Piece of the week – how I came to write ‘A baby so small, a message so great’.

In 2000, I wrote a carol based on a published anonymous poem called ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’. (Co-incidentally, Bob Chilcott wrote a setting of the same carol in the same year). The poem begins:
We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.
(In my setting, as that the text was believed to be anonymous, I omitted the word ‘Lady’). Both Bob Chilcott’s carol and mine were published by OUP in the same year, mine under the title Hillside Carol.
Using an optional flute or treble recorder, as well as empty, bare, chords on the organ/piano part, I aimed to recreate the peacefulness and stillness of the night sky, later changing the character with the appearance of the bright star and by sound of angelic voices, and finally, in the last verse, reverting to the calm mood of the beginning as the shepherds bow down before the baby Jesus.
Then in 2009 the carol was proposed to be reprinted in ‘Alan Bullard Carols’ and it came to light that the poem was not anonymous at all, but by the Tasmanian poet Clive Sansom (1910-81). After some negotiation, permission was granted (despite my slight adjustment to the text), and the carol is now available in ‘Alan Bullard Carols’ with the correct author’s name.
However, in case permission wasn’t granted, I sketched out a new text of my own, in the same metre and telling the same story verse by verse, but using completely different words. It began:
The landscape was bare,
The snowfall had come:
Glinting across the whiteness,
A glimmer of sun.
and the last verse began:
A baby so small,
A message so great
As things turned out, this text wasn’t needed for Hillside Carol, but it seemed a shame not to use it, so that was how A baby so small, a message so great came to be – a carol which tells the same story, but in a very different way. Although ‘A baby so small’ also begins with empty, bare chords, they are soon enriched; then the key suddenly changes as the star dramatically appears and then, as the music calms and subsides, the angels sing in the form of a descant over the main melody.

So that chance discovery of the correct author for Hillside Carol led to a new carol as well – and both are recorded by Selwyn College Chapel Choir (director Sarah Macdonald) on the CD ‘O Come Emmanuel’ (Regent Records)

Links (both include links to audio)
Hillside Carol (in ‘Alan Bullard Carols’) 
A baby so small, a message so great 

Piece of the Week: And can this newborn mystery

In 2008 I went to a ‘Free to Believe’ conference. This organisation, an ‘informal network of liberally minded Christians for an open, inclusive and thinking church’ is particularly associated with the United Reformed Church, but numbers those from many other churches among its followers (there is no ‘membership’).
The particular focus of this conference, entitled ‘Liberal Voices’ was on hymns – old and new – and I was asked to play the piano for the sessions, which were led by such prominent thinkers as Ian Bradley and Brian Wren.
I was in touch with Brian Wren before the conference, and he sent me some words which were ‘looking for a tune’ – I couldn’t resist that, so I obliged, and And can this newborn mystery was first sung, as a hymn, at the conference. Afterwards I realised that it could also be worked up into a carol for SATB: so the original hymn (titled ‘High Leigh’ – the venue where the conference took place) was published by Hope Publishing Company/Stainer and Bell in Brian Wren’s collection Love’s Open Door, and my extended carol version by Oxford University Press (in the collection Alan Bullard Carols).

The words are a thoughtful and challenging meditation on the Christ child, posing, in the first verse, the question:
And can this newborn mystery, An infant learning how to feed, Defeat the grim and chilling powers Of domination, death and sin?
And in a later verse, introducing aspects of belief:
And some will feel the Spirit’s power, And some will doubt, or cling to faith, And some will hope but never know, And some will joyfully believe.
And ending:
We worship, trust, and rise to serve An infant learning how to feed.

Thus Brian Wren has encompassed the mystery of Christmas within a contemporary, questioning environment, and I hope that I have captured some of this in my musical setting.

Free to believe
Brian Wren
Love’s Open Door
And can this newborn mystery: page on this site
Alan Bullard Carols 
Performance of And can this newborn mystery 

Piece of the Week – Lunar Landscapes

It’s always pleasing when a piece that you have written takes on a life of its own – sometimes in a way that you couldn’t have imagined. Here’s an example.
Over twenty years ago I wrote a set of easy pieces for cello and piano – Lunar Landscapes. At about Grade 1 to 2 level, each of the eight short pieces reflects an aspect of the moon – Moonflight, Moon Rock, Moonbeams, etc.- and for a time some of them featured in the ABRSM exam syllabus and a number of young cellists sawed their way through them.
I’d rather forgotten about them until some years later I was contacted by an Italian youth orchestra asking if they could record them with a cello ensemble and piano, and the resulting film (with lovely drawings and animations as well) is a wonderful performance, with some much more professional-sounding playing than I would ever have imagined for my little pieces.
I’ve no more to say really – except follow this link to the Orchestra giovanile di violoncelli Tiroconlarco and enjoy their playing and visuals!

