catholic Church but lessened in the protestant liturgies after the Reformation. The version by Jacob Arcadelt demonstrates the dramatic change brought about by the Council of Trent. He was a Flemish composer working in Rome and understood well the Council’s intention to place text at the centre of church music. Music from this time must be simple and dignified.

Giovanni Gabrieli was working in another state, in Venice. Away from the direct gaze of the Pope, music here was a more glittering affair and instruments were commonly added. Voices and instruments were often used together and in opposition. The Jubilate Deo is for eight voices creating a rich tapestry of overlapping lines.

Thomas Weelkes in England spent most of his life under the patronage of Chichester Cathedral. Although a later piece, possibly written at the death of Prince Henry in 1612, the sacred madrigal When David heard that Absolom was slain draws on elements old and new. The 6-part setting is rhythmically straight-forward but the uneasy tonality takes us back to medieval false relations, where one part sharpens notes while another is flattening them. The result is a particularly poignant expression of the grief of a father for his dead son.

The 8-part Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti takes Weelkes’ use of dissonance to a whole new level. The only points of harmonic resolution come in three places, emphasizing ‘crucified’, for ‘us’ and ‘buried’. The strain and agony is intense.

It is for Anton Bruckner to take us forward now to unification and this he does musically as well as temporally. His motets are written in a simple style to ensure that the text is paramount but his harmonic language is romantic. This time, it was not the Council of Trent which gave guidance to sacred composition. The Cecilian Movement established itself across Europe and America to reduce the operatic theatricality in oratorios and other sacred pieces, which had become prevalent.

Across Europe, Christian worship had developed many branches: Roman Catholicism, eastern Orthodoxy, Protestant Methodism, the Anglican communion and so on. Charles Wood was a Cambridge organist and composer steeped in the Anglican traditions. Blessed is the Man by Rachmaninov comes from his Russian Vespers. Edward Bairstow mainly worked in churches in northern England and in York Minster. Arnold Bax was an orchestral composer but this simple gem reminds us that much of the English Hymnal was written by first-rate composers.

Finally, Joseph Rheinberger’s Eb Mass more than nods to the Cecilian belief that plainness is next to godliness. It also harks back to the antiphonal choirs of Renaissance Venice and so brings our concert full circle, ‘an echo of the invisible world’.

Sara Kemsley

Rossini – Petite Messe Solennelle – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 19 March 2011 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Poster for the Cantate Choir's March 2011 Concert - Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle


Iain Ledinghampiano
Anne Pageharmonium
Suzanna Marks-Perrysoprano
Susan Mooremezzo-soprano
Kevin Kyletenor
James Gowerbass


Rossini – Petite Messe Solennelle

Programme notes

Thou knowest, O Lord, as well as I, that really I am only a composer of opera buffa. Rossini, dedication to Petite Messe solennelle (1864)

This is also the man who variously said, “Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music”, “Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind” and, my favourite, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.” Are you getting a picture of whom we are dealing with here? Gioacchino Rossini has to be one of the most outrageous figures in the composers’ archive.

He was notoriously idle and slapdash. His successes were approximately equal in number to his failures. A third of his operas at least are just rehashes of earlier works. Everywhere he went, he ran into trouble with critics, audiences, mistresses, even the Austrian secret police and he seems to have scarpered all over Europe at various times escaping this or that ‘local difficulty’. His productive life as a composer was short, only about twenty years, during which time he wrote 38 operas, 19 sacred works, some 13 instrumental works and numerous songs.

From about 1829 after the composition of William Tell, he fell into a period of ill health, both mental and physical. He did not write another opera or barely another note until his old age. At the same time, he seems to have amassed a fortune and gained numerous rewards and honours. He had a knack, it would seem, of getting a lucrative contract to produce a work, which never materialised. By the time this might be a problem, he had re-located elsewhere in Europe. The less he did, the more people liked him. He lived like a modern celebrity, if you ask me, getting away with extraordinary infelicities because we just love his tunes and he makes us feel good!

The Petite Messe Solennelle was written in 1863 to inaugurate the private chapel of the Count and Countess Pillet-Will and had its first performance on 14 March 1864. Scored for chorus, soloists, piano and harmonium, Rossini described it as the last of his ‘sins of old age’. The harmonium was invented and patented by Alexandre Francois Debain in 1841, used for the first performance and it is a Debain harmonium of the same period, which is played tonight by Anne Page. Thus we are directly linked to the composer’s sound world in this performance. The harmonium was created to give a reed organ capable of expression, ‘une orgue expressif’.

A five octave keyboard, with four sets of reeds, the bellows are directly controlled by the player through the pedals and thus she can control the air pressure passing through the reeds. For much of the work, it provides the legato glue in the piano’s bouncy and percussive contributions.

It has been said that this piece needs just a small hall, piano, harmonium, a small group of choristers and the four greatest soloists on earth! Certainly, they need extraordinary stamina for they are expected to double up with the chorus in their seven numbers and sing their own solos and ensembles in the other six. So take a deep breath and let’s get going!

Part 1 begins of course with Kyrie (Lord have mercy upon us), a teasing opener with long suspenseful lines in the chorus over a constantly chugging piano bass. Suddenly, this stops and Christe eleison (Christ have mercy upon us) is a surprising piece of polyphonic, a capella writing in Renaissance style. The Kyrie returns and moves now into a major tonality, as if Rossini is getting comfortable with this Mass business.

The Gloria (glory to God on high and peace on earth to men) is assertive and operatic and spiritual in a kind of Sound of Music way. Close your eyes and you can picture the scene. This is followed by a trio for alto, tenor and bass with piano, Gratias agimus tibi (we give thanks to You). This begins in a pleasant enough manner but builds into a richly contrapuntal texture that is most satisfying.

Domine Deus (Lord God, King of heaven, only begotten son) is a tenor solo. Such a piece might be the kind which prompted Beethoven to tell Rossini to stick to writing comic operas! Especially as the tune is almost a perfect copy of one found in Beethoven’s string quartet Op.18 no.4. Is he ‘aving a laugh?

Soprano and contralto soloists restore a suitable mood in Qui tollis (who takest away the sins of the world) and we can picture here two strong but worried women on stage grieving for the state of the world but placing their faith in God. The bass picks up his aria as the wise counsellor coming onto stage for Quoniam (Thou, Lord, only art holy). Always so reassuring to have a man around in troubled times! The chorus returns to the opening Gloria music and extends it for Cum sancto spiritu (with the Holy Spirit, the glory of God the Father). This is the most chirpy and life-affirming Amen you will ever hear.

Part 2 begins with the Credo (I believe in one God). This feels like more orthodox 19th century sacred music but Rossini cannot resist some dramatic recitative style at ‘and was made man’. This sets up the next aria Crucifixus to be sung by the soprano in a lyrical, amoroso style. Now our heroine is kneeling at the foot of the cross for sure. The chorus puts a stop to this with the words Et resurrexit (and arose on the third day) and then takes us on a lengthy romp through the remaining words of the creed.

The instrumental Preludio religioso is the most heartfelt section of the whole piece. Why this complete change of mood? Was the elderly Gioacchino beginning to think that you cannot entirely laugh off life, death and that which is to come? Certainly the choral Sanctus which follows is short and unconvinced compared with most Masses. Rossini inserts O salutaris hostia at this point. This is not normally in the Mass. It is a hymn of benediction but he only sets the first verse which has us beset by foes and hoping for the best. Oh dear!

The final section Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world) needs to come up trumps for us, and for a while…..but, no, I will not give away the ending!

Sara Kemsley

Ceremony of Carols – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 11 December 2010 – St Marys Platt, Nr Borough Green

Poster for the Cantate Choir's December 2010 Concert - Ceremony of Carols


Camilla Payharp


G. Palestrina – Matin Responsory
H J Gauntlett – Once in Royal David’s City
arr. Willcocks – Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
H. Darke – In the bleak mid-winter
M. Grandjany 1891-1775 – Aria in a classic style - Harp solo
R.R. Bennett – Susanni
arr. Willcocks – Il est né le divin enfant
J. Rutter – Wexford carol
Austr. trad. arr. Willcocks – He smiles within his cradle
arr. Willcocks – Angelus ad Virginem
S-R. Marcel 1882-1955 – Variations pastorales sur un vieux noël - Harp solo
arr. Willcocks – Sussex carol
Pearsall – In dulci jubilo
arr. R. Jacques – The holly and the ivy
arr. Willcocks – I saw three ships
arr. R. Jacques – Good King Wenceslas
B. Britten – Ceremony of carols

Programme notes

Wolcum, Wolcum, Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum Yole, Wolcum alle and make good cheer,
Wolcum alle another yere, Wolcum Yole, Wolcum!

In 1939, Benjamin Britten was tired of the musical scene in England and in Europe. Though successful, he was not accepted as a foremost English composer as he deserved. Following on from Edward Elgar, there was a flowering of British composers working in a pastoral, neo-nationalist style: Bliss, Delius, Bantock, Finzi, Bax, and of course, the giant Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Britten’s style was altogether different; sparse and angular, influenced by the work of Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, composers considered most unsuitable for a young English composer to admire.

Inspired by the work of the poet W H Auden, he set off for America. The two shared interests in politics, moral philosophy and the role of artist-in-society. Both had a technical mastery of their chosen medium bordering on the virtuoso. They collaborated on a number of successful co-ventures, notably his early operetta Paul Bunyan and the Hymn to Saint Cecilia. But Britten found America to have “all the faults of Europe and none of the attractions” and so, in 1942, he set sail to return to England. En route, he stopped in Nova Scotia, where he came upon The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, a collection of medieval texts. Despite the difficulty and terror of a transatlantic crossing at the height of U-boat activity, he began setting some of the poems for boys’ choir and harp. These later became the collection we know as A Ceremony of Carols.

