Flexible Choirs


More than 10 years ago I started to discuss with colleagues at Oxford University Press the concept of a book for those smaller church choirs who didn’t always have enough singers to cover all four voice parts, and we explored a number of possibilities, such as a book for upper voices only, or a book for upper voices and a unison men’s part.

But the real area of need, we felt, was for a book that covered the variable vocal scoring eventualities that might arise from Sunday to Sunday in the smaller choir. A choir that might be happily SATB one week may become SAB when one tenor goes on holiday and the other falls ill: similarly, there may be days when the only safe option is to sing in two parts, or in unison. The choir in which I sing is such a one, and it was from this experience that the concept of ‘Flexible Anthems’ was born.

Each book follows the same basic formula, containing about 65 flexibly-scored pieces, ranging from well-known and less-well-known music of the past to brand new works by leading choral composers. All of these can be performed by a mixed choir, but the flexible arrangements enable them to be performed by a wide variety of other groups such as upper-voice choirs, choirs with few men, and unison choirs. Some are unaccompanied, but the majority have accompaniments, which are suitable for either piano or organ (with or without pedals). The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems came out in 2007, followed by The Oxford Book of Flexible Carols in 2009. And now, published this month, is The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems.

Many choirs have used ‘Flexible Anthems’ and ‘Flexible Carols’ over the years – they are a staple diet for our choir – and so I’m really pleased to announce this new collection, The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems – over 65 anthems covering the whole of the church year and the various festivals and themes, except for Christmas.

The ‘easy’ aspect is not only in the music itself, it’s also associated with ease of learning within limited rehearsal time, with accessible keyboard accompaniments, and with a clear ‘performance note’ on the first page of each anthem highlighting the different scoring options available and saving time in assigning the voice parts to your particular group of singers. With such a wide range of composers and styles, inevitably some will be found ‘easier’ than others, but the emphasis is always on ease of performance and accessibility, without compromising on musical integrity or quality.

Almost all the anthems in the book can be sung by unison voices or as a solo, and all of them can be sung in two parts. Some add an optional third voice to this two-part texture, and many are in a traditional SATB scoring, though can, of course, be sung effectively by fewer voice parts. The week-by-week choice of anthems is also facilitated by a comprehensive index which lists the anthems by liturgical year and themes.

Compiling and editing this book was really exciting, and took up a substantial part of the last fifteen months – and I couldn’t have done it without the expert help of a number of OUP colleagues and free-lance advisers. From a very wide range of possible material, I think we have achieved a great balance – works by well-known composers such as Byrd, Tallis, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Boyce, Dyson, and Stainer rub shoulders with less-well known figures from the past such as Casciolini, Clemens, Marcello, Goss, Maunder, Simper, and de Arriaga. And of course there are many anthems and arrangements by some of the best contemporary church composers from the UK and the USA (and Norway and Canada) – too many to mention them all, but they include Malcolm Archer, Bob Chilcott, Thomas Hewitt-Jones, Edmund Jolliffe, Cecilia MacDowall, Philip Moore, Sarah Quartel, John Rutter, Will Todd, and Mack Wilberg, and also some who are relatively new to the OUP choral catalogue such as Ian Assersohn, Michael Bedford, James Davy, David Fawcett, Richard Hubbard, Russell Pascoe, Oliver Tarney, and Rebecca Groom te Velde. There’s also a fair sprinkling of anthems and arrangements of mine, and overall I think there really is something for every church choir.

You can hear a good cross-section of the contents on the still-developing companion website or on the free promotional CD that OUP have just produced. The website also includes sample pages from many of the anthems.

Although they are not all completely finalised yet, I am planning to do several workshops in which the collection will be introduced and sung: please email me for details of the person to contact if you are interested:
8 April 2017 – Taunton, Somerset (RSCM)
20 May 2017 – Wells, Somerset (MMA)
30 September 2017 – Hornchurch, Essex (RSCM)
And I shall also be attending the American Choral Directors Association conference in Minneapolis, USA (March 8-11 2017) where the book will be on display and introduced.

I can’t wait to try the book out!!

Wondrous Cross

As we approach Passiontide I thought I’d write a few words about my cantata Wondrous Cross – some of this was in my previous blog so you may have already read it.

