Piece of the Week 55: Suffolk Sketches, for solo violin

For as long as I can remember I’ve been attracted to the county of Suffolk and its environs. I grew up in London – but my grandparents lived in Gorleston-on-Sea, just over the Suffolk border into Norfolk, and we often journeyed from London to spend holidays with them. As small children, several of the Norfolk and Suffolk beaches were our playgrounds, the excitement competing with the fun of the steam-train journey from London’s Liverpool Street station to Great Yarmouth. And, when we were a bit older, and my parents had a car, visits en-route to quaint towns and villages and their ancient churches became part of the holiday – Lavenham, Southwold, Bungay, Aldeburgh, and more.

Then, when I was in my twenties, I moved to a village near Colchester, just south of the Suffolk border, and a few years later my parents moved to a village between Sudbury and Bury St. Edmunds, in the western part of the county. So I was able to renew my exploration of Suffolk, and have continued to do so ever since, and now feel that I have reverted to my East Anglian roots.  So it was not surprising that when I wrote a solo violin piece for Beth Spendlove (a fellow East Anglian) I found myself writing a portrait of various Suffolk landmarks! Suffolk Sketches has five movements, and ranges from the coastline inland to the border with Cambridgeshire.

The first movement is entitled Framlingham Castle, and a view of Suffolk – the ancient ‘castle on the hill’ (since made famous by local resident Ed Sheeran!) from whose high battlements you can look out over the town, and beyond to rolling countryside and farmland.

For the second movement we move to the coast: Orford Ness – a mysterious and unpopulated stretch of shingle isolated by the River Alde from the rest of the county. In the Second World War it was a secret military establishment, and now it is a national nature reserve, reachable by ferry-boat. In this movement you can hear the calmly undulating waves, and a stormy central section.

Next we move sixty miles to the west, to the other side of Suffolk, for Newmarket Races. Newmarket is among the largest racehorse training and breeding centres in the country, and is famed internationally for its race-meetings, and in this movement the horses canter into position, followed by a starting fanfare, the race itself, and a final fanfare before the horses trot back to the stables.

In the fourth movement we visit ‘Constable Country’ for Willows reflected in the Stour. The River Stour forms the southern boundary of Suffolk, and passes through Sudbury, Dedham, and by Flatford Mill where John Constable painted his picture ‘The Haywain’. The music is based around the idea of reflections in the water.

And lastly, a lively movement to conclude the suite: Felixstowe Holiday. As well as being a large commercial port, the popular seaside resort of Felixstowe provides many activities for holiday makers with its beach, its pier, its seafront promenade and its amusement arcades!

Suffolk Sketches has been performed a number of times, but I don’t have a live recording, so this Scrolling Score is a digital performance.

Details of how to purchase the music is here, and the picture accompanying this post is yet another view of Suffolk, the garden of our cottage a few miles from the sea.

Newsletter 7 – February 2024

Welcome to my February 2024 newsletter!

My Alde Sandlings Mass is now published by Encore Publications. Written originally for the churches of the Alde Sandlings Benefice in Suffolk, and using the Common Worship text, it can be sung either in unison or SATB, with organ. The score, and a separate congregational part, is available from Encore Publications.

My new hymn tune, St. George Martyr, written for the text of the same name by Doug Constable, was the winner of the St. George’s Paris Hymn Competition to celebrate the church’s bicentenary, and was sung enthusiastically at the St. George’s Paris Celebration Eucharist on February 10th. Please contact me if you would like to see a copy.

Publishing in April/May are the final two volumes of Oxford Hymn Settings for Organists (popularly known as OHSO). Volume 8 and Volume 9 each contain forty preludes on general hymns (i.e. those that can be used throughout the year), by some of the best organ composers from the United States and the United Kingdom – many names well known in the organ world, but some new ones as well. Co-edited by Rebecca Groom te Velde (Stillwater, Oklahoma) and myself, this has been a long journey and we are really pleased to see the books nearing completion, and excited at the diversity of approaches and styles that the books contain.