Britten had been studying the harp with a view to writing a concerto for that unique instrument. It was to be another twenty-seven years before he wrote his challenging Suite for harp, for his friend Osian Ellis. However, the writing in

A Ceremony of Carols is already masterful and entirely idiomatic. It is also a turning point when Britten looked to his English musical roots and a more populist and melodic style. Though he never lost his individuality and modernity, this won him a lasting place as a musical genius.

It is worth knowing something about writing for the harp in order to appreciate more fully this fabulous instrument and Britten’s handling of it. It is not just that thing which (normally) attractive young ladies play to pretty up ballet music with all the impressive flourishes. It is steeped in history and indeed mythology. Wasn’t Apollo, the god of music himself, a player of the harp? There are harps painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs. The small Celtic harps which adorn various types of ale are gentle souls, well suited to the accompaniment of folk tales and ballads. The modern pedal harp however is a complex and enigmatic creature. Orchestral musicians know to keep well clear, not just because they are beautiful and so, so expensive but because the owner invariably surrounds herself in an invisible sphere of mysterious doings; the lengthy and loving packing and unpacking; the solitary tuning of all forty-seven strings before each and every session; the studied setting of the pedals before each entry; the ability to read a novel (never a newspaper) without missing that one vital solo in the third movement! And, what’s more, they do not even use all their fingers! The pinkies can be held as daintily as the vicar’s wife with a tea-cup, for they will never be called upon to play a single note.

The double-action pedal harp was invented in 1810 by Sébastien Érard. It has seven pedals, one for each note of the diatonic scale. In the basic position, all the strings are flats: Cb, Db, Eb and so on. The first pedal position tightens all the strings to naturals and the second position to sharps. You do the ‘math’ on the possible combinations which can be achieved!

After the opening unaccompanied procession, Hodie Christus natus est, the harp opens up in very practical style; simple arpeggiated chords and evenly matched figuration between the two hands for Wolcum Yole!. In No.3 There is no rose we hear the resonant ostinato bass in octaves, which underpins this beautiful setting of these anonymous words.

Fully chromatic scales are difficult to produce on the harp but amazing effects can be created by tuning strings to the same note, for example ‘trilling’ on C# and Db creates a rapid repetition of one note. This effect is heard in No.4a That yongë child. In No.4b Balulalow, Britten makes good use of the natural resonance of harp strings. With other instruments, the note stops when you cease to blow or bow or the piano damper falls. The notes of a harp ring on unless you deliberately ‘stop’ them. The swinging phrases in alternating minor and major blur and blend in this lovely, luminous lullaby.

The closeness and smallness of the upper strings makes the whispering effect called bisbigliando very easy to achieve. In No.5 As dew in Aprille, it is just enough to suggest the near silent falling of the dew. Playing closer to the sounding board gives a bright, hard sound made more percussive with the rapid use of both hands as in No.6 This little babe. This suits well the aggressive words of Robert Southwell portraying the Christ-child as an avenging angel who will rout out evil and protect all those who follow Him. Playing in the key of Cb major, when all the strings are at their longest, gives the greatest resonance. This is the key Britten chooses for No. 7 Interlude for solo harp. Big chords are placed over dazzling, bell-like harmonics, another special feature of the harp.

In No.8, we hear again the nervous fluttering of harp tremolos in a repetitive 5/4 figure, which exactly captures the shivering and stamping of anyone watching the scene unfolding In Freezing Winter Night. No.9, Spring Carol for two sopranos, finds the harp at its most playful. The ability to skip around, especially in the upper register, is meat and drink to the harpist and captures the skittering and singing of the birdès and other creatures to perfection. The final accompanied Deo Gracias brings many techniques together for an exciting climax of thanksgiving, culminating in the exhilarating use of glissandi. Adam at last gets the credit he deserves, for if he had not taken that apple then Mary would not have produced the Son of God on earth. ‘Blessed be that time that appil takè was. Therefore we moun singen Deo gracias.’ Alleluia to that and a happy Christmas!

Sara Kemsley

Haydn – Creation – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 20 March 2010 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Poster for the Cantate Choir's March 2010 Concert - Haydn Creation


Robin Walkerorgan
Gillian Keithsoprano
Kevin Kyletenor
Gavin Horsley – bass
Hazel Brooksleader


Haydn – Creation

Programme notes

What if earth be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein each to other like, more than on earth is thought? John Milton, Paradise Lost

Keen readers of these notes will know from our last concert that Haydn wrote his masterwork The Creation late in his life. His then patron Prince Esterhazy was not musically inclined and left Haydn to his own devices, thus freeing him up from the social constraints of a resident composer to write ‘for himself and for posterity’. He had recently returned from a trip to England in 1795, where impresario Salomon had given him a long libretto called The Creation using text from the Bible and John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost. It had apparently been offered to Handel but he found it lengthy and lacking in the operatic drama he required for his oratorios. But Haydn had no such qualms and immediately asked his friend Baron van Swieten to translate it into German for him and began to compose.

The translation of the words has been a source of conjecture and controversy over the years. Both the Baron and Haydn were determined that the printed score should have both German and English words, so van Swieten translated it back into English when it was printed in 1800. We all know how much can get lost in translation. Sign outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.” The biblical passages survive the process well. It is the Miltonic verses, which have arrived back almost unrecognisable. Several editors have tinkered over the years to improve the underlay (the way the text fits the music) and the un-English order of the sentences, “In splendour bright is rising now the sun” for example. Most choirs and audiences are so accustomed to this, however, that a wholesale revision would be received much as new versions of prayer books; it’s easier to understand but not the same somehow.

The Creation takes us through the six days it took God to do His work and into the seventh, when Adam and Eve take time to marvel at their new home. It does not go into the murky depths of what happened next and therefore the whole spirit of the piece is uplifting, joyous and, yes, playful. This was Haydn’s character too and he allows his creative and humorous juices to flow throughout, as his music describes every detail of the new created world which springs up.

From Paradise Lost the unknown author takes the characters of three archangels: Uriel (Tenor), Raphael (Bass) and Gabriel (Soprano). These take turns to narrate the bible passage from Genesis in recitative and then, through an aria, to describe in poetic detail what has been created. The role of the choir is rather that of a Greek chorus and it provides an awed response to what has occurred and praises God for His achievements. Only once is the choir directly involved in the action and what a moment that is! No sooner has Raphael started with ‘In the beginning…’, than the choir takes over in hushed tones with ‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, (wait for it!) Let there be LIGHT’!!! All heaven breaks out in the choir and orchestra. This must surely be what gave scientists the idea for the Big Bang Theory! From this moment on, we know that we are in for an exhilarating, roller-coaster ride through creation.


The Representation of Chaos

This is a sensational orchestral prelude, which captures in 18th century terms the formless void. Imagine you have never heard any music written since, no romanticism, no modern, no jazz, no pop. Haydn’s audience would have been spellbound and mystified by the extraordinary quiet of this opening, the rhythmic uncertainty and the rootless, shifting harmonies that seem unable to settle. Where are the four-bar phrases? Where are the rules of classical harmony? Where is the structure? Exactly!

Day One – Let there be light

Into this primordial state comes the still, small voice of Raphael hardly daring to interrupt in case, in doing so, the spark of life is snuffed out before it truly begins. The bleak C minor becomes an ecstatic C major as light pours onto the scene. The tenor (Uriel) enters in high excitement that ‘God saw the light, that it was good’. His aria is then in A major, a key as far removed from C minor as blue and red in the light spectrum, as night and day, as chaos and order of which he sings. He and the choir then tell how the evil spirits are plunged down into Hell and into endless night. This is done with disjointed arpeggios and chromatic scales so that the contrast is all the greater when the choir sings in jaunty A major of the ‘new created world’.

Day Two – Firmament, water, sky

In this short section, Raphael recites the creation of land and sea and gives the very first weather report. Always the orchestra depicts the events before the narration, as if to show that God’s work comes first and only then can man perceive it. Gabriel and the choir round off day two with ‘The marv’llous work behold amazed’ once more in C major.

Day Three – Seas, mountains, fields, flowers

‘Rolling in foaming billows’, Raphael’s next aria, gives the orchestra the chance to exercise its Sturm und Drang muscles with tempestuous and continuously agitated semiquavers. Now we are in D minor, which can become a smoother, rocking D major as we come in land via the rivers to the ‘limpid brook’. The description of the green and verdant land is given to Gabriel, the soprano, in a lyrical aria in Bb major, ‘with verdure clad the fields appear’. This is for the first time in 6/8 rhythm, a metre very much associated with pastoral scenes in the classical portfolio. Once again, the choir rounds of the section with a hymn of praise for the third day, ‘Awake the harp, the lyre awake’.

Day Four – Day and night; sun, moon and stars

This section is opened in accompanied recitative by the tenor, Uriel, who describes how day and night are characterised by sun, moon and stars. No aria follows this time but choir and soloists unite in perhaps the best-known movement of the entire work, ‘the Heavens are telling the glory of God’ back now in C major. One third of Haydn’s symphonies are in C major. It is his key of happiness and celebration. It was also the only key for trumpets and kettledrums until the late 18th century.


