Piece of the Week 23 – A Summer Garland

In the last few years my piece A Summer Garland has had something of a rebirth, with several performances each summer. It was originally commissioned by the Waltham Singers to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 50th Jubilee 21 years ago, and it consists of five unaccompanied movements for mixed choir.

I’ve written several choral suites, and my aim has always been to write movements which will work separately but also combine to provide a varied yet unified whole – and part of the joy is poring over poetry books to decide what texts will work in contrast with each other. The poetry I chose for this suite dates from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries – sometimes gently modernised – and paint a picture of different aspects of summertime, from buzzing flies to calm evenings, and from May-blossom to fancy-dress parades.

The first movement, May, Queen of blossoms, sets a poem by the early 19th-centruy poet Edward Thurlow: after a fanfare-like opening, it anticipates Summer with blossom, bees, and bird-song.
It is followed by The Rose in June (poem by Thomas Howell, 17th cent.) – rich harmonies depict the ‘mildest month of June’ which is also the ‘lustiest time’ – and a final key-change introduces the ‘beauteous red rose’.
I then decided to disperse the pastoral mood and had a lot of fun writing the third song, Busy Fly to the text of the 18th-century William Oldys. The repeated word ‘busy’ forms a buzzing background to the rest of the text and eventually takes over, forming an extended buzzing section with (possibly) a fly-swatter just before the end!
Calmness is restored in the expressive July Evening, a fragment of text from Lewis Carroll’s Through the looking-glass – a richly harmonic and expressive portrayal of an evening by a lake, ending ‘Ever-drifting down the stream, lingering in the golden gleam; Life, what is it but a dream?’
Finally, Summer Queen brings celebration with a poem by Thomas Dekker (17th cent.): a lively and rhythmic dance portraying all the activities of a traditional country fair: (‘Haymakers, rakers, reapers and mowers, Wait upon your Summer Queen’) moving to a frenzy of activity and a final climax on ‘Sing, dance, and play, ‘tis holiday!’.

Last year, performances of A Summer Garland included The Writtle Singers (Chelmsford), The Marenzio Singers (Colchester), The Cantus Singers (Cambridge) and The London Concord Singers.

Some performances of A Summer Garland coming soon include:
Ely Consort (director Andrew Rudd) St. Mary’s Church, Burwell, Cambridgeshire, 24 June 2023
Granta Chorale (director Janet Wheeler) Holy Trinity Church, Littlebury, Essex, 9 July 2023

More details of A Summer Garland here:

Performance here with scrolling score:

A Summer Garland was the first commission that I received from the Waltham Singers, director Andrew Fardell. The third commission, Endless Song, receives its first performance at Great Waltham Church, Essex, on 24 June 2023, where the Waltham Singers are joined by the Maggini String Quartet. Endless Song is a half-hour celebration of the joy of singing!