Colne Edition, my own self-publishing company, continues to expand by publishing new pieces and arrangements by me, and re-issuing older ones. All Colne Edition publications are available, as downloadable pdfs, from Sheet Music Direct and Sheet Music Plus.  Some are also available from JW Pepper as pdfs or printed copies, and most are also available direct to order from Colne Edition.

Recent Colne Edition publications include
Reflections (for cello and piano)
God be in my head (for SATB and organ)
Suffolk Sketches (for solo violin)
Lord of all hopefulness (arrangement of the traditional melody for mixed choir in two or three parts, with organ or piano)
All is well with my soul (arrangement of the popular nineteenth century worship song for mixed choir in three or four parts, with organ or piano)
Steal away (arrangement of the popular American spiritual, for SATB unaccompanied)

Colne Edition publications are sold all over the world and recent sales have been in Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, Isle of Man, Japan, Macao, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and Spain, as well as the USA and UK.

Performances: My music is often associated with Christmas, and certainly there were performances of many of my Christmas carols, and my Christmas cantatas, last December. But it is not just about Christmas – and here are a few of the performances of my choral cantatas coming up in the next few months:
Psalmi Penitentiales (Writtle Singers / Christine Gwynn, Writtle Parish Church nr. Chelmsford, 23 March, 5pm)
Wondrous Cross (Church Choir / Ian Ray, Lion Walk Church Colchester, 24 March, 10.15am)
Choristers of Flight (Elysian Singers / Sam Laughton, St Peter’s Eaton Square, London, 25 May, 7.30 pm)
Endless Song (Colchester Choral Society / Ian Ray, St Botolph’s Church Colchester, 22 June, 7.30pm)

South Chiltern Choral Society: I was recently invited to be President of the SCCS – a purely ‘honorary’ role. I have a long association with the Society who have performed a number of my pieces over the years, and I am honoured to be recognised by them.

I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading this newsletter. If you’d like to receive this by email and don’t already do so, please let me know!

Best wishes, Alan

Piece of the Week 54: God be in my head

After the complexity of last week’s The Spacious Firmament, this week’s piece inhabits a less rarified world, and was written for a special service for a group of churches some of which had only ‘occasional’ choirs, and few rehearsals. It does, though, share a sense of spiritual calm.

It is a setting of the well-known prayer God be in my head. Originally French c.1490 (‘Jesus soit en ma teste et mon entendement; Jesus soi ten mes yeulx et mon regardement’, etc) the text was soon translated into English and printed in a collection of prayers made in Salisbury, known as the Sarum Primer. Its direct injunction to consider God in all ways – in our head, our eyes, our mouth, our heart, and in our final days – has made it a popular short devotional prayer and it has been set to music by many composers, the most well-known setting probably being by the early twentieth-century composer, Walford Davies.

My setting, for SATB choir and organ, though accessible in style and easy to learn, is longer than many, as by creating three ‘verses’ I aimed to create an anthem-length piece. The melody itself uses a single motif which slowly climbs to a high point (‘God be in my heart, and in my thinking’) and then falls again for the final line (‘God be at my end, and at my departing’).

The text and melody is sung three times: the first verse largely in unison, the second verse in four-part harmony, and the last verse with a soprano descant over the unison melody, falling to four-part harmony again for the final lines. I aimed to create a feeling of serene prayerfulness suitable for any point in a service including during communion – and if a shorter version is needed then only one of the verses need be sung.

The music, written in 2021, was recently published by Colne Edition, both as an instant digital download (pdf) or in printed form – for details please go here.
You can see and hear the piece in this scrolling score.



Piece of the week 53 – The Spacious Firmament (8-part mixed choir)

In the 1980s I was lucky enough to have several pieces performed by the BBC Northern Singers, under the charismatic and inspirational direction of Stephen Wilkinson (1919-2021). The Spacious Firmament was commissioned by the BBC Northern Singers to celebrate his seventieth birthday in 1989, alongside new pieces by Elizabeth Maconchy, Michael Ball, Stephen Dodgson, David Gow, John Joubert and John McCabe.  I remember that we composers hid in the audience at a recording session in a BBC studio in Manchester, keeping our heads down until the surprise presentation of our manuscripts to Stephen – and then all seven pieces were programmed and broadcast in their next concert! It was an honour for me to be alongside these composers who were amongst the most significant of their generation.