Day Five – Birds and whales, all living creatures

Now that living creatures start to appear, Haydn can turn to his experience of writing opera and to make full use of the dexterous soprano voices of the day. The aria ‘on mighty pens uplifted soars the eagle aloft’ makes full use of the ability of the high voice and its sister instrument the flute to represent the various warblings of lark, dove and nightingale while violins dart hither and yon. The bass then exhorts all the fish and fowl to be fruitful and multiply in a short but resonant piece. The trio of soloists greet this with an ecstatic A major movement describing all the wonders now around and all attributed to God. The choir joins the trio to confirm that ‘the Lord is great’ and that his might will last for ever.

‘Straight opening her fertile womb’, the earth now brings forth various animals. Once again, the orchestra depicts the movements before Raphael announces first the tawny lion, then the flexible tiger, the nimble stag and the noble steed. A pastoral 6/8 again accompanies the grazing cattle and sheep. Little stabbing staccatos announce the swarms of insects but best of all is Haydn’s joke as ‘in long dimension creeps the sinuous worm’.

Day Six – And God created man

God’s work seems almost done and Raphael takes stock in his aria ‘Now Heaven in fullest glory shone’. But something is missing. He pauses to consider and realises that someone is needed who can appreciate all this creation and praise God in his gratitude. Uriel announces the creation of man in God’s image. This time, C major is used for a heroic aria ‘In native worth and honour clad’ to describe this god-like vision of man, who must rule over all Nature. The accompaniment is now thrusting, assertive and strong, moving effortlessly through a range of keys in mature Classical style. When woman is added, the same melody is made more gentle by the addition of extra quavers, a more liquid accompaniment and more constant harmonies. The aria ends softly in ‘love, and joy and bliss’.

At the end of the sixth day God sees everything he has made and that it is good. The choir concurs with the mighty chorus ‘Achieved is the glorious work’. Though not long, this chorus manages to combine the strength of homophonic writing (all parts moving together) with the intricacies of fugal entries, where parts copy and overlap each other to create a rich texture. This, in miniature, represents the world which has just been created. The trio of soloists then describes the relationship of God to all the creatures on earth, how ‘on Thee each living soul awaits’. Food and wellbeing flow from the hand of God but, if withheld, then all suffer and are fearful. The choir reiterates its chorus in a longer version to close Part Two.


Praises to God

This is dawn of the first morning on earth, the seventh day, the day God rested. We know immediately that this is new for we are in E major for the first and only time in a luxuriously warm and rosy introduction. Uriel now takes the role of narrator. The Bass and Soprano portray Adam and Eve and the choir is the angelic host. Together they marvel at the world around them, their happiness in it and their unbounded gratitude to God for his creation. In an unbroken sequence of musical scena, they extol the merits of the sun, the stars, the elements, fountains, forests, birds and beasts, mountains and valleys ending with ‘The heavens and earth Thy power adore; We praise Thee now and evermore.’

Adam is confident that they have performed their duty to God. He now turns his attention to Eve, whom he wants to be the partner of his life. The duet ‘Graceful consort, at thy side’ is a tender love duet in which each makes vows to the other. The pace picks up as the young lovers bubble over with the excitement of it all. Uriel pops back to sound the briefest note of caution. ‘O happy pair and happy still might be if not misled by false conceit. Ye strive at more than granted is and more desire to know than know ye should’. But that is for another time, for now the angelic host sums up in praise of God: ‘Sing the Lord, ye voices all.’

Sara Kemsley

Celebrate! – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 28 November 2009 – St Mary’s Church, Platt

Poster for the Cantate Choir's November 2009 Concert - Celebrate!


Robin Walkerorgan


J. Haydn 1732–1809 – Te Deum
F. Mendelssohn 1809–1847 – Organ Sonata No. IV in B flat major
F. Mendelssohn 1809–1847 – Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr – opus 79
A. Bruckner 1824–1896 – Mass No. 2 in E minor

Programme notes

Music is the voice that tells us that the human race is greater than it knows. Napoleon Bonaparte

If you peruse the quotations of Napoleon Bonaparte, they are invariably short, pithy and cynical. They seem to tell us all we need to know about this man’s sense of self and his vaunting ambition, which took him and his troops across Europe and into Russia. And yet, something about music must have moved even his dogged soul. His actions and the aftermath affected the lives of all three of tonight’s composers directly or indirectly.

Much of Joseph Haydn’s career was spent working in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Esterhazy family. He said that the isolation of working for them forced him to be original. As his fame spread, he was allowed the freedom to travel and spent many successful years in London as guest of impresario Johann Peter Salomon. When he returned to Vienna in 1795 after such a visit, a new Esterhazy prince headed the household, who did not like music but enjoyed the caché of having Haydn as his staff composer. He sacked most of the musicians and required no specific duties from Haydn. This new freedom allowed Haydn to write for himself and for posterity in his final years. He wrote his greatest choral work The Creation in 1798 followed by The Seasons in 1801. He also penned the famous melody known as Austria, recognised today as the German national anthem. Between 1798 and 1800, he composed the Te Deum in C major and dedicated it to Empress Maria-Therese, second wife of Franz II of Austria. The first documented performance was in the presence of Lord Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

Some historians claim that this late period of Haydn’s career shows him developing a style which incorporates a social and political awareness, which prefigured the work of Beethoven and the move to romanticism. Certainly this Te Deum is a jubilant setting, without soloists, which creates a powerful and democratic statement of belief. The choice of C major and large orchestra also reminds us of that great chorus from the Creation, ‘The Heavens are telling the Glory of God’. Whether inspired by religion or politics, this work brims full of confidence and triumphalism.

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy German Jewish family, which converted to Lutheran Protestantism in 1816, when they moved from French-occupied Hamburg to Berlin. His grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and Felix enjoyed all the advantages of belonging to a family of intellectuals. His precocious talent was encouraged, he travelled extensively in Europe and studied the works of masters, thereby ensuring that in his short thirty-eight years of life, his output was impressive. Both the Organ Sonatas and the Sechs Sprüche were written between 1843 and 1846. With his wonderfully inventive and light-touch orchestral works behind him, these later works seem to develop the interest he had in the music of Bach and of the Renaissance choral traditions.

The four movements of the Organ Sonata No. 4 in Bb major form a symphony in miniature blending techniques of piano, orchestral and contrapuntal writing with Mendelssohn’s uniquely lyrical abilities.

Allegro con brio is a toccata with flamboyant trumpet-like passages. The Andante religioso is a simple, expressive melody reminiscent of Bach’s chorale movements. The third movement has a simple melody accompanied by an obbligato of continuous semi-quavers. The final Allegro maestoso e vivace is perhaps a surprisingly majestic movement after the more intimate movements which preceded.

The Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr Op. 79 are short settings of words from the Psalms and New Testament. Each uses one or two sentences appropriate to the season of the Church’s Year and concludes with Hallelujah. The 8-part writing lends a richness to each piece however gently and simply the words are set. At the fullest and most contrapuntal points, it is a truly awesome sound.

Advent is a joyous G major evocation in Renaissance style but with lush chording from the 8-part choir.

Christmas in the same key seems to bring something of the German carol tradition in the simplicity of the melody and block harmony.

New Year switches to D minor and is pensive at first. The build up as the words describe the creation of the world is dramatic but the certainty about God needs only the quietest utterance.

Passiontide cannot decide on major or minor – optimistic or pessimistic. It is a 24-bar gem of call and response ideas.

Good Friday is the most intense setting of all not surprisingly. Like a plainchant prayer, at first it explodes on the words ‘Therefore God exalted him’.

Ascension Day is a fitting choice to end the set. The key of Bb major is beloved for jubilant and festive music, which this is to be sure.

Anton Bruckner never quite lost his rural, introspective voice having grown up in northern Austria as a devout Catholic. Born in Ansfelden, educated at the St Florian Monastery School, organist at Linz (all within a five-mile radius of each other), with the rumblings of the Austro-Prussian war not so very far away at the border, perhaps it is not surprising that he chose to keep himself to himself. His style is forged out of the chromaticism of his hero Wagner and the more technical and austere lessons of harmony and counterpoint taught at that time. In the E Minor Mass of 1868, he forges the two into a uniquely expressive harmonic language and texture. It is also unique in liturgical music for combining the forces of eight-part chorus and wind band.

From the opening Kyrie we know we have entered a new sound world. It draws on the polyphonic style and antiphonal contrast of voices and instruments of Renaissance Italy. But this is polyphony suffused with the sumptuousness of 19th century melody and chromatic harmonies. Napoleon would have been impressed!

Sara Kemsley

Part, Parry, Purcell and Palestrina – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 6 June 2009 – St Bartholomew’s Church, Otford

Poster for the Cantate Choir's June 2009 Concert - Part, Parry, Purcell and Palestrina


Iestyn Evansorgan


H. Purcell 1659–95 My Heart is inditing
H. Purcell Voluntary in G major
G.P. Palestrina 1525–94 Exsultate Deo
G.P. Palestrina Ricercar del quinto tuono
G.P. Palestrina Tu es Petrus
A. Pärt b. 1935 Pari Intervallo
A. Pärt The Beatitudes
C.H.H. Parry 1848–1918 Songs of Farewell
C.H.H. Parry Chorale Prelude on “Croft’s 136th”

Programme notes

The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away.

Arvo Pärt wrote this in the mature years of his life after a lengthy period of self-imposed silence as a composer. His new style, the style we largely know in his popular choral works, developed at this time and is unrecognisable from his early works. All traces of discord and complexity are gone. He is fixated on the triad (doh-me-soh) and its variations. He moves the vocal parts subtly through the inversions of simple chords, which technique he referred to as tintinnabulation, the sound of bells.

