Alabaster—conductor’s note

This concert explores the ways that 20th and 21st century composers have worked with the human voice, arguably the most expressive of all instruments. And while naming a concert of vocal music after a mineral might seem strange, the choral sound has many common features with alabaster—strength, clarity and beauty, in this case of the sound of many voices singing together.

The works in this programme illustrate the many ways in which contemporary composers have worked with the “raw material” of the human voice. In selecting music for these concerts, I was particularly looking for those composers who understood how to write well for choirs. This is not to say that what they have written is easy—in different ways, Michael Tippett and Arvo Pärt wrote some of the technically trickiest music we will perform tonight—but rather that they have an understanding of how to work sensitively with the resources of a choir.

If the human voice is the common thread that links all the works on our programme, the sources of inspiration for these pieces could hardly be more diverse. Herbert Howells’ Christmas carol A spotless Rose is arguably one of his most famous compositions; how many would guess that its constantly shifting rhythms were inspired by a railway marshalling yard? We have this on good authority from the composer himself:

This I sat down and wrote after idly watching some shunting from the window of a cottage in Gloucester…which overlooked the Midland Railway. In an upstairs room I looked out on iron railings and the main Bristol-Gloucester railway line, with shunting trucks bumping and banging. I wrote it for and dedicated it to my mother…it always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else.

By contrast, Ernst Toch regarded his famous (or infamous!) Geographical Fugue as a mere curiosity. Laurence Wechsler, director of the Ernst Toch Society, tells the story of how it came to be translated into English:

A few months after Toch’s arrival in California in 1935, there came a knocking at the door of his rented Pacific Palisades home, and he opened it to find a diffident young man inquiring, ‘Excuse me, sir, but are you Dr. Ernst Toch?’ Confirming, with some difficulty, that such was indeed the case, the young man pressed on, ‘The Ernst Toch, composer of the Geographical Fugue?’ Yes, yes, my grandfather assured the young fellow, but seriously it was just a joke. No, no, the boy insisted, that Fugue was a major piece, one of the most significant of recent years—no, no, my grandfather interrupted, trust me, it was just a joke. On the contrary—and so forth, their little talk proceeded, until at length the kid was able to extract Toch’s permission to see to the work’s translation and promulgation in America…The young man at the door was John Cage, recent graduate of Los Angeles High School.

(Fortunately for us, Cage was true to his word, and generations of choral singers since have had the benefit of learning to say Popocatepetl fifteen times in a row, very quickly.)


The other great delight for me in selecting, rehearsing, and now performing the works on tonight’s programme has been the beautiful poetry chosen by these composers to set to music.

This collection includes Genevieve Taggard’s 1936 The Lark, in which Taggard’s lark alludes to her hope that, in her own words, ‘America might achieve democracy and by this means lay a foundation for a great culture’. The verse is set to music by Aaron Copland in his instantly identifiable style, drawing on the technical intricacy of English madrigals.

We explored more of this broadcast’s material in our Christmas programme titled “A Poet’s Christmas” in 2011.

In 1944, the BBC Singers commissioned another ‘modern madrigal’ from Michael Tippett as part of the BBC Home Service’s broadcast ‘A Poet’s Christmas’. Its text is the poignant carol The Weeping Babe by Edith Sitwell, and the darkness of its crucifixion imagery is matched perfectly by the torturous and complex musical lines that weave themselves into knots throughout. You will hear also from e.e. cummings, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, W.B. Yeats, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi—and, finally, from William Blake.

It seems somehow appropriate to end a concert of such diverse musical material in C major, and what better example of how to write beautiful music in this simplest of all key signatures than Gabriel Jackson’s golden blaze of harmony in To Morning.

I hope you enjoy this evening’s collection of beautiful contemporary music for voices.

—David Mackay, October 2010

Alabaster—program:

  1. The woman with the alabaster box (Arvo Pärt)
  2. The weeping babe (Michael Tippett)
  3. O magnum mysterium (Morten Lauridsen)
  4. To be sung on the water (Samuel Barber)
  5. Hope there is (Clare Maclean)
  6. This marriage (Eric Whitacre)

interval

  1. Geographical fugue (Ernst Toch)
  2. i thank You God for most this amazing day (Eric Whitacre)
  3. A spotless rose (Herbert Howells)
  4. Aedh wishes for the cloths of heaven (David Mackay)
  5. The beatitudes (Arvo Pärt)
  6. Lark (Aaron Copland)
  7. To morning (Gabriel Jackson)