Piece of the week 69: Never weather-beaten sail

The secondary school that I went to was a Victorian building on the south side of London’s Tower Bridge (it’s no longer a school but has been converted into an expensive hotel, just behind the new City Hall and the Bridge Theatre).

It had (and still has) a wood-panelled hall with a balustraded gallery, and from that gallery, at every Tuesday evening assembly, before the whole school raced down Tooley Street to catch our buses or trains home, those of us in the school choir sung Thomas Campion’s beautiful little four-part anthem, Never weather-beaten sail. It was one of those traditions which, looking back, seems a little strange, but at the time, was just one unremarkable part of the school week. You can see the music at the head of this post, exactly as we sung it from Songs of Praise, our school hymn-book.

Singing it weekly, and, as my voice sunk lower over the years, getting to know every voice part, meant that it became etched into my musical memory. And what a wonderful lesson in melody and harmony it was!  The first phrase (which is repeated for the second line) settles us clearly into the home key using the primary triads in root and first inversions, ending the phrase with a simple 4-3 suspension in the alto line (what a delight it was to sing those Alto suspensions as a twelve-year old after a year of being a consonant treble!) The next four bars (the third line of words) are more decorative – the passing-notes in the melody are complemented by rising and falling scalic passages in the alto and tenor, held together by a firm bass line: and a passing modulation and a flattened leading note add some spice. And then, in the extended fourth line, to the words ‘O come quickly’ we start in the lower part of the compass for a beautiful rising sequence leading to a final melodic flourish which echoes the scalic passages that were introduced in the middle parts in the third line – and the bass gets the chance to sing the scale-wise pattern too – both up and down!

So it isn’t surprising that when, thirty years later in 1990, I wrote my Four Sacred Songs to words by Thomas Campion, I concluded the set with my own setting of these troubled, weary, but ultimately triumphant words – beginning the music even more simply than Campion, but with slightly more complex intertwining towards the end. Although there were no intentional quotations from the original music, I think that Campion’s spirit (or ‘sprite’) is still there.  And then, in 2007, I made an adaptation of Campion’s original music for voices in three parts, in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems. I just couldn’t let it go…

I’m not going to say anything more here about my 1990 setting of the text, but you can hear it and see it in this scrolling score.

And in this little video, that I made a year or two ago, you can hear me talking about all four of the movements of Four Sacred Songs.

Piece of the week 68: My Song (This song of mine) for SATB choir

When I was writing my choral cantata ‘Endless Song’, which was first performed by the Waltham Singers last year, I spent much time searching for short poems about different aspects of singing. This research for text is something that I find fascinating, though one shouldn’t underestimate the time that it takes in the composition process.

But in the case of this movement from the cantata, the poem ‘My Song’ leapt out at me, and seemed to come ready-made with musical ideas! The poem is by Rabindranath Tagore – a name I knew, but didn’t know much about.

Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Tagore (see illustration) was a Bengali poet, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer, and painter – a veritable polymath who is highly revered in his home country. Born of a wealthy family in Calcutta in 1861, he was partially educated in the UK (though he preferred to be thought of as ‘self-educated’) and during his life created a large body of work and travelled widely, dying in Calcutta in 1941.

As a composer in the Bengali folk tradition, it’s not at all surprising that much of his poetry has a lyrical musicality to it. Originally written in Bengali, and translated into English by Tagore himself, My Song begins thus:
This song of mine will wind its music around you, my child, like the fond arms of love.
Really, you couldn’t ask for a more promisingly musical opening. The poem continues with a similar expressive freedom, and the blank verse encouraged me to set it in a freely changing metre, sometimes moving from unison to a four-part texture, with undulating melodies and gentle harmony. After a certain amount of ebbing and flowing, a climax is reached in the final pages, soon to drop to a low point on the word ‘death’ then rising again with a final burst of optimism:
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry your sight into the heart of things. And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in your living heart.

 The complete cantata Endless Song, which includes this movement, will be performed again on 22 June by Colchester Choral Society, conductor Ian Ray, at St Botolph’s Church, Colchester.

And a new version for unaccompanied choir of My Song will receive its first performance in St. John’s Church, Epping, on 29 June, sung by Felicitas, director Simon Winters.

Here’a a link to the first performance of My Song, accompanied by string quintet.

Here’s a link the unaccompanied version – as this version is yet to be performed, this is a digital demo track.

Details of how to purchase the music is here.

Piece of the Week 67: A Swan, A Man

A Swan, A Man is a setting of a poem by Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), for baritone voice and piano. Blunden served in the First World War, seeing continuous action in the front line. He subsequently worked as a poet and writer, and became Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. I was introduced to the poem by The War Poets Association and the Edmund Blunden Society, who commissioned the song, which was first performed by William Coleman (baritone) and Anna Tillbrook (piano) in a concert entitled ‘Songs of War 1914-18’ which took place in London in 2009.

