Piece of the Week – Jackdaw!

This November marks exactly twenty years since the first performance and recording of my piece Jackdaw! for male voice choir. This suite of seven songs, for four-part male voice choir, optional soprano solo, and piano was commissioned by the Huntingdon Male Voice Choir, director Peter Davies.

I remember Peter Davies asking me for something that would ‘stretch’ his choir a little bit (possibly I stretched it a little more than he anticipated with this nearly 20-minute piece). Peter has long been involved with the male voice choir movement – he was director of the Cornwall International Male Voice Choir Festival for many years – and he encouraged me to write something that would break through the traditional male voice repertoire mould, encouraging new ways of thinking about male voice singing, while retaining that sense of good humour and fun to be found in their concerts. He also suggested I used the guest soprano soloist to add extra colour, which I did in several of the movements (though her part can be taken by the first tenors if necessary). I took all this as a challenge and wrote some quite difficult stuff with often independent lines and at times modal harmony and irregular rhythms, while still giving some opportunity for the traditional unaccompanied harmonic passages that male voice choirs were used to. I have to say that the choir rose to this challenge admirably!

The text is adapted from ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims’ by R. H. Barham, an unusual and once-popular narrative poem. You can read the complete poem here:  and for my setting I cut it a little bit (e.g. the final three lines) and made a few changes, but most of it is as Barham wrote it.

The amusingly fanciful story tells of the jackdaw who steals the Cardinal’s gold ring. The Cardinal puts a curse upon the jackdaw who becomes ill and loses his feathers, but when the ring is eventually found in his nest, the jackdaw repents and is forgiven. His plumage returns, and he becomes a holy and devout jackdaw, living a long life of prayer: and on his death he is made a Saint.
There are seven movements:
1. The Cardinal’s Chair
2. The Feast
3. The Singing Boys
4. Where’s the ring?
5. A Solemn Curse!
6. Crime doesn’t pay
7. Repent and be forgiven, Saint Jackdaw!

I picked up the recording again last week and I don’t think I’d listened to it for nearly 20 years, and it was lovely to revisit it. The story-telling aspects of the poem gave me the opportunity for an almost operatic drama at times, and the choir responded to this with colour and character. Here’s the performance on YouTube at their 35th anniversary concert in November 1997, with Jennifer Thompson (soprano) and Norma Heayes (piano).

The music is unpublished, but it is printed, and I can send a pdf to any choral director who is interested.

Pieces of the Week – folk-song arrangements

Over recent years I have written a number of piano accompaniments, mainly for the ABRSM, for songs and instrumental pieces. Sometimes these are transcriptions of existing pieces, with texture adapted but harmony unchanged, but some are arrangements of folksongs where I had a freer hand in the harmony and accompaniment patterns.

For next year’s ABRSM syllabus I have arranged folk-songs for voice, flute, clarinet and saxophone, and it has been a delight to aim to capture the essence of the song in the accompaniments. In particular, my aim has been to aid the performer to give of their best in a performance or exam situation, by helping them to capture the character of the music, and, particularly with those for singers, to help them in communicating the changes of mood within the song. Here are a few examples:

Land of the Silver Birch (ABRSM Songbook Plus, Grade 2)
I aimed to highlight the grandiose, but yet also nostalgic feeling of this Canadian folk-tune, and I hope that the accompaniment will help the singer to communicate the changing moods of the song.

The water is wide (ABRSM Songbook Plus, Grade 5)
This beautiful folk-song, which has of course been arranged many times before, is a delight for any composer to arrange. The text, which talks of the changing, and ultimately unhappy, stages of love, gives the opportunity for a range of accompaniment textures to help the singer portray the character: countermelodies suggest the flowing water, heavy chords the fully laden ship, and chromatic harmonies and key-changes help to communicate the sorrow of lost love. I’ve attached a couple of pages of the arrangement to this post.

O Soldier, Soldier (ABRSM Flute Exam Pieces 2018-21, Grade 2)
This march-like tune, which, as with many folk-songs, exists in a number of different versions. I aimed to capture the character of the military march in my accompaniment, but also to mirror what sounds like the 18th-century origin of the melody, with its clear-cut phrases involving call and response. Here’s a performance.

I love my love (ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces 2018-21, Grade 2)
A lovely expressive modal melody, which gave me the opportunity to encourage expressive playing with rich harmonies and interweaving melodic lines. Here’s a performance.

Skye Boat Song (ABRSM Saxophone Exam Pieces 2018-21, Grade 1)
A very well-known tune, of course, which must have been arranged hundreds of times, but it is great to get the opportunity to put one’s own gloss on it, and to help the player to communicate the gentle movement of water and oars as the boat crosses from the mainland to the isles of Skye. Here’s a performance – and what a lovely melody it is – a delight to arrange!

I always enjoy making these kinds of arrangements – and if they help the player to improve their performance and communication of the musical character, then they have done their job!