Piece of the Week – how I can’t get Pachelbel’s Canon out of my head…

There’s something very haunting about Pachelbel’s Canon. Yes, I know that for many its attraction has palled, and after all it is just based on a very standard 17th century bass line, the romanesca, but there is something about the inevitability of the harmonic shape that makes one feel warm and comfortable. At least, that’s how I felt when, quite a few years ago now, I was asked to write a new setting of ‘The Lord Bless you and Keep You’ for a wedding at my church. So I took Pachelbel’s famous piece, and wove some new canonic melodies over the top, overlapping and combining with each other, occasionally changing key and texture to give some variety and shape.

It’s recently resurfaced in The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems as, although it’s in three vocal parts, it’s possible to sing it with fewer: and it’s been enjoyable to revisit it.

If you have had enough of Pachelbel, you may not care for it, but if you’d like to listen, it’s here, performed by members of Commotio directed by Griselda Sherlaw-Johnson
And the page about it on this website, with various links, is here

Piece of the week – Glory to the Christ-Child

In Summer 2005 I left my college teaching post to allow more time for composition – and the first piece I wrote that summer, with my new-found freedom, was a Christmas carol, ‘Glory to the Christ Child’.
This piece alternates a rhythmic and asymmetrical refrain (harmonised differently on each appearance) with a lovely medieval poem, ‘Out of the Orient skies a blazing star did shine’. The last line of each verse of this poem refers to the baby Jesus: ‘A blessed babe divine’ in the first verse, ‘This blessed babe did rest’ in the second, and ‘Born is this new king’ in the third – and the change of mood occasioned by these words enabled me to end each verse with slow moving chords: calm and peaceful in verses 1 and 2, joyous in verse 3. Then I realised that by ending the piece with a repetition of that calm mood, repeating the words ‘The blessed babe divine’ I could contrast the joyous celebration of the refrain with the promise of peace that the Christ-Child brings, and thus the carol assumed its overall shape.
But I still wasn’t quite sure of the notes! (that often happens – and there’s still one in this piece I wish was different now) and in particular the choice of the chords in those final peaceful bars gave me some difficulty. There’s a passage in Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ where a girl draws a picture of a young lady about to jump off a cliff with three pairs of arms in different positions, with the intention that she would erase two pairs when she has decided on the best one to keep. I felt a bit like that when, on a hot summers afternoon at an ABCD conference, I spread out three versions of those final bars on the grass in front of several members of the OUP staff to seek their advice. Advice was duly given and the piece was complete!
It’s become one of my most-performed carols. It was sung by the choir of Kings College Cambridge (director Stephen Cleobury) at the Nine Lessons and Carols service broadcast on Christmas Eve 2007 and 2008, and it was wonderful to hear it in that magnificent setting. And this year it has been chosen by The Sixteen (director Harry Christophers) as the title carol to their UK Christmas tour – so I am really looking forward to hearing that!

There are several performances on YouTube: some of them are not very tight or accurate rhythmically and thus rather unexciting, but here is a good one from an Italian choir. and here is another good one from the OUP website.
And there is also an excellent EMI Kings College Cambridge CD with it on, though I don’t think it’s currently available.

Here is a link to the page about this carol on this site, which contains publisher and recording details.

Piece of the Week – Azalea

A few summers ago, my wife Jan and I were writing one of the books in our Pianoworks series – Pianoworks Popular Styles (Oxford University Press). This is a collection of new pieces composed by us, in a wide range of styles from the past 100 years, both popular and classical: they are designed to complement the other books in the Pianoworks series, at about Grade 2 to Grade 3 level.

We had a lot of fun writing this book and responding to the various styles of the relatively recent past with titles such as ‘Just one Day’, ‘Moonlight through Glass’, ‘Brighton Belle’, ‘Model T’, ‘Night Waves’, ‘Satin’ and many more, including ‘Azalea’, which I’ll come to in a moment.

Before I do that, I’ll just mention that I played a selection of these pieces in a concert the other day, when I had to suddenly deputise for a sick colleague with little time for me to practise: and although we never really thought of them as concert material, they did work in concert, and were appreciated by a large audience for their variety and colour. One of the pieces I played was ‘Azalea’ and although this piece is theoretically about a sort of rhododendron, it was actually written at the time when our granddaughter Azalea was born. (Her fourth birthday is this week, and she loves to hear me play it!)

This year also marks the tenth anniversary of the original Pianoworks Book 1, which has now been supplemented by eight other volumes.

You can see a YouTube recording of ‘Azaleahere and you can see some sample pages and obtain the complete book here or from your usual music supplier. There are eighteen pieces and moods to explore….