At the school I attended from age 11 we sung J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion every Easter: so I probably sung all the voices over the years, and also played keyboard continuo, and the memory of that great work has stuck with me ever since, particularly the final chorus and the joyous exultation of the concluding chorale. It was pointed out to me after I wrote Wondrous Cross that one of the motifs in it is close to the beautiful descending three-note phrases of the penultimate chorus of the Bach Passion, and somehow, unintentionally, several elements of Bach’s Passion must have found their way into my Passion-tide work – Wondrous Cross (OUP 2012): details here.
I wrote Wondrous Cross in 2011 for Lion Walk Church in Colchester, where I worship regularly. My aim was to write a Passiontide work which was dramatic and accessible to a range of choirs, by giving some flexibility with regard to solo voices and forces used. Our small amateur choir performed it during Holy Week 2012 with strings and organ (you can hear this performance here; despite its imperfections I think it is a devoted and meaningful performance within a church service)
Later in the year it was recorded by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, director Sarah MacDonald, who later recorded it for Regent Records – details here

In presenting the Passiontide story I decided to focus on the crucifixion by using the ‘Seven Last Words’ of Jesus on the Cross and the Bible narration leading up to each. I set the narration for unison voice(s) and Jesus’s words for four-part choir, thus putting Jesus’s words into the mouths of all. I linked these passages by settings of other related texts and some traditional Passiontide hymns – and one spiritual. If it is performed in a worship situation, the congregation can join in with these. Underlying the whole work is the eighteenth-century hymn-tune ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’ which appears in the Prelude, in the background at various points in the work, and complete at the end. Here’s a link on Youtube with me talking about it.

Since publication in 2012 it has had a good and increasing number of performances – all over the UK and Scotland, but also in the Netherlands and the US, in concert halls, abbeys, cathedrals, and parish churches. I’m looking forward to singing it again this Passiontide!

You can obtain the Wondrous Cross CD from all good record shops including http://colchesterclassics.co.uk/ and from Regent Records
You can obtain the Wondrous Cross score from OUP and all good music shops including Forwoods Music

Performances 2017

This post will be updated as more information becomes available

7 January 2017
Glory to the Christ Child
Southwark Cathedral, Choral Evensong
Fever Pitch

8 February 2017
Three Blues
Lion Walk Church, Colchester
Samantha Christopher (clarinet), Ian Ray (piano)

18 March 2017
Psalmos Penetentiales (First performance)
King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford
Waltham Singers / Andrew Fardell

22 March 2017
Spring Pictures
Lion Walk Church, Colchester (1.00)
Melinda Blackman (violin), Alan Bullard (piano)

25 March 2017
Three Poems of W B Yeats
Brandenburg Choral Festival, St. Clement Dane’s Church, London
Ionian Singers / Timothy Salter

1 April 2017
Wondrous Cross
Radyr Parish Church, near Cardiff
Radyr and Morganstown Choral Society / Peter Esswood

8 April 2017
Wondrous Cross
Nottingham Hospitals Choir / Nicholas Milburn

8 April 2017
Wondrous Cross
Clacton Choral Society / Gillian Dulieu

8 April 2017
Love on my heart from heaven fell
Dorking Halls
Leith Hill Festival Choir / Jonathan Willocks

9 April 2017
Wondrous Cross
Red Wing Singers
First Lutheran Church, Red Wing, Minnesota, USA

9 April 2017
Wondrous Cross
Lion Walk Church, Colchester (evening worship)
Lion Walk Church Choir / Ian Ray

9 April 2017
Wondrous Cross
St Andrew’s Church, Roxbourne, Harrow (evening worship)

6 May 2017
Journey through Time
St. James’ Church, Sussex Gardens, Paddington
Bloomsbury Woodwind Ensemble / Shea Lolin

4 June 2017
Selwyn Service
Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge (6pm Evensong)
Selwyn College Chapel Choir / Sarah MacDonald

4 June 2017
Come, O Creator Spirit
Lion Walk Church Colchester, Pentecost Service
Lion Walk Choir / Ian Ray

4 June 2017
Come, O Creator Spirit
Bruton Parish Church, Willamsburg, Virginia, USA, Pentecost Service
Bruton Parish Choir / Rebecca Davy

10 June
The Darkling Thrush
St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, Oxford, 7.30 pm
Commotio / Matthew Berry

17 June 2017
Three Blues
Castle Methodist Church, Colchester (afternoon)
Charles Hine (clarinet), Alan Bullard (piano)

17 June 2017
A Swan, A Man
Castle Methodist Church Colchester (afternoon)
Tim Torry (baritone), Alan Bullard (piano)

1 July 2017
A Summer Garland
St Swithun’s Church, The Paragon, Bath
Cappella Nova / Tony Shield

15 December 2017
Glory to the Christ Child
St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, Oxford, 7.45 pm
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

17 December 2017
Glory to the Christ Child
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3.oo pm
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

12 April 2018
Stocking and Shirt
Leith Hill Festival, Dorking

Recent recordings

And all the stars looked down
Song of the Nativity
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro COR16146
BBC Music Magazine Christmas Choice 2016
Details here

And all the stars looked down
There is no rose
Vocal Group Concert Clemens / Carsten Seyer-Hansen
Orchid Classics ORC100062
Details here

Hark Hark, the Lark
Sing Willow
Les Sirenes / Andrew Nunn
Albion Records ALBCD030
Details here

The Essex Service (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis)
Sing Praise to Christ
The Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral / James Davy
Chorum CHORCD450