You can buy the music here, at a bargain price, too

Piece of the Week – A little child there is yborn

Commissions for new works usually come with suggestions or requests from the commissioner – length and scoring, of course, but also often other pointers: where the piece might fit in a concert, or suggested mood (celebratory, meditative, and so on), subject matter, standard of choir, what they like singing, and all kinds of other things, sometimes even a specific poem. These constraints are almost always a good thing as they give the composer a starting point around which to shape their musical ideas.

One of the strangest, and most useful, requests I ever received was twenty-five or so years ago when Peter Davies, a great mover and shaker in the world of choral music and commissioner of many pieces from me for various choirs, asked me to write a piece for a choir he then conducted – the Sawtry Chorale in Huntingdonshire, UK. The stipulations were simply that it should be a Christmas Carol, and that it should be in 7/8 – an asymmetrical time signature of seven quavers in the bar!
This gave me some cause for thought – but actually it forced me into writing a carol that was, I believe, more rhythmic and memorable than if I had set to work around a more conventional time signature: so the commissioner got the piece he wanted for his choir, and the challenge that he gave me spurred me on musically.

A little child there is yborn is then, mostly, in 7/8 – a lively and rhythmic setting of a fifteenth-century text, with a main theme that appears both in minor and major modes. For just one section – where the Three Kings appear – does the music move into a more regular, slightly pompous, metre, but it soon returns to the rhythmic character of the first section. Looking at it again now, I can see elements of similarity with ‘Glory to the Christ Child’, which I wrote about fifteen years later, though this carol lacks the reflective elements, isn’t so challenging in performance, and is really just one joyful romp. And I’ve used the 7/8 metre in a regular way (2+2+3) so it is quite easy for choir, and conductor, to get their head round it.

I’m rather fond of it (thank you, Peter!) and was very pleased when it was published by Oxford University Press just a couple of years ago. You can hear a clip from it here, and the whole piece on the OUP website, performed by The Oxford Choir directed by Bob Chilcott.

Piece of the Week – Final Whistle!

Recently published is the saxophone collection, Final Whistle, to which I contributed four of the pieces. Aimed at learners at around Grades 2-5, with editions for Eb and Bb saxophone, several of the pieces feature in the 2018 ABRSM saxophone syllabus.

My interest in writing for the saxophone goes back a long way: in 1990 a teaching colleague of mine, the late Angela Fussell, asked me to write a piece, Circular Melody, for the Colchester Institute Saxophone Choir (one of very few in the UK at that time) which was first performed at the first British Saxophone Congress at Wakefield. This commission, together with Angela’s enthusiasm, awakened my interest in this sonorous and colourful instrument, and I followed this up with Three Picasso Portraits, commissioned by the saxophone quartet Saxology, and recorded by them on CD and now available on Spotify. At the same time my son Sam’s interest in the saxophone was awakening, and I wrote Weekend for him in 1993, when he was eleven, and subsequently the much more challenging Workout, in 1997. (both of these publications are with piano accompaniment and are available in editions for alto and tenor sax). Now in his thirties and a professional saxophonist, Sam is reviving Workout, with me at the piano, for a lunch time concert on 25th October at Colchester’s Lion Walk Church.

Then, in 2005, I wrote a set of saxophone studies, Sixty for Sax,  but apart from arrangements of existing pieces I’ve written little else for the saxophone until now, so it was good when saxophonist Chris Gumbley invited me to contribute to his new collection, Final Whistle. The book contains four pieces by me, four by James Rae, and four by Chris Gumbley, who edited (or ‘refereed’ as he says) the book and chose the football-themed titles – mine are called ‘Kick-off’, ‘Mexican Wave’, Waltzing to Wembley’ and ‘Final Whistle’.  I had a lot of fun writing these pieces and reviving my interest in writing for the sax.
Here are the publication details. There are no recordings yet, but who knows what may happen as the book rises up the league!