The BBC Northern Singers’ administrators had made suggestions to us as to the kind of poems we might choose, particularly focusing on the fact that though not a conventional Christian, Stephen did believe in some kind of ‘guiding spirit’ and we thought that Joseph Addison’s great poem, which speaks of a ‘divine, almighty hand that made us’, without being specific as to its nature, would be appropriate. (Although the poem is today sung as a hymn, Addison (1671-1719) didn’t write it as such). And writing for such a skilful ensemble gave me the opportunity to create a wide range of textures and harmonies.

Its opening lines –
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heav’ns, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim
suggested to me an all-encompassing  picture of sky, land and sea. Within a largely ‘white-note’ texture, I aimed to reflect this by splitting the text up and sharing it between the eight voice-parts, using the interval of a seventh for the first two lines, and thirds and fifths for the next two: the chords outlined here becoming the musical material for the rest of the piece and finally, at the very end, being presented as simple major triads. Elsewhere, too, the colours and visions in the poem encouraged much word-painting:
as the evening shades prevail…
the stars that round her burn….
In solemn silence all move around…
forever singing as they shine….

More recently, the music was published by OUP, and it was taken up by Selwyn College Chapel Choir (director Sarah MacDonald) and Gary Cole of Regent Records, as part of a CD entitled The Eternal Ecstasy – Music of Visionary Transcendence, which places my piece alongside a later generation of composers. I quote here from the sleeve-note of the CD:

Over the last fifty years a new style of choral writing has emerged from the US which has captured the imagination of church- and concert-goers…. This style can be summarised as timeless, spacious, and rapturous, with an innate depth of visionary and transcendental spirituality. These features have led to the simple, but apposite, description of the ‘Ecstatic Style’, and this CD explores its development from its beginnings in 1940s America to the present day, with representative works from major US composers Randall Thompson, Morten Lauridsen, and Eric Whitacre to established British composers, John Tavener, Paul Mealor, Cecilia McDowall, Alan Bullard, and James MacMillan, together with an early British example of the style in William Harris’ sublime double-choir anthem, Bring us, O Lord God. The recording also includes a substantial number of works by younger British composers, Iain Quinn, David Bednall, John Duggan, and Phillip Cooke.

The CD, The Eternal Ecstasy, is available from Regent Records here, (it is also on Spotify and other streaming platforms), and the score of The Spacious Firmament is obtainable here. And you can listen and follow the music on YouTube here.

Piece of the week 52 – ‘Friston Moor’ for symphony orchestra

Friston, Suffolk, is a small village a few miles from Aldeburgh, Saxmundham and Snape – and today’s piece is an orchestral tone-poem, to which, on YouTube, I’ve added visual images. But first something about the background – if you know about all this, please skip the section in italics. Just to say that of course most of us are firmly in favour of windfarms and energy from the sea, but this should not, surely, be at such a great cost to the biodiversity crisis, and the natural environment.

On this map, Friston Moor is the area in which the black square marked ‘Proposed Friston Substation’ is sited, towards the bottom of the map. It is an area of predominantly farmland and is a beautiful space, with wide skies, ever-changing crops, public footpaths, hedgerows and woodland, and it is close to the fourteenth-century village church. Around it the map shows the proposed sites for transmission of energy from the wind farms in the sea, involving a landfall at the crumbling cliffs, the digging up of motorway-width trenches over an area of nearly ten miles, ripping up swathes of beautiful countryside (much of which is in the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB), and the building of at least six massive substations between Friston and Saxmundham, each taking up 12 acres of productive farmland. And of course Sizewell C will be on the coast, just a few miles down the road.

