This is the last in the series of monthly posts celebrating the choir’s rich history in its centenary year.
By 2016 the choir had been in existence for over 90 years and performed several premières and little known works throughout its history. But it had never had a piece written especially for it, even though commissioning one had been under discussion for decades. Early in that year however, its then Chair, Lindsey Charles, was inspired by a very successful national competition run by a local amateur orchestra to find a composer to write a piece for it. This seemed a promising way forward for the choir too and in autumn 2016 the committee agreed to go ahead.
Since no-one had any previous experience of such things, working out how to do it was a voyage of discovery for Lindsey and the rest of the small team who took it on. Eventually a specification was agreed requiring competition entrants to submit two previous pieces demonstrating their ability to write for both orchestra and choir. They were asked to choose one of five specified texts to set for the choir if they won and give a brief description of their musical vision for it. The work was to be roughly 15 minutes long and paired in concert with Mozart’s Requiem, and they could draw on the orchestral forces of the Requiem, with a couple of additional instruments if required. As it was essential that the winning composer be able to come and work with the choir at least once, and attend the première, entry was restricted to people resident in the UK. To ensure a level playing field entries were to be anonymous – all names and other identifying marks were removed and a number assigned to each one before they were sent on to the judges. Last but not least, for the winning composer there was prize money of £3000!
Providing entrants with a choice of texts to set enabled them to concentrate on ideas for the music rather than finding suitable words. It also enabled the judges to focus on assessing music rather than words, and entries based on a limited number of texts could help in comparing them. But equally importantly, it was a chance to ensure that the choir was happy with the words and meaning of the piece it was commissioning, and to this end members were invited to suggest what the texts offered to composers should be. They were asked specifically for poems, which are the most obvious texts to set to music given their inbuilt scansion and sparse, evocative language.
The invitation met with much enthusiasm and creativity, and nearly 40 proposals for poems, or pairs of related poems, were put forward, covering a wide range of periods and styles. Due to copyright restrictions some of the more contemporary ideas (such as Maya Angelou’s A Brave and Startling Truth) had to be ruled out, but this still left a good collection of contrasting works, and the committee selected five for composers to choose from: two of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (At the round earth’s imagined corners and Death be not proud); Rumi Where Everything is Music (trans Coleman Barks); William Shakespeare Fear no more the heat of the sun; two poems about summer (Robert Louis Stevenson Summer Sun and James Whitcomb Riley A Summer Afternoon), and an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey. These were different in length but entrants were not required to use them whole – they could select lines from them as they wished.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was to make composers throughout the UK aware of the competition. The most obvious way to do this was via music academies and departments, cathedral schools and the like, asking them to publicise it to both their students and alumni. A huge email campaign was mounted to find the right contacts within institutions and seek their support, followed by a massive postal mailing operation of posters and leaflets for them to display and distribute. Composer contacts of the OHC team organising the competition also helpfully spread the message through their networks. The competition was launched in May 2017 with local press coverage and a closing date of the following November to allow plenty of time for the message to get through to interested applicants and for them to work up their entries.
The first few weeks after launch were nail biting as there was only a small trickle of entries. Over the summer holiday period however, there was a sudden deluge and by the time the competition deadline arrived there had been well over 80 applications from a huge range of people ranging from postgraduate music students to established composers, amateur musicians to seasoned professionals. After the marathon task of anonymising and numbering the entries was complete they went to the judges: the choir’s conductor Robert Secret, international choral director Suzi Digby and composer Paul Max Edlin.
There were many very strong candidates but eventually the judges settled unanimously on David Lancaster, now Associate Professor of Composition of Music at York St John University, and an award-winning composer whose work has been performed, recorded and broadcast internationally. David visited Oxford in March 2018 to hear the choir put through its paces in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis before setting to work on his chosen texts, the two Holy Sonnets from John Donne, which with their theme of death and resurrection were perfect companions to the Requiem. The title of his piece, Of Trumpets and Angels, was inspired by the opening lines of the first poem in the pair, ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
The orchestration was almost exactly the same as the Mozart Requiem, with the notable addition of a wood block which provided an uneasy underlying rhythm at points during the piece, reminiscent of life ticking away. Challenging and exciting, the work was greeted with great enthusiasm by choir members who worked hard to do it justice. David Lancaster visited a rehearsal in the spring to help fine tune the work before its successful premiere in Oxford Town Hall in June 2019 where it was greeted with equal enthusiasm by the audience.
The hope was always that, as well being a bespoke piece for the OHC, the commissioned work would add to the repertoire of works available to the choral community as a whole and the possibility of this opened up with the publication of the Of Trumpets and Angels vocal score by the University of York Music Press soon after the première. Currently it is due to be performed again in 2022 by Skipton Choral Society and the York Railway Institute Brass Band, with the orchestration adapted by David Lancaster.
To find out more about David Lancaster see the interview with him in October 2019.