Piece of the Week: A Light in the Stable

The other day, I was listening again to the first performance of A Light in the Stable. (You can listen to that performance here).  When I hear those opening notes it always makes me shiver with cold – this might be due to the snowy weather we are having at the moment, but actually it’s more likely that it reminds me of the circumstances of those first few performances, in snowy Minneapolis and its environs a couple of Decembers ago (though Minnesotans will tell me that it’s often a great deal colder!).  I still remember the joy of coming out of the cold into those lovely large, busy, warm churches, to hear such excellent performances by VocalEssence choir and orchestra, directed by Philip Brunelle.
A Light in the Stable lasts about 35 minutes: it’s for SATB choir accompanied by either piano or organ, or small orchestra or chamber group, and it’s been performed in concerts and also in church services. It tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, using a mixture of quasi-recitative (or spoken text), new settings of familiar poems, choral settings of traditional carols, and carols in which the audience can join in. Much of it is based around fragments of the traditional plainsong melody ‘Of our Father’s (or Maker’s) love begotten, which we hear complete at the beginning and end.  And by happy chance, some carols will fit together quite nicely: the two tunes of ‘Away in a Manger’ fit together; ‘While Shepherd’s Watched’ combines with ‘O Tell it on the Mountain’; ‘The First Nowell’ combines with ‘Of our Father’s love begotten’, and fragments of other well-known carols permeate the music.  The result is that, although there is much that is newly composed, overall there is a slight air of comfortable familiarity which I hope makes it appeal to a wide range of audiences and choirs. It’s such a lovely story to tell: I really enjoyed writing it and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Here are the details on this website, and it’s available from OUP here.

Piece of the Week: O Come, Emmanuel

Advent Greetings to all readers! I wrote ‘O Come, Emmanuel’, a 35-minute cantata based on the plainsong melody of the same name, for Sarah MacDonald and the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, in 2012: they gave it its first performance in a liturgical context and later recorded it for Regent Records. Since then it has been performed by many choirs in several countries, and also a number of movements have been performed separately: just this past weekend I heard a choir sing ‘There is a rose-tree’ in a concert (which I followed with a piano improvisation in which I began by playing the final bars backwards), and on the Sunday morning service at our church, one of the short movements, ‘O Key of David’ was sung as an introit. It’s very flexible: it can be sung complete, of course, but also parts of it can be used in many different ways.
It contains arrangements of traditional Advent carols,  new settings of Advent words, hymns in which the congregation or audience may join the choir, linked by the words of the ‘O Antiphons’ set to fragments of the traditional plainsong melody.
Here is a link to the page on this site giving further details, including links to the publishers, Oxford University Press, and to the recording (Regent Records)
Here is a link to a performance of There is a rose-tree by the Selwyn College Choir

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!

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!