The windfarms are naturally a welcome way of producing electricity, but the ecological aspect of this concept is completely wrecked by the savage onshore infrastructure, threatening people’s homes and livelihoods, the natural world, and the tourism industry. Other countries bordering the North Sea have solved the difficulty of getting wind power to where it is needed by using undersea cables – only in this country are we still using the old-fashioned method of massive onshore substations, trench cabling, and pylons.

These development plans are not co-ordinated: when the original proposal from Scottish Power for two substations and a National Grid connection station in Friston was approved by the Government Inspectorate, no consideration was given to the other proposals which were in the pipeline, nor to Sizewell C, and National Grid didn’t even appear at the enquiry, even though they had proposed the site to Scottish Power. National Grid (a private company) provides grid connection offers to developers, so influences where new projects plan to build the industrial infrastructure to connect offshore wind farms and subsea interconnector cables to the grid. But it is showing a complete lack of consideration of the ‘cumulative impact’ of multiple large scale industrial developments in such a small area.

For more information about this sorry story please visit www.sases.org.uk and https://www.suffolkenergyactionsolutions.co.uk

Now to my piece, which I wrote in 2020 when all these proposals were less far advanced. Friston Moor is my personal response to this situation. My vision was a walk through the fields, accompanied by the birds, the animals scurrying in the undergrowth, the land and the sky, the hum of the pylons and the threat of what may be to come – and always there is the village church, very close to the affected area. It’s like a kind of dream as the different elements of the music overlap. I tried to be musically optimistic, though, because in the future, perhaps when all these buildings have become obsolete, I am sure that birds, animals, plants and trees will slowly re-colonise this area again.

In the YouTube film I have added visual images which give a picture of the landscape and, I hope, add to the dreamlike quality and the drama of the music.  And you will see images which may never be the same again.

Although the piece is designed for symphony orchestra, and can be played ‘live’, the version that you hear is produced digitally using the NotePerformer software.

Here is a link to me talking about this piece (a little out of date now)

Here is the link to the YouTube performance/ film

And for those who prefer just to listen to the music, here’s a SoundCloud link.

If you would like to see the full score, follow this link

Piece of the Week 51 – ‘Snow’ for upper voices

Continuing with a theme of seasonal pieces, here is Snow. Like ‘Stocking and Shirt’ (Piece of the Week 49) this formed part of a much bigger piece commissioned for the 25th anniversary of Sing for Pleasure (who, this year, are celebrating their 60th anniversary!).

It’s written for upper voices in two parts and piano (organ in the first performance), and was later published by OUP as no. 2 of ‘At the Turn of the Year’.  The poem is by Walter de la Mare, who was a prolific writer, particularly for children, in the first half of the twentieth century. He is today particularly known as the compiler of an excellent and fascinating anthology of poetry, Come Hither, as well as for his own poems for young people.  ‘Snow’ is a short and characterful poem, beginning ‘No breath of wind, No gleam of sun’, and describes a scene of wintry desolation, later enlivened by a single ray of sun and a lonely robin. This landscape suggested to me the accompanying motive of chords built up on parallel augmented fourths, above which the two vocal parts exploit a range of mainly stepwise shapes, often imitating each other to create an overlapping texture.

This performance is a beautiful but unusual one – rather than by a young peoples’ choir it is by two professional sopranos, Maria Jette and Sonja Tengblad, with Philip Brunelle at the piano.

The sheet music is published by Oxford University Press.  Wrap up warm!