Blunden spent his later years in the village of Long Melford, Suffolk, where he wrote this poem in 1964: the mill-pond in the centre of the village reminded him of events of nearly 50 years previously, still clearly etched in the his mind.

The poet sets a seemingly calm opening mood:
Among the dead reeds, the single swan floats and explores the water-shallow under.

But as he ponders the scene, thoughts of the past start to surface:
the rain-storm beats the pitiful stream with battle pictures I had hoped to miss

And these anguished memories of the battlefield form a brief central climax, finally relaxing into a mood of superficial calm again. The dreadful memories are of course always there in the background of the poem.

My setting responds to this powerful imagery with troubled simplicity in the outer sections, often relying on unrelated bare fifths and a melodic structure in which the semitone is prominent. This music frames the short central climax in which the vocal intervals become wider and the piano more active, raging against the futility of war. The final section, although basically similar in mood and texture to the first, uses fuller and thicker consonant (yet still unrelated) chords to suggest some possible feeling of resolution to the troubled memories.

It’s always a good feeling for a composer to find a poem which really releases the creative juices, and I think this poem did that for me, and I am grateful to the Edmund Blunden Society for giving me permission to set it to music.

You can hear a performance on SoundCloud here

Details of how to obtain the score here

Piece of the week 66: Come, O Creator Spirit

This Pentecost anthem came about through a commission from Wellington College, the public school in Berkshire. In 1995 they hosted the annual conference of the MMA (now the MTA – Music Teachers’ Association) and their morning service, which included this anthem, was broadcast by the BBC.

The request was for an anthem suitable for the large chapel at the college, for SATB choir and organ, and with an optional voice part for the congregation. I decided that it would combine two elements: the traditional Pentecost plainsong melody Veni creator Spiritus / Come, O Creator Spirit (Mechlin), sung by the congregation and choir, and an original and more decorative setting of the nineteenth century words by Edwin Hatch, Breathe on me, breath of God, sung only by the choir.

In my setting, the two elements are alternated, each occurring three times, and then in the fourth and final time the two elements are combined.

  1. Veni creator: congregation lower voices and choir Tenors and Basses
    Breathe on me: choir Sopranos/Trebles and Altos (quietly)
  1. Veni creator: congregation upper voices and choir SATB
    Breathe on me: choir SATB (a little louder)
  1. Veni creator (in a higher key): congregation and choir SATB
    Breathe on me: choir SATB (louder than before, leading to a climax point)
  1. Veni creator (in an even higher key): congregation and choir Altos and Basses, combined with Breathe on me: choir Sopranos and Tenors

Amen x 3.

Thus the result is a continuous flow of sound, the ‘breath of God’ filling us with ‘life anew’, gradually moving to a high point in the final combined verse.

In the BBC recording at Wellington College the first statement of Veni Creator was omitted due to time constraints. But you can hear a complete performance, by the choir of Lion Walk Church, with scrolling score here.

The Wellington College performance is here (with the missing opening verse added in on organ only).

The music is published by Oxford University Press and is obtainable here, and the image shows part of the final verse in which the two elements are combined.

Piece of the Week 65: Variations on Old King Cole

Old King Cole is the final movement of my Colchester Suite, written for a youth orchestra in 1982.

There are several nursery rhymes associated with the Essex city of Colchester: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,Humpty Dumpty, and Old King Cole – but only the first of these has an undisputed link, being written by two Colchester sisters, Jane and Ann Taylor, whose statue was recently unveiled in the High Street. Humpty Dumpty is claimed (by Colcestrians at least) to be a large cannon on the city walls which fell to the ground during the Siege of Colchester in 1648, and Old King Cole’s connection with Colchester is even more slender, though it is the best tune.

There are many claims on its origin, but one is that King Coel of Colchester was the father of the Empress Saint Helena (whose statue adorns the top of Colchester’s Moot Hall) and therefore the grandfather of Constantine the Great. But whether that’s true or not, there is no doubt that he was a merry old soul, who called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three!

One of the attractive things about this traditional tune is that it’s cheerful, but in a minor key, and the arresting leap in the first three notes, followed by various climbing and falling sequential patterns (reminiscent of The Grand old Duke of York) make it ideal material for a set of variations, and at the beginning of my version, the various characteristic motifs form a background to a full statement of the tune in the violas and cellos.