It is thought that Edgar Allen Poe was the first to use ‘tintinnabulation’ to describe the sound of bells, specifically the tinkling and jingling of bells, in his poem ‘The Bells’, which was famously set in a Russian translation by Rachmaninov. Pärt goes on to say, ‘I work with very few elements — with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials —with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.’

So how does this sit with the rest of our programme? What are the common threads? Well, to be sure, our four composers all have family names beginning with P! All were mature and accomplished choral composers when they wrote the pieces we perform tonight and as such we are hearing arguably their best and most defining work. All held positions of distinction and influence in their musical worlds of the time. Palestrina was Maestro di Capella in Rome’s great churches St. John Lateran (1555-60) and St. Maria Maggiore (1561-6), writing for the Pope and cardinals. Purcell was organist at the Chapel Royal from 1682 and wrote music for many royal occasions, including ‘My Heart is Inditing’ for the coronation of James II. Hubert Parry joined the staff of the newly opened Royal College of Music in London and was its Director from 1894 until his death. He also succeeded Stainer as Professor of Music at Oxford University in 1900. Arvo Pärt was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996 and named International Composer of the Year in 2000 by the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry had an interest, some say Darwinian, in the evolution of the arts and of music in particular. He wrote books and essays on the subject charting the progress from the simplest utterances to the supreme achievements of composers and musicians. “The story of music has been that of a slow building up and extension of artistic means of formulating in terms of design utterances and counterparts of utterances which in their raw state are direct expressions of feelings and sensibility.” He argued that the vocalising of feelings is something common to all sentient beings, for example a dog greeting a master, the chorus of hounds when spying the fox, a cow wailing for her lost calf or the exuberant baby with gurglings and percussive rattle.

This takes us right back to Palestrina’s Exsultate Deo, composed in 1584 on the words of Psalm 81:

Sing aloud to God our strength;
Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song and strike the timbrel,
The pleasant harp with the lute.
Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon,
At the full moon, on our solemn feast day.
For this is a statute for Israel,
A law of the God of Jacob.

In no other art form than choral music, whether sacred or secular, is it possible to express so directly sentiments and feelings: joy, sorrow, praise, despair, longing, satisfaction, this world and the next. And in expressing ourselves so directly, we can move others who listen to the same sensations be it reverence, cheerfulness, praise or prayer. “Get out there and bang something!” the psalmist is saying.

All four composers had a reverence for the music and traditions which had gone before them, in particular for the forms of madrigals and motets. These are short pieces for multiple voices which build layers of tone, harmony, texture and melodic interplay from often simple motifs designed to capture some element of the meaning of the text. The Pope was tickled pink by Palestrina’s upsurging ending to ‘Tu es Petrus’ (I shall make you the guard and keeper of the gate of Heaven.) Pärt’s ‘Beatitudes’ (Blessed are the poor in spirit etc.) get steadily higher and stronger until the final resounding Amen. Purcell chose some curious words for his coronation anthem but my goodness he sets them with gusto. It is full of bouncing dotted rhythms and syncopations that make you want to laugh out loud with the sheer joy of it all.

However, Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’ form the most substantial contribution to this panoply of giants. Written separately over a period of some nine years, he died before hearing them performed as a complete set. He long admired the English Poets from the Elizabethans to his late Victorians. Here he chose Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), John Davies (1569-1626), Thomas Campion (1567-1620), John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854), and John Donne (1572-1631). Parry was a rationalist and agnostic but valued biblical texts and spiritual writings as a part of his cultural heritage of which he felt very proud. These poems are not overtly religious but provide mystical hints of the transitoriness of life on earth and the possibilities of life beyond. These settings steadily build in complexity in a Darwinian trail of evolution from simple chordal SATB settings, adding one more vocal line with each motet until the mighty double choir setting of ‘Lord, let me know mine end’, which sets Psalm 39, the only biblical text in the set.

‘Traces of this perfect thing’ are present in all these works and during this concert, we trust that ‘everything which is unimportant falls away’.

Sara Kemsley

Handel’s Messiah – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 21 March 2009 – St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks

Poster for Cantate Choir's March 2009 concert, Handel's Messiah


Fflur Wyn – soprano
Owen Willetts – alto
Kevin Kyle – tenor
Oliver Dunn – bass
Oliver Sandig – leader


Steve Colesreview


Handel – Messiah

Programme notes

2009 is the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, and what better way to celebrate the work of England’s most famous and enduring composers than to hear Messiah, the dramatic musical drama of Jesus’ life.

Handel famously composed Messiah in only a few hectic days, creating a work which has been performed every year since it’s first performance, a unique achievement. It is no surprise the work has found such fame, containing as it does so many memorable pieces, including possibly the most famous and recognisable of any, the Hallelujah chorus. Messiah is really Opera for the church, and the drama of the narrative carries us through chorus, aria and recitative for a thoroughly engaging and entertaining evening.

In a small London house on Brook Street, a servant sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food he assumes will not be eaten. For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his room.

Morning, noon, and evening the servant delivers appealing meals to the composer and returns later to find the bowls and platters largely untouched.

Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be. As he swings open the door to the composer’s room, the servant stops in his tracks.

The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” George Frederic Handel had just finished writing a movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.

(from Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh)

George Frederic Handel was born in Saxony in Germany in 1685 but from 1712 he resided almost solely in England, patronised by Kings George I and II so that he has rather been adopted as an English composer (and, heaven knows, we have few enough great composers as of right!) He had enjoyed enormous critical and financial success as a composer of operas but by 1741 his fortunes had fallen mightily. His operas were regarded by many as scurrilous and the Covent Garden Theatre, which he ran, a ‘den of rascals’. He was close to ruin and the debtors’ prison.

Out of the blue, two letters arrived, which changed Handel’s position and musical history forever. First came an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire to come to Dublin and provide a series of benefit concerts ‘For the relief of the prisoners in the several gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay’. Then, a letter arrived from Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, who had previously written libretti for Handel. The letter contained Old and New Testament texts, which Handel read and re-read and was so moved that he immediately embarked on writing a sacred opera using them. Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 in Dublin as a charitable benefit, raising £400 and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison. It has not been out of performance for a single year since, a record unsurpassed by any other classical work.

Handel believed that God spoke to him and required him to write the piece down. It was performed again and again for charitable concerts and Handel would not take a penny from the ticket sales, believing that God, not he, had written the piece. At his death, he bequeathed the manuscript and parts to the Foundling Hospital, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, which continues to benefit to this day from performances of the Messiah. Charles Burney, 18th century music historian, remarked that Handel’s Messiah “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.”

Why then, is Messiah such an enduring and monumental piece? Why is it performed every year all over the world? Why are there choral societies committed to performing nothing else?

For one thing, it is a work whose three parts take in the entire sweep of the traditions and beliefs of the Christian faith:

Part One — Prophecy of Salvation, the birth of Christ Jesus
Part Two — Crucifixion and Death
Part Three — Resurrection and the promise of eternal life for believers

A complete performance requires nearly three hours and therefore it is common to hear cut versions, particularly those around Christmas time, which focus on Part I with other good bits thrown in.

The second reason for its recurrent popularity is that it is simply full of good tunes and rousing choruses, which enable us as Everyman to grasp something of the ineffable mysteries of these sacred texts and to go away feeling spiritually uplifted regardless of our beliefs and understandings.

The main reason, however, has to be the sheer genius of the man (or perhaps it really was his divine inspiration). Handel paints the texts so vividly and gloriously that it seems impossible not to be profoundly moved by each and every aria, chorus and instrumental interlude. The contents page reads like a Classic FM 50 greatest hits countdown and this is no accident. Each and every piece is immaculately conceived in melodic, harmonic and textural terms and thus is as unforgettable as Michaelangelo’s David or Da Vinci’s Last Supper. But theirs were single pieces and this is a mighty collection of such works.

To begin the countdown, who can forget the affirmative ‘And the Glory, the Glory of the Lord’ as it strides upwards in A major to its home note? Or, after the ferocious portent of his coming ‘as a refiner’s fire’, the chorus delicately sprinkling water upon us in ‘And he shall purify’? Next, ‘For unto us a child is born’ uses the melody of a love song previously used in one of Handel’s operas and is simply the joyous babble of the christening party. In Part II, can there be a more gut-wrenching portrayal of misery and betrayal than the aria ‘He was despised and rejected of men’? It relentlessly pursues the falling semitone, long acknowledged to be as close to a human sigh as mere notes can be.

We all know the Hallelujah Chorus and it is traditional to stand for it as King George II spontaneously did when he first heard it. But it is the words which begin Part III, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, which were inscribed on Handel’s tomb in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey when he died in 1759. Written in the optimistic, bright and certain key of E major, the opening two notes (dominant rising to tonic) sum up for me the entire piece; without any shadow of a doubt, with no possibility for confusion, Handel says, ‘I believe’.

Sara Kemsley

O Magnum Mysterium – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 13 December 2008 – St Martin’s Church, Brasted

Poster from Cantate Choir's December 2008 concert, O Magnum Mysterium


Riccardo Bonciorgan
David Matthewsnarrator


Kjell Mørk Karlsen b.1947 – O Magnum Mysterium
Carols from Georgian England
Hark! how all the welkin rings,
Hallelujah 1767
Nativity 1816
A Christmas anthem c. 1830
I saw a maiden
Silent night
O come, all ye faithful
The twelve days of Christmas

Programme notes

O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. – Responsorial chant from the Matins for Christmas

And, all o’ ye, whatever ye do, keep from making a great scuffle on the ground when we go in at people’s gates; but go quietly, so as to strike up all of a sudden, like spirits. – Thomas Hardy – Under the Greenwood Tree

There are two sides to Christmas, which are hopefully brought out in these two quotations and in our programme for you tonight. On the one hand we are reminded of the mystery of the story of the immaculate conception and birth of Jesus in the very poorest and humblest of circumstances, surrounded by animals and poor working men. On the other, we have a glorious evocation of the amateur musical efforts of later generations of yokels, who sought to give thanks for this blessed event through singing and playing in a tradition often known as West Gallery Music. While their sincerity shone through their often bumbling skill, it has left us a heritage of humour in our carol singing which lives on today.