Piece of the Week 50: Reflections, for cello and piano

Many years ago, I took part in a rather innovative Anglia TV documentary. It was about Constable Country – the land around the river Stour near Dedham, on the Essex-Suffolk border, where the painter John Constable grew up and painted many of his most famous paintings. But rather than being a mere travelogue, this programme sought to combine painting, poetry, and music, by inviting three creative artists to respond to the landscape that inspired Constable, and to his paintings themselves. Thus, the painter John Addyman, the poet Kevin Crossley-Holland, and I spent some time steeped in the landscape and responded in our own way. I found myself setting some of Kevin’s poetry to music, studying John’s paintings (as well as Constable’s), and providing instrumental music that would accompany the various landscape images in the film. But, unusually for a composer, instead of writing the music after the film was complete, my music was required first, and the film was fitted around it to some extent, though some of the music was designed to be faded in and out as required. The music was all recorded in studio in an old house somewhere near the Suffolk coast – I can’t remember where now – and the baritone James Meek, the cellist Joanna Borrett, and the flautist Duke Dobing, were joined by me on the piano.

I recently found an old VHS tape of the TV documentary (made in 1989), which I’m hoping to get digitised – but in the meanwhile I do have an audio recording of some of the musical sections, and so I’d like to introduce my piece Reflections, for cello and piano. This piece was directly inspired by the paintings of both artists, who, in their very different ways, liked to study and paint the reflective images in the always moving water – and I’ve recently taken that original recording and added reflective images of trees by the River Stour, a few miles upstream from Constable Country, but on the edge of the town of Sudbury, where John Addyman lived and worked. Here is a link to some of John Addyman’s Suffolk paintings.

Here is a link to a performance of Reflections (with images and score), played by Joanna Borrett and myself, and here is a link to obtain the sheet music.

And here is a link to Joanna Borrett’s Soundcloud page, where you can hear her beautifully playing her own music and that of others.

Piece of the Week 49 – Stocking and Shirt

It’s been so wet and windy in the last week here in the UK that my song Stocking and Shirt (for upper voices in two parts and piano) flew into my mind. It’s a setting of a poem by James Reeves (1909-78) which describes clothes on a washing-line catching in the wind, ‘dancing together’, and finally being grabbed by the storm and flung over the hedge, while the ‘housewife’ (remember this poem was written several generations ago) screams ‘Stop!!’. The poem is very much of its time, but it portrays an exciting picture which I set to music as part of the cantata that I wrote for the 25th anniversary of the Sing for Pleasure organisation in 1989 (you can read more about Sing for Pleasure, and the cantata, in Piece of the Week 36Autumn).

I shall never forget the voices of the excited children singing this song at the first performance, and one of the choirs that was taking part, the Central Singers of Chichester (director Nikki Bennison) took it into their repertoire and later won the BBC Choir of the Year competition with it!

I set the words to a fast-moving 6/8 melody, mainly in the Lydian mode (G major but with C sharp) which rises and falls in interlocking thirds and seconds – and to accentuate the feeling of windy weather and breathlessness the melody is shared between the two parts, each taking a short phrase and holding on the last note while the next phrase is sung by the other voice:

(voice 1) Stocking and shirt (voice 2) can trip and prance,
(voice 1) Though nobody’s in them (voice 2) to make them dance!
(voice 1) See how they waltz (voice 2) or minuet… (etc.)

Later on I asked the singers to shout the words in capitals:

(v.1) COME!
(v.2) Cries the wind to stocking and shirt! AWAY!
(v.1) Cries the wind to blouse and skirt…. (etc.)

Thankfully, each voice has a chance to recover their singing tone after the shout. Later on they are required to shout STOP! In the same way.

After this excitement the music calms down for a quiet ending, one voice echoing the other as at the beginning:

(v.1) STOP! Cries the housewife (v.2) but all too late,
(v.1) Her clothes have passed (v.2) the furthest gate;
(v.1) They are gone for ever (v.2) in the bright blue sky,
(v.1) And only the handkerchiefs (v.2) wave goodbye…
(v.1) goodbye…..(v.2)goodbye…..

And the piano part climbs and diminuendos into the distance.

A few years after the first performance it was published by Oxford University Press, along with two other songs, to make a set of three separate octavos called ‘At the Turn of the Year’ – the other two movements being Snow and Wisselton, Wasselton.

Here’s a performance of Stocking and Shirt, and the sheet music is available here.  Let’s hope for calmer weather now!