The first variation continues the march-like rhythm, but now in a major key, with the woodwind taking up a decorated version of the tune. Variation 2 moves us into a waltz tempo – perhaps King Cole’s daughter Helena is dancing in all her finery in the grand ballroom of the Moot Hall (though this was built about 18 centuries later).  Then a third variation takes us back to the march tempo and various fragments of the tune, which lead us directly into the final section, in which Old King Cole is jubilantly restated at two different speeds at the same time – the original speed in the violins and flutes, and twice as slowly in the bassoons and horns, while the other instruments fill in with extra fragments of the melody. The violins and flutes wait for the bassoons and horns to catch up, and triumphantly all finish together!

My attention was drawn to this song and its Colchester links over forty years ago by the artist and historian John Bensusan-Butt, whose Lexden Road apartment was packed full of Colchester memorabilia and artworks, and I’m so glad that he pointed me in the direction of a melody which had so much potential for development!

There is a digitally produced recording, with visual images here, and there are links to more recordings on the Colchester Suite page, here.

Piece of the Week 64: We Thank You, Lord

This anthem for SATB and organ or piano is a setting of words that begin: ‘We thank you, Lord, for this fair earth, the glittering sky, the silver sea’ and later continue: ‘Help us to cherish all the world, from sea to sky, from earth to heaven’. The words, a little modernised, are by Bishop G.E.L. Cotton (1813-66) and this is actually the second time that I’ve set them (the first was for solo voice) – they paint a lovely vision of earth’s beauty and our role as its guardians.

I wrote it for a collection of ten anthems called ‘Alan Bullard Anthems’ published by Oxford University Press in 2010; it contained a mixture of earlier pieces and some new ones. The collection is still in stock with some dealers, but I think may be going out of print shortly, as all the anthems that were in it are becoming available separately as digital downloads (pdfs).

We Thank You, Lord is simply structured, with an easily flowing melody which later goes into canon and finally appears with a descant. I’d not heard a performance of it until very recently when it was sung at an ‘Earth Sunday’ service at Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, which was live-streamed on YouTube. The director of music there is Philip Brunelle – a very well known and respected conductor who manages to work all over the world and yet still be at his church organ, in front of his choir, most Sundays! (now aged 80, he has held that post for 55 years).  He has performed several pieces of mine and commissioned ‘A Light in the Stable’ for his choir VocalEssence, in 2014. So I am delighted to hear We Thank You, Lord used in worship and sung so beautifully – thank you Philip!

You can hear the performance with a scrolling score here, or on SoundCloud here; and the complete service here (We Thank You, Lord, is sung during the offertory, 55 minutes in.)

And for more details of the music, please go here.

The image of ‘The glittering sky, the silver sea’ was taken by me at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast.

Piece of the week 63: Hilly Fields

Hilly Fields is a beautiful local nature reserve, with woodland, open land, and wide-ranging views, providing a green lung close to Colchester city centre. In 1982 I was commissioned by Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra, conductor Nigel Hildreth, to write an orchestral suite celebrating Colchester past and present, and Hilly Fields became the second movement of four. I knew the area well because I taught in the Music Department at Colchester Institute and walked through Hilly Fields to and from work every day, sneaking into the college grounds through a hole in the fence.

I’ve recently revisited these pieces, and, although they have had live performances by several orchestras (and were also featured on an Anglia TV film which I have a video of, but can’t find), all were performed quite a long time ago and I thought it would be fun to recreate them using modern digital technology (NotePerformer and Sibelius) and add images to the music.  For this piece there was no difficulty in simply walking around and taking photos, and you can see from the opening and closing images how close Hilly Fields is to the town centre, as the Moot Hall spire and the Water Tower (popularly known as Jumbo for reasons I won’t go into now) are visible in the distance.

Musically, the pastoral scene suggested a simple folk-tune-like melody, which is stated firstly by the strings, and then taken up by the woodwind and horns – then both sections are combined for the second half of this melody. Then there is a more decorative middle section – perhaps birdsong and rustling leaves – for the woodwind, and as this recedes into the distance the main melody enters again in the strings, while the horns and clarinets echo it in canon – the music swells as the other instruments join in too, and then quietens as the strings bring it to an end. So that’s it, really, and I hope you enjoy it!

Here is the recording, with visuals, on YouTube.

You can also find a complete performance with visuals of A Colchester Suite there too, with the other three movements, Saturday Market, The Hythe, and Old King Cole.
You can find all these on SoundCloud here, and a live performance here, too.
There is some more information here.

Newsletter no. 8 – April 2024

Dear friends,

Welcome to my April 2024 newsletter, which replaces my normal ‘Piece of the Week’ for this week. This one is mainly about keyboard music – piano and organ.

I’ve been busying myself recently writing short piano pieces – titled Nocturnes. This is a project in progress, but you can hear some of the results here: they may be published as a collection in the future. I began writing them in the depths of winter, as an aid to thoughtful and mindful relaxation for the listener and the player, and they are more approachable than some of my pieces, though I hope not too predictable – I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts!