West Gallery Music is a difficult genre to pin down but usually refers to certain English music of the 18th and 19th centuries, simple in nature and based on hymns and psalms for performance in and around church by voices and instruments (whatever came to hand). Sally Drage, who co-arranged the items of this type which we sing tonight, describes it as ‘the sacred music of provincial parish churches and nonconformist chapels, performed by and often written specifically for amateurs.’ The music has charm and sometimes humour and certainly is the kind to which Hardy referred or which Washington Irving recalled in Old Christmas: “…he has also sorted a choir, as he sorted my father’s pack of hounds…for the bass he has sought out all the ‘deep solemn mouths’ and for the tenor the ‘loud ringing mouths’, among the country bumpkins; and for ‘sweet mouth’, he has culled with curious taste among the prettiest lasses in the neighbourhood; though these last, he affirms, are the most difficult to keep in tune; your pretty female singers being exceedingly wayward and capricious, and very liable to accident.” Sounds pretty much like a Cantate Choir rehearsal to me!

Kjell Mørk Karlsen (b. 1947), by contrast, is a versatile and thoroughly professional musician but one who also ensures that he is inclusive of his audience. An oboist, organist and recorder player, he graduated from Oslo Conservatoire and has enjoyed a varied career as oboist with the Norwegian National Opera and as a keyboard musician with various orchestras and ensembles, such as the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Collegium Musicum. He has taught at the Conservatoire, been cathedral organist and his interest in medieval and Renaisssance music led him to found Pro Musica Antiqua in 1969. It is hardly surprising therefore that, as a composer, he is drawn to sacred music, nor that it is a readily accessible mix of traditional texts set in subtly modern ways. His use of choral sonorities and organ ‘voluntaries’ pays tribute to the great traditions of Renaissance and Baroque church music but with a freshness and perhaps a coolness, which we might expect from his modern Scandinavian roots. The use of a narrator, however, is entirely his own and brings a directness to the telling of the Christmas story and engages the audience, where more formal vocal traditions of oratorio perhaps do not.

O magnum mysterium – Kjell Mørk Karlsen

The narration provides a detailed account of the prophecy, conception, birth and first few days of Jesus’ life using bible texts. The organ’s role is to accompany and amplify the storytelling. The choral sections are unaccompanied meditations using well-known latin texts:

O magnum mysterium – O great mystery
Universi, universi – Lord, let none who await you be ashamed
Ave Maria – Hail mary, full of grace
Magnificat – My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour
Puer natus est – A child is born to us and a son is given
Gloria in excelsis – Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth
Quem vidistis? – What did you see shepherds? Tell us.
Nunc dimittis – Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace

It is perhaps telling that the only times the organ and choir come together is for the words Gloria Patri et Filio Sancto – Glory be to the Father, the Son and to the Holy Ghost: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

A Christmas Celebration is a collection of carols from Georgian England in the West Gallery style. Our second half begins with three:

Hark how all the welkin rings arranged by Thomas Butts using words by Charles Wesley. Welkin is the vault of Heaven, implying a very loud sound if you can set it ringing. I never knew that!

The Branch, the mighty branch behold, attributed to John Reynolds, is a wordy little number which would have taxed the bumpkins in the extreme (and still does!). It tells of the nativity.

A Christmas Anthem by William Matthews of Nottingham is an exhilarating setting of words by Charles Montgomery, which you will recognise.

The final set for the evening takes four settings from the tried and trusted collection of Carols for Choirs, edited and arranged by Reginald Jacques and David Willcocks. Not enough homage is paid to these two connoisseurs of the English caroling tradition. Four books of fine compositions and arrangements that allow every Christmas to be different yet reassuringly the same.

Happy Christmas!

Sara Kemsley

The Voice of Melody – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 7 June 2008 – St Mary’s Church, Platt

Poster from Cantate Choir's June 2008 concert, The Voice of Melody


Nimrod Borensteincomposer
Iestyn Evansorgan


Benjamin Britten 1913-1976 – O be joyful in the Lord
Arvo Pärt b.1935 – “I am the true vine
John Rutter b.1945 – Loving shepherd of thy sheep
Ernest Bullock 1890-1979 – Give us the wings of faith to rise
Jyrki Linjama b. 1962 – Salve Regina
William Harris 1883 – 1973 – Faire is the heaven
Nimrod Borenstein b. 1969 – Three psalm settings
The voice of melody
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
Arnold Bax 1883-1953 – Lord, thou hast told us
Charles Wood 1866-1926 – Great Lord of Lords
Nimrod Borenstein – “To be or not to be” (World Premiere)

Programme notes

Sing praise with the voice of melody (Psalm 98)

Melody and the human voice are almost synonymous in our minds and in our bodies. The human vocal folds (cords) are distinctively different from those of any other species and a human spoken voice that cannot produce differences in pitch will sound artificial, robotic. Language itself depends on the different inflections to a greater or lesser degree. Compare the musical Welsh lilt with the uplifting and questioning Australian. In Chinese, get your inflection wrong on the syllable mu and you could be calling your mother a cow!

The instrument built to try to recreate what the human vocal pipe can do is the organ but it requires hundreds of tongued pipes to reproduce the single flexible physiology of the human organ and it is this very flexibility which it cannot copy. Hardly surprising then that composers have chosen to use the combined human voices of our choral tradition, occasionally accompanied by its mechanical equivalent, the pipe organ, to give expression to our highest thoughts and aspirations as set down in hymns, psalms and songs of praise.

Melody is defined in the Grove Dictionary of Music as ‘a series of musical notes arranged in succession, in a particular rhythmic pattern, to form a recognizable unit.’ It goes on to aver that ‘the breakdown of the tonal system in the 20th century, and the freer use of chromaticism and large leaps, has made melody less easy to apprehend.’ Well, this concert should give you a view of melody such as you have never had before and completely put the lie to the assumption that modern composers cannot ‘do’ melody.

Throughout this programme think of melody as the skin: that marvellous stretchy, sinuous, tactile, breathing, enveloping layer which can constantly renew itself. Below it may be bones and blood, organs and gooey bits but it is the skin which we see and which we so lovingly paint and adorn and nurture. Skin can be delicate, thin and fragile or thick, strong and tanned as leather. So it is with melody in the hands of all our composers. The words are the make-up, the tattoos or the freckles which accentuate the natural expression of the skin.

Benjamin Britten in his Jubilate (O be joyful in the Lord) remembers the natural pitch difference of about a fourth, which distinguishes the tenor from the bass and the soprano from the alto voices. He works them in pairs in this way for much of the anthem. In the middle and at the end, all combine on close chords in the rhythms of speech as if chanting a psalm.

Arvo Pärt, born in Estonia in 1935, says that a single note well played is enough. His music is spare and subtle and his setting of I am the True Vine (John 15 1-14) is an intensely beautiful masterstroke. Written in 1996 for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral, there is but one set of words thrown oh so gently from voice to voice. Singly or in pairs or trios, the words and syllables are scooped back and forth and up and down like some slow motion tennis match. One continuous skin, thick and thin. Just listen to how he ends it!

John Rutter and Ernest Bullock were immersed in the English choral tradition and knew well how to breathe life into simple melodic lines and enrich them with the Botox of luscious inner parts, making the words shimmer and glow.

Jyrki Linjama from Finland wrote his setting of Salve Regina in 2005. This is melody pulled and teased and massaged from a single note A. Despite any amount of twisting and turning, the grip of that note can scarcely be broken until the very end when we realize that A was the question and the answer is D. Brilliant!

Faire is the heaven by William Harris to words of Edmund Spenser is one of those unforgettable choral experiences. Double choirs vie with each other on one constant melodic journey which pours ecstasy on top of bliss. This is not just melody, this is M & S melody! ‘The image of such endlesse perfectnesse’.

Cantate have featured work by Nimrod Borenstein before. This distinctive young Israeli composer, working in Britain, brings a refreshing simplicity to the setting of words and is not afraid to turn them around to his musical purpose. Busy organ accompaniments provide the circulatory system upon which the vocal lines can prosper and grow. The words of these three psalm settings are familiar but the guise is new.

Arnold Bax is better known for his large-scale and exciting orchestral works. Lord thou hast told us is a hymn setting of such perfect simplicity and beauty that it is hard to believe it is from the same pen. It reminds us that many of our best-loved hymn tunes were written by first-rate English composers.

Charles Wood (1866-1926) stood in the shadow of Charles Villiers Stanford as organist, choral trainer and composer in Cambridge. His church work is similarly potent as this great double choir anthem demonstrates. It leaves out sopranos to give a weight and richness to the sound, which the words demand.