Piece of the Week 48 – Rainbow

This time last year, I made a resolution to post a new ‘Piece of the Week’ every week – and that was a resolution that I largely kept (the only reason I didn’t get to no. 53 is because some weeks I posted newsletters instead). Piece of the Week no. 1 was my New Year Carol, and this year I’d like to celebrate the New Year in a different way.

For me, as doubtless for many of us, the past year had its joys and its sorrows, and almost everybody I spoke to yesterday hoped that 2024 would be ‘a better year’ than last year. So I thought that my song Rainbow might be an appropriate way to welcome in the year. This song originated during the Covid lockdown, and you will recall the rainbows in front windows all over the country, in thankfulness for the tremendous work done by doctors, nurses, and carers during that time of isolation and loss.  But the rainbow has a wider meaning – healing, treasure (the ‘pot of gold’), birth, hope, good fortune, diversity, rain, fertility, new beginnings, ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ and more…

My ‘rainbow’ was a way of bringing family and friends together who were at that time scattered across Southern England, only able to communicate with each other by digital means, so I wrote this song for them to sing and record remotely while I got to grips with the delights of iMovie, NotePerformer, and Audacity – a skill so many musicians acquired during lockdown.

It is for SATB choir, or SA (or unison) voices, all with keyboard accompaniment. You can see and hear the result here, and you can see detail of how to obtain the music here, where there is also a link to a longer blog that I wrote at the time.

The image is of the display made by my granddaughters for their front window.

I hope that this rainbow song might bring us new joy, comfort, healing, and good fortune as we celebrate new beginnings in 2014. Happy New Year!

Piece of the Week 47 – ‘Star of Wonder’

While the Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems was being put together in 2007 we discovered, somewhat at the last minute, that we really needed a new and easy Epiphany anthem, and this task fell to me to provide.  I decided to set some very well-known words to a new tune.

Many of us were introduced to John Henry Hopkins’ carol ‘We three Kings of Orient are’ at primary school, and it has probably stuck with us ever since. Although the gently flowing modally flavoured verse with its folky 6/8 rhythm can convey a slightly ‘oriental’ feel, especially with the little organ interlude with which it is sometimes adorned, the resolute major key chorus (‘Oh, star of wonder…) can easily become somewhat riotous. Traditionally the second, third, and fourth verses are sung by the three kings in turn, with all singing the first and last verses, giving opportunity for a variety of ‘kings’ as the carol unfolds, and for some cheerful singing for all in the chorus.

For my setting of these words, Star of Wonder, I used the same verse-chorus pattern, with minor key verses with opportunity for soloists, and a major key chorus – but the mood and rhythm is rather more march-like, and the change from minor to major is more pronounced.  My aim was to provide a good strong tune, easy to learn, bearing in mind that there isn’t much rehearsal opportunity for Epiphany anthems as Christmas is only just over. I made just one small alteration to the words: the original Heaven sings Alleluia, Alleluia the earth replies is replaced with Alleluia, alleluia, Heaven sings and earth replies – this makes the lines of equal length, and gave me the opportunity for a loud Alleluia followed by a quiet one, as if it were echoing from heaven to earth. Throughout, the verses are in unison and the chorus in harmony, with an optional descant in the final bars.

The original version, in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems, is flexibly scored in three parts for SABar; here the lower two parts are optional and the whole thing can be sung in unison. There is also a version for SATB here, and an SABar version is also published separately. (All the above links are to Forwoods ScoreStore who offer a 20% discount on OUP publications in January 2024). These two versions are also available as digital pdf downloads from www.chimesmusicdigital.com (UK) and Sheet Music Plus (USA).  For all versions the accompaniment is organ or piano, and an orchestral accompaniment is also available on hire from OUP.

Here are some recordings:
This one on YouTube, from The Church of the Epiphany, Qatar
This one on Soundcloud, from All Saints Hockerill, Bishops Stortford, UK
And this is The Oxford Choir on Spotify

Hope you had a lovely Christmas Day, and a fruitful period of relaxation as we move towards the New Year.