Jan and I have added five more arrangements to the Janet and Alan Bullard Piano Series. This is an ever-growing collection of arrangements at easy to intermediate level, designed to complement our Pianoworks series (Oxford University Press). The collection includes songs from the shows, jazz standards, classic pop songs, folk songs, Christmas songs, and radio and film theme tunes. The five new arrangements are Ferry ‘cross the Mersey, Anyone who had a heart, Highland Cathedral, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the Prelude from Charpentier’s Te Deum. All the arrangements in this series are distributed by Sheet Music Plus and Sheet Music Direct, and are available as individual digital downloads. A full list is here, and you can hear them all here.

Publishing in early 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 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, we are pleased to see the books nearing publication, and excited at the diversity of approaches and styles that the books contain. Over the years I’ve contributed preludes to almost every book in the series, and learnt a great deal about writing for the organ in the process. I’ve written four preludes for each of these two new books, based on these hymn-tunes: Abbot’s Leigh, Austria, Londonderry Air, and Martyrdom (in Book 8), Servant Song, Tallis’s Canon, To God be the Glory, and Woodlands (in Book 9).

Since OHSO went to print a few weeks ago, I’ve written three more organ preludes on Lent and Passiontide hymns (Horsley, Pange Lingua, and Song 46) and plan to write some more soon. I don’t know what will happen to these yet, but if any reader is interested in seeing them, please let me know.

And one more of my organ preludes (on Sussex) is included in the collection Be Still for the Presence vol. 1, available here shortly. You can hear a performance of it here.

I’ve got lots of projects for the future, but the one that is occupying some of my time at the is writing a set of Preces and Responses aimed at the choir of my ‘home church’, Lion Walk URC in Colchester. I’m looking forward to the challenge of writing something fairly easy, with flexible scoring, but a little different to the hundreds of settings already out there!

Colne Edition, my own self-publishing company, continues to expand by publishing new pieces and arrangements, 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. Those published in the last month include:
Welcome Spring – a lighthearted cantata for SATB, optional children’s choir, and piano or string orchestra
String Quartet No. 2
Suffolk Sketches for solo violin (and solo viola soon as well)

Performances coming up soon:
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
My Song (This Song of Mine): Felicitas / Simon Winters, St John’s Church Epping, 29 June, 7.30pm (first performance of unaccompanied version)
Mr Lear: Vivace Chorus / Jeremy Backhouse / venue to be confirmed , 6 July

I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading this newsletter. Any thoughts or suggestions are very welcome. This newsletter also goes out as an email: please do let me know of anyone who might be interested in being added to the mailing list.

Best wishes, Alan

Piece of the Week 62: String Quartet no. 2

The year 2006 marked the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. There were many celebratory concerts in that year, and one of these was a concert by the Quince String Quartet in the rather gloomy basement theatre of Essex University. Sponsored by the amazing Roman River Festival (now Wild Arts), I was commissioned to write a short string quartet which related in some way to Mozart. Mozart was of course a master of string quartet writing, and I suppose I may have thought ‘if you can’t beat him, join him’ by writing a work which used a Mozart quartet as its basic material. Thus my String Quartet no. 2 was born.

I have always been particularly fond of Mozart’s quartet, K.464. This was written in 1785 and is one of the ‘Haydn Quartets’ – the set of six which Mozart dedicated to Haydn. The last movement of this quartet is notable for the chromatic character of its main theme and for its use of counterpoint, and both features pointed me in a particular direction in my own quartet.

Another thing that I am  fond of is those sets of variations which, instead of beginning with the theme and then gradually adding complexity to it in the subsequent variations, start the other way round and only reveal the theme at the end (Britten’s Nocturnal – on a theme of John Dowland – is a good example). So that was also an influence here.

The last movement of Mozart’s K464 begins with a chromatically descending four-note passage starting on E, and this became the starting point for my quintet in which a ‘presto furioso’ section beginning with these four notes is contrasted with an Adagio section which begins with the same four notes, but now disguised by using octave displacement. Dramatic contrasts like this continue through the piece as the chromatic motif is worked through in various ways, and as the piece progresses this motif moves into the foreground and the harmony becomes more classical in nature.

On the whole it is a far more angst-ridden piece than Mozart’s beautiful quartet, so if you find it too much to cope with, just hang on and after about eight minutes you’ll get a bit of real Mozart in the final bars!

You can see and hear a scrolling score here on YouTube

Or you can just listen to the music on SoundCloud.

The Quince Quartet (who I believe no longer exist) did a wonderful job in bringing the music to life, though unfortunately I don’t have a live recording: the tracks above are digitally produced using NotePerformer, which provides a pretty decent impression.

String Quartet No. 2