Our final work is a world premiere by Nimrod Borenstein. Written especially for his friend Robin Walker, this is a setting of Hamlet’s To be or not to be speech by Shakespeare for choir and organ. It is as if four people, not one, are on the stage musing on whether to die, to sleep, perchance to dream. Each voice goes its own way, makes its own comment, in scales, in arpeggios, slowly, quickly, up and down. If this is skin, then it is skin with an itch: to be or not to be…

Sara Kemsley

J S Bach – St John Passion – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 15 March 2008 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Poster from Cantate Choir's March 2008 concert - J S Bach's St John Passion


Gillian KeithSoprano
Jamie LaingAlto
David SoarPilate
David StoutJesus
Mark BradburyEvangelist
Hazel BrooksLeader


J S Bach – St John Passion

Programme notes

Whereas the Honorable and Most Wise Council of this Town of Leipzig have engaged me as Cantor of the St. Thomas School… I shall set the boys a shining example… serve the school industriously… bring the music in both the principal churches of this town into good estate… faithfully instruct the boys not only in vocal but also in instrumental music… arrange the music so that it shall not last too long, and shall… not make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion… treat the boys in a friendly manner and with caution, but, in case they do not wish to obey, chastise them with moderation or report them to the proper place.

Thus wrote Johann Sebastian Bach when he was appointed Cantor of the St Thomas’ Kirche in Leipzig, a post he held for the rest of his life. His job involved teaching the boys, around 55 of them, Latin and music. They formed the body of the choirs in the two main churches and these he supplemented with university students and local musicians. He was required to write a new setting every week to be performed in one of the two churches and thus amassed a catalogue of well over 350 works for use in church that we know of and many more that are lost.

I wonder what you ever had to do in order to get a job? An interview, a presentation, nepotism? J S quickly knocked off a Passion according to St John’s Gospel, performed it in the church and, hey presto, the job was his! The Most Honourable and Wise Council clearly recognised genius when they heard it. Mind you, he was not without his critics. Many thought that this highly individual and dramatic setting was far too operatic for Lutheran tastes in 18th century Germany. It was written of an unidentified Passion performance that ‘All the people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment… An elderly widow of the nobility exclaimed: “God save us, my children! It’s just as if we were at a comic opera”.’

More recently, scholars have argued back and forth as to whether John or Johann or both were anti-semitic. Bach knew his theology and was devoutly Christian. He wrote everything ‘to the glory of God’ and the Johannes-Passion is no exception. His job was to be a ‘musical preacher’ to the people of Leipzig and he wrote with the heart of a faithful servant, who acknowledged that Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world’. He understood that there were Rabbinical Jews and Christian Jews and his music reflects dramatically the difference. His great choruses describe the brutish and unnerved crowd, who would have Jesus crucified. His arias are the meditation and response to these dramatic events of betrayal and death. But it is the wondrous chorales that are the voice of the Lutheran church-goers, who must participate in and accept their part in the story as it unfolds:

Who hath thee now so stricken, My Saviour, and with torments. Such ill upon thee laid? I and my transgressions, Which to the grains are likened, Of sand beside the sea.

The Passion itself has many historical antecedents. The Chorus, like that of Ancient Greece, comments upon and observes the action. Medieval passion plays had three voices, one for the Narrator, one for Christ and one for everyone else! In time, this third voice was split into chorus and soloists to take named roles. The addition of basso continuo and developments in opera forms in the 16th century paved the way for the infiltration of instruments. It is Bach’s orchestrations that are as memorable as his vocal scoring in the Passions. His use of unusual, even archaic instruments, and pictorial effects, such as the extraordinary cello arpeggios to represent the cock crowing at Peter’s betrayal, gives rise to an aural landscape, which lives in the ear long after the music has stopped.

The final dimension, of which we must speak, is the intellectual grandeur of Bach’s work. He had an interest in numerology, which places faith in number patterns and their connections with things spiritual and corporeal. Part 2, which deals with the trial before Pilate and the Crucifixion, is a palindromic structure of identical choral fugues with different words (‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ and ‘Lässest du diesen’). In between, in the midst of all this horrific scene of betrayal, horror, crowd hysteria and injustice, is a sublime chorale: Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn, Muss uns die Freiheit kommen (Through your prison, Son of God, must our freedom come). The axis of symmetry for the whole work places as the very centre the narrative in which Jesus’ fate is sealed.

Sara Kemsley

Christmas Cracker – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 15 December 2007 – St Mary’s Platt, Nr Borough Green

Poster from Cantate Choir's December 2007 concert - Christmas Cracker


Iestyn Evansorganist


Kenneth Leighton – Let all the world in every corner sing
H J Gauntlett – Once in royal David’s city
arr. Elizabeth Poston – The boar’s head carol
16th c French – Ding dong! merrily on high
arr. Vaughan Williams – O little town of Bethlehem
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël
arr. David Willcocks – The first nowell
arr. John Rutter – Here we come a-wassailing
arr. David Willcocks – Deck the hall
arr. Reginald Jacques – Good King Wenceslas
Cecilia McDowall – Christus natus est

Programme notes

Let’s be honest! What most of us really want at Christmas is the same as we have enjoyed about every previous Christmas. However much we exclaim that this year we will not eat so much, buy so much or play the same games with Auntie Maud, we actually crave the timelessness of the traditions. The story of Christmas is 2,000 years old and the ways in which we celebrate and recall that are what bind us together as families and communities. They remind us that some important things are constant however much the world changes us or we change it. The peculiar feature of English carols, with their intriguing mix of English, Latin and French (sometimes in the same song!), also connects us to our Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Norman past.

That said, what we don’t expect is for people to save the wrappings and serve up this year’s pair of socks in last year’s paper! That is why in tonight’s concert nearly all the music will be familiar to you but wrapped up in settings which may be new or unfamiliar.

Celia McDowall demonstrates this beautifully for us in her Christmas Cantata, Christus Natus Est, which ends our programme. She takes five ancient carols in the three languages and sets them in new ways but not so strangely as to affront our sense of what’s fitting. She playfully links them with her own music, which remains true to the subtle mix of medieval and modern.

The least familiar may well be the four Christmas motets by Francis Poulenc. If you are not already a fan of this composer, become one immediately! Written in 1951-2 for unaccompanied choir, these are each a perfect miniature and typical of his style. Each one captures the mood of the traditional Latin texts with extraordinary precision and finesse. Imagine you are looking under a magnifying glass at the perfect gem settings in that amazing watch you have just unwrapped on Christmas morning. That is the music of Poulenc. Not a single note or dynamic or accent out of place. Understated so as not to be garish, subtle and rich enough to be breathtakingly beautiful.

A very happy Christmas to all our friends, especially to those who are kind enough to read my notes throughout our musical year!

Sara Kemsley

Rachmaninov Vespers – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 30 June 2007 – St Mary’s Platt, Nr Borough Green

Poster for the Cantate Choir's June 2007 Concert - Rachmaninov Vespers


Susie Winkworthcello
Costas Fotopoulospiano


Sergei Rachmaninov 1873-1943 – All-Night Vigil
Sergei Rachmaninov – Sonata for Cello & Piano in G Minor, Op. 19
Sergei Rachmaninov – Morceaux de Salon, Op. 2

Programme notes

Orthodoxy is first of all the love of beauty. Our entire life must be inspired by the vision of heavenly glory, and this contemplation is the essence of Orthodoxy… Russian asceticism aims at manifesting God’s kingdom on earth. It does not deny this world, but embraces it. (S N Bulgakov)
The Eastern Orthodox Church, which thrives today particularly in Russia, Bulgaria and Greece, is arguably the oldest form of Christianity, stemming as it does from the Greek writings of the early apostles. The Byzantine Rite developed as a result of the shift of the seat of imperialism from Rome to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine in 320AD. Of particular significance were the veneration of Mary as Mother of God, and the adoption of icons as symbols of Christ’s presence on earth in human form. The split with Rome was worsened in the 9th century, when the Roman Pope refused to recognise Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople, and again at the time of the crusades and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

Since that time, Western Orthodoxy has evolved into many forms, while the Eastern Orthodoxy has been largely preserved as it was. The services always involve music, always voices, never instruments.
In the late 19th century, there was a renaissance among Russian composers, who turned to setting liturgical texts as part of their search for national identity. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov were major contributors but a significant school of Russian Church Music, centred in Moscow, developed. It was for this Moscow Synodal Choir that Rachmaninov wrote his setting of the All Night Vigil Op. 37.

Commonly, but incorrectly, known as The Vespers, this work is in fact a setting of three services for the canonical hours: Vespers, Matins and Prime. Vespers begins at sunset and reflects on the idea of Christ as the Light of the World. Movements 1-6 are from this section, and it ends with Gabriel’s salutation to Mary “Blessed art thou among women”. Matins (movements 7-14) meditates upon ideas of Christ in human form and ultimately the Resurrection, the most significant aspect of all in the Christian faith. This takes us to dawn and to Prime, the first hour of the day. Rachmaninov chooses to set just one text, the final triumphant movement, ‘To Thee, triumphant leader of triumphant hosts’. This is the eternity of Heaven.

Rachmaninov’s Vigil uses authentic znamenny or medieval chants in seven movements. In two, he prefers Greek chants and three are in the ‘Kiev’ style. Where he invented his own, he described them as ‘conscious counterfeits’, so closely did he keep to the traditional style. What he brings to the setting is often termed choral orchestration. This is almost a symphony, such are the demands made of the human voices: profoundly low bass parts, extreme ranges for other voices, huge dynamic and tonal ranges and many combinations of voices, which are frequently divided to form lush textures. Throughout, however, he preserves a simplicity in the harmonic, largely modal, language. There is no polyphony or fugal writing here, simply beautiful lines threading around the stepwise chants, whether for meditative introspection or praise and proclamation.

The choice of music for cello and piano by Rachmaninov as a counterpoise to this great choral masterwork is perfectly judged. The same yearning for a national identity is here in the use of simple folk melodies and brooding minor keys. There is the same breadth of expression in the sweeps of passion, sublime delicacy and exciting, rhythmic gesturing. The Cello Sonata was written shortly after his second piano concerto in 1901 and shares that same immediate appeal for the listener, as does the poignant and reminiscent Vocalise, familiar in many arrangements. The two pieces Op.2 (Prelude and Orientale) were written in 1892, just as he completed his studies at the Moscow Conservatoire. No mere palate-cleansers or padding here, as some programmes might provide. The intimacy and warmth of the cello tone allows us to ‘embrace this world’ between the choral contemplations upon higher things.

Sara Kemsley

Baroque Masterworks – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 3 March 2007 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Poster for Cantate Choir's March 2007 Concert - Baroque Masterworks


Hazel Brooksleader
Donna Batemansoprano
Susan Gilmore-Baileysoprano
Julia Rileymezzo-soprano
Charne Rochfordtenor
James Gowerbass


Antonio Vivaldi 1678-1741 – Magnificat
Pachelbel – Canon in D (instrumental)
Henry Purcell 1659-1695 – Rejoice in the Lord alway
Henry Purcell - Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes
George Frederic Handel 1685-1759 – Dixit Dominus

Programme notes

Johann Mattheson said in 1713: In these times, whoever wishes to be eminent in music goes to England. In Italy and France there is something to be heard and learned; in England something to be earned.

These were turbulent but exciting times: the age of empire, when fortunes were to be made at home and abroad. In the hundred years between the birth of Henry Purcell and the death of George Frederic Handel, the Cromwellian Parliament gave way and the monarchy was restored. Some seven or eight monarchs (it depends on how many you consider williamandmary to be) held sway. Purcell’s London was one of the most musically cosmopolitan European cities in the late seventeenth century. During the period of the Commonwealth, music had been pared down to its essentials, dancing prohibited and most musicians became unemployed. When Charles II was restored to the throne, he set about re-igniting the pleasure centres of the nation. Both Purcell and Handel did well from royal patronage in church and theatre alike.

Vivaldi (1678-1741) was working in that other great cultural and commercial city, Venice, which though past its greatest days, still had much to offer and a rich cultural heritage to boast. Vivaldi represented progressive Italian musical thought of his day. His impact was immediate but he died almost totally forgotten in 1741. All his works were composed for definite occasions, many, like the Magnificat, performed by the renowned girls of the Orphanage de la Pieta. His contribution was that vital link in the transition from late Baroque to early Classical style, choosing a simpler harmonic code and clarity of form and structure over ornate polyphonic textures.

The Baroque period was the great age of instrumental music, when the instrument was freed from the position of slave accompanist to the human voice. This is the time of the great violin builders and the birth of the orchestra as we know it. By the end of the seventeenth century there is a noted difference between orchestral music and chamber music. It is fitting that we have a professional orchestra playing on period instruments at the pitch which would have been played in Handel’s own performances, approximately a semitone lower than modern pitch. The Canon in D is sumptuous baroque polyphony for strings by the ‘one-hit wonder’ Johann Pachelbel. Only the cellists dread it. 54 repetitions of the same eight-note ground bass. YouTube fans (and cellists) will enjoy a video called Pachelbel Rant on the subject of this piece ( just to show how modern we are in Cantate!)

Purcell (1659-1695) was the first English musical genius after William Byrd and last great composer in this land before the twentieth century. He was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal in 1682 and his verse anthems date between then and 1685. Charles II had ordered the use of instrumental sections in church music and Purcell rose to the challenge with a string of beautiful anthems (English) and motets (Latin). He also has a possibly unique body of funeral music for monarchs to his credit (see above).

Handel (1685-1759) was truly cosmopolitan, combining German seriousness, Italian suavity and French grandeur. These qualities matured in England, which was the centre for internationalism with a choral tradition which made his oratorios possible, when the popularity of Italian opera began to wane. A great orchestral innovator, he was noted for his imaginative use of instrumental colour, for word painting and dramatic effect. Dixit Dominus dates from his time in Italy and is a thunderbolt of a piece from a young and confident composer. Acknowledged as one of the great composers for chorus, he handles the texture and voice range in masterful fashion. He is not afraid to go after the poetic effect. Listen out for Conquassabit capita in terra multorum in No.6 of Dixit Dominus, when the Lord shatters the heads of the multitude, literally pounding them into the ground. Handel was internationally renowned in his own lifetime and his fame was never eclipsed.

Sara Kemsley

Remember! – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 11 November 2006 – St Mary’s Kippington

Poster from Cantate Choir's Remember! concert in November 2006

Staged on Armistice Day November 11 at St Mary’s Church, Kippington Road, Sevenoaks on Saturday 11 November 2006. For this special day the choir devised a programme titled Remember!, comprising remembrances and recollections in music and verse.


Iestyn Evansorganist
Nimrod Borensteincomposer
James Wallacereader
Lonnie Christophersreader


Karl Jenkins’ – The Armed Man
Samuel Barber’s – Adagio for Strings
Vaughan Williams’ – Greensleeves
Elgar’s – Nimrod
Nimrod Borenstein’s – If I rise
Poems by Wilfred Owen, Christina Rossetti and Tennyson

Programme notes

The Armed Man must be feared; Everywhere it has been decreed
That everyman should arm himself, With an iron coat of mail.

Anon, c1450-1463

The fifteenth-century French song, L’homme armé, gave rise to a tradition of Armed Man masses still alive today. The idea that the armed man must be feared seemed as painfully relevant in the twentieth century as in the late Middle Ages. Karl Jenkins, commissioned to write a Mass for Peace, saw an opportunity to look ahead with hope and commitment to a more peaceful millennium. But even as he was writing it, the tragedy of Kosovo unfolded. The first CD was released, ironically, on September 10th 2001. The complete mass includes words from the Koran, British poets and the Hindu Mahabharata. Musical styles as diverse as the words sit fairly comfortably together. The Choral Suite consists of the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei from the Mass and a final Hymn before Action by Rudyard Kipling. We are interspersing these choral movements among the poems and music of our concert tonight, which invites us all to remember, to be grateful and to have hope.

The first two-minute silence was held on November 11th 1919, when King George V asked the public to observe a silence at 11am. Since the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, and during a century of further conflict, this date has become the nearest we have in this country to a National Day. It has been said that all post-war memorials feature two motifs – ‘war as both tragically, unendurably sad and noble and uplifting’. Is there some explanation here of why the very island character, explored in our last concert, also means that remembrance of war, resistance to invasion and the heroism of struggle are what seem to bind us together as a nation when other ideals do not? Certainly, English-language composers do ‘unendurably sad and noble and uplifting’ extremely well.

The first half of the programme deals with the nostalgia and pity of war. Greensleeves is an old song, thought to be penned by Henry VIII. It looks back wistfully at the loved one, who is out of reach. ‘I have both waged life and land, your love and goodwill for to have’. This arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams is sumptuous and yearning.

Samuel Barber wrote his Adagio for Strings in 1936, apparently inspired by the idea of a stream growing in size to a full river. However, it quickly became an anthem of mourning, especially in this choral version setting the words of the Agnus Dei. ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have pity on us, grant us peace.’

John Ireland carefully crafted his short anthem Greater Love hath no Man with words from no less than seven sections from five books of the Bible: Song of Solomon 8, St John 15, 1 Peter 2, 1 Corinthians 6, Romans 12. Written in 1912, it must have provided enormous comfort as more and more young men set off abroad ‘for King and Country’. Over one million never returned.

Folk songs took on a particular importance in the early part of the century. Many composers set about collecting and setting down the large canon of songs from all around the British Isles. Popular songs from the music halls also seemed more stirring than a rather lack-lustre National Anthem. Little wonder that soldiers and their girls felt more moved and patriotic when singing a rousing chorus of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ or ‘D’ye ken John Peel’. Our representative sample is a wordless setting of the Londonderry Air by Percy Grainger.

Nimrod Borenstein is an Israeli-born composer who lives and trained in Britain. His works are popularly performed here and abroad and are considered to belong to a New Consonant Music. Composers such as Steve Reich and Michael Nyman moved away from the former complexity of ‘modern music’ for simpler styles that performers and audiences could understand. This setting of Psalm 139 explores the idea that wherever we go the hand of God will be there to guide us. Even if darkness surrounds us it will be as the light and ‘the night will shine like the day’. The piece is broadly tonal although different voice parts can be in different keys simultaneously. For much of the setting, the sopranos provide the melodic and lyrical line, while the lower voices build shifting textures from the sometimes disjunct words. He also makes use of words for rhythmic motion rather than meaning, however the overall journey from darkness to light is unmistakeable.

Nimrod is the ninth of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod the mighty Hunter of the Old Testament stands here for A J Jaeger, of the Novello publishing company (Jaeger means huntsman in German). Jaeger mused to Elgar that no-one could match the slow tempi of Beethoven’s great slow movements, Elgar set out to prove him wrong. With its ever rising repetitions and painfully falling intervals of the seventh, the piece epitomises ‘unendurably sad and noble and uplifting’ and has come to be a piece associated with state mourning, much as Barber’s Adagio has in America.

Herbert Howells lived for ninety years but felt himself a composer out of his times. His style harks back to that exceptional period of English choral music, to Tallis and Weelkes, to the subtle swings of minor to major, to unexpected false relations resolving to glorious concordance. In fact the modal swings between major and minor are intrinsic to the traditional English folksong and the musical revival of the twentieth century, thus making Howells very much a man of his times. He described his music as full of the ‘agony and the ecstasy’ and our final anthem from Psalm 42 certainly combines these two ideas. ‘My tears have been my meat day and night… where is now thy God?… my soul is athirst for God… when shall I come before the presence of God?’

Sara Kemsley

Poetry in Music – Programme Notes

7.30pm, Saturday 10 June 2006 – St Mary’s Platt, Borough Green

Poster from Cantate Choir's June 2006 concert - Poetry in Music


Michael Higginspiano


Mathias – Shakespeare Songs
Mendelssohn – Songs without Words – Nos. 1, 9, 10
Vaughan Williams – Toward the Unknown Region
Finzi – Seven Poems of Robert Bridges
Chopin – Waltz in A flat major, Opus 34 No. 1
Elgar – From the Bavarian Highlands

Programme notes

There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require. Sir Edward Elgar

Of all the arts, we have excelled in literature. Our flexible language wants to persuade and enlighten, to uplift and censure. There is an unbroken tradition of great English writers from medieval times to modern day. No other country can boast the heights of the King James Bible or Shakespeare and it is no coincidence that they go with you to your desert island.

In music and the visual arts however, we have some peaks and troughs. From the death of Henry Purcell to the birth of Edward Elgar, we were almost silent. Until Turner, Constable and Blake got to work, we were a blank canvas. The work of our great Tudor composers was generally less cluttered and ornamented than our southern European counterparts. English and Dutch painters have generally reflected the cooler, gentler climate and landscape, which we still recognise today. Perhaps this love of our natural world around us, a land without extremes, meant that neither the contrived formality of Classicism nor the bolder temperament of Romanticism appealed to our northern phlegm. Or perhaps we were just too busy taking over the world!

The period from the late nineteenth century through the major part of the twentieth is therefore seen as the English Musical Renaissance: Standford, Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Finzi, Bantock, Bax, Quilter, Ireland, Tippett, Walton, Britten, Arnold, Bliss, Bridge, Warlock, Mathias… All of a sudden, the pantheon seems more extensive than anything the French, Germans or Italians have to offer! And yet, many of our finest composers were, and indeed still are, slow to be performed regularly abroad. Why? Most probably because each of them reflects, and reflects upon, that uniquely island character, which sets us apart in so many things.

They choose the wistful, modal qualities of British folksong, images of our rolling hills and gentle streams, our birdsong and our freedoms. They turn naturally to the poetry of our English heritage, with its easy rhythms and gentle consonants. Do they never get worked up? Oh yes, when it comes to notions of justice, pride and the reaching of goals, the grandeur comes through. And that renowned English wit can be found a-plenty in satirical dance forms and quipping rhythms.

So this is the fertile soil from which our concert springs.

William Mathias, as it happens, was Welsh. Born in Dyfed in 1934, he studied in Wales and London, worked mostly in Bangor but regularly involved himself in the great choral festivals which gave birth to so much great work.

He set the eight songs from Shakespeare plays for mixed choir and piano for the third Cardiff Festival of Choirs in 1979. Although all different in origin, he says he saw them “as a linked set like a song cycle. This concept is emphasised by the fact that the last song recalls some of the music of the first; both are winter poems. There is also a similarity of feeling between the settings of Full Fathom Five and Dirge from Cymbeline. No.3 is for men only and proceeds immediately to Sigh no more Ladies for women’s voices only. The piano part is integral to the whole helping to emphasis the different moods. It is particularly helpful in highlighting Shakespeare’s love of bell sounds to indicate the passage of time and the transience of human life.”

Vaughan Williams frequently turned to the poetry of the American Walt Whitman as did so many English composers. Unlike so much poetry of the time which relied on symbolism, allegory and meditation, Whitman’s poetry exalted the body and the material world. He praised nature and the individual human’s role in it. He does not diminish the role of the mind or spirit but sees both mind and body as worthy of praise. Toward the Unknown Region was composed in 1906 using text from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass anthology. It is the quest of the mind to be accompanied by the soul as it leaves the known, temporal world for that unknown region ‘when the ties loosen, all but the ties eternal, time and space, nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.’

Gerald Finzi wrote mostly works for voice or chorus but his clarinet and cello concertos are well-loved also. His settings of Thomas Hardy poems are inspired. Many of the settings for mixed choir of poems by Robert Bridges are well-known individually. Tonight we perform the full set as intended. Each song sets a subtle mood from the text and makes full use of the natural rhythms of the words in defining the musical language. Several of the songs are through-composed, that is to say, they take their shape from the ongoing narrative of the text, but even in the songs with a verse structure, Finzi alters the repetitions each time to give a sense of travel through the poem.

From the Bavarian Highlands by Edward Elgar shows the good-humoured family man in fine form and makes a light-hearted finale. He and his wife Alice loved holidays in Southern Bavaria, where they frequently went with their circle of friends, many of whom found their way into his Enigma Variations. On their return, Alice wrote some folksongs in the style of Bavarian ones she had heard, which her husband amiably set with appropriately southern German music. This is the equivalent of going through someone’s holiday photo album but a great deal more entertaining.

Sara Kemsley

Mozart – Requiem & Schubert – Mass in C – Programme Notes

7.30pm, Saturday 11 March 2006 – St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks

Poster from Cantate Choir's March 2006 concert


Gillian Keithsoprano
Julia Rileymezzo-soprano
Charne Rochfordtenor
David Soarbass
Hazel Brooksleader


Mozart – Requiem
Schubert – Mass in C

Programme notes

The pairing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem with Franz Schubert’s fourth Mass ought to be a marriage of great works by two great composers. Scholars have argued, and continue to do so, over whether Mozart’s final work was born great or had greatness thrust upon it by the romantic and mysterious circumstances surrounding its genesis. Schubert, by his own admission, knew that his choral works lacked the masterstrokes of his illustrious forbears and decided to have lessons in counterpoint very late in life. What is not in doubt is that both works have rightly held a firm place in the hearts of performers and audiences for around 200 years.

The two composers had much in common. Both were violinists and pianists of prodigious talent. Both were dominated by their fathers. Both remained poor for much of their lives, struggling for positions which would provide money and status. Both died in their early thirties of illnesses which still arouse some debate. Both left behind an enormous body of work, as if they knew that time was short. Coincidentally, Antonio Salieri was Schubert’s teacher and Mozart’s archrival, holding as he did the coveted position of court composer to Emperor Josef in Vienna.

More importantly, both inhabited a musical paradise, although they might not have thought so at the time. Anton Schindler, writing in 1840, described turn-of-the-century Vienna: ‘There was a preference for music without ostentation – music which, whether performed by four voices or four hundred, would work magic on the listener, cultivating his mind and senses, ennobling his emotions… and yet this was not a time of philosophical sophistication; it was rather a period of uninhibited enjoyment, whose purity lasted well into the first decade of our century.’

Schubert’s Mass in C, D452, was written in 1816. It has a very light orchestration with no violas and optional clarinets and trumpets, giving the whole a light and airy texture. Unusually, the Kyrie belongs primarily to the four soloists, with chorus merely providing punctuation and emphasis. The light classical style is even more pronounced in the Gloria. The homophonic choral writing is underscored by a ‘Mannheim skyrocket’, the rapidly rising scale passage found so commonly in the early symphonic works of the Mannheim school. This musical style possessed an overwhelming energy, exuberance and almost uncontainable excitement. This is Schubert’s style here too some fifty years later.

The Credo, often the most solemn section of the Mass, is almost a dance. The triple time measure at first seems at odds with the metre of the words but what joy it brings to the words ‘creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible’. Contrast this with the next section, which speaks of the spirit made carnate, and crucifixion, where the harmonic language moves forward in time to wring full sentiment before returning to the joyful, chordal C major declaration that ‘on the third day he was resurrected and ascended into heaven.’

A rather thoughtful start to the Sanctus is another surprise but the solo soprano quickly dispels any doubt with her jubilant ‘Osanna in excelsis’. Schubert is best known for his tunes and so allows the soloist full measure in the Benedictus, which commonly in masses is in a slow duple time as here. This melody is perhaps unusual in its athleticism however. The solo voice has to navigate tricky rising and falling jumps without the least sign of strain or risk spoiling the calm for ‘blessed are they that go in the way of the Lord’. This is followed by a sinuous setting of the Agnus Dei and a final dance-like and precise ‘Dona nobis pacem’ as if to say that eternal bliss is a foregone conclusion.

Surely everyone recognises the opening of the Requiem in D minor K 626 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? The sombre basset horns over the plodding, brooding bass chords seem inseparable from our memory of the film Amadeus and all the myths surrounding this final work of the genius, cut down in 1791 in his 35th year. Yes, Mozart was troubled by the anonymous commissioner of the piece. Yes, as he approached death himself, he felt he was writing his own requiem. Yes, he died with the manuscript on his bed trying to give instructions about its completion. It is also true that several lesser composers had a hand in completing what he had started and who continue to this day. The version we perform tonight is the reworking by Beyer in 1983 to correct some of Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr’s worst errors.

But forget all of that. Whoever wrote what, when and why, this is a glorious and idiosyncratic work, by turns sumptuous and terrifyingly stark. It should be indulged, not analysed. We should subject ourselves both to the power and majesty of the music and the startling message of the catholic rite: through the pains and rage of death to eternal light, through tears and death’s dark vale to eternal rest, from prayers and supplications to the acknowledgement that the Lord will deliver us ‘as once promised to Abraham and his seed forever’.

Sara Kemsley