Piece of the Week 33 – ‘Summer Afternoon’

I was going to write about an Autumn piece today, but, in the UK, a hot summer seems to have returned after a few autumnal days – so I’ll leave that for another week.  So, instead, here’s a piece about those lazy summer afternoons!

I often used to go to the conventions organised by ABCD (the Association of British Choral Directors) – there hasn’t been one since Covid, but there will be one later this year. They are an excellent way of meeting people in the choral world, hearing choirs, seeing what publishers are selling and people are singing, and generally networking – and at one of these, as I was walking from one session to another, I was approached by Norman Morris, founder and conductor of the excellent Reading Phoenix Choir. He got straight to the point – ‘we commission a new piece every year, would you write us one, I can pay you £xxxx, it needs to be unaccompanied SSAATTBB, and around 15-20 minutes’.  Of course I said yes, and set to work!

Norman Morris founded the Reading Phoenix Choir in 1969 and directed it until his death in 2009 – and the choir continues to flourish under their current director, Christopher Hann.  For some years, they did an annual concert in the Hexagon in Reading, a large modern performance space which they made full use of, with imaginative lighting and the opportunity for the choir to enter while singing, and move around the stage during the concert. And they sung everything from memory (and I think still do!). So my piece, ‘A Year in a Day’ was conceived with this setting in mind.

The five movements begin and end with Winter, flanking the three other movements, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. In the piece, I attempted a kind of symphonic structure, in which the sounds and textures were in the foreground, and chose, for the most part, fragments of poetry rather than complete poems, often for their colour just as much as for their meaning.

Summer Afternoon is the centre-piece: it is for double choir, and there was time and space, during the vocalised opening bars, for the choir to move into double-choir position.  The words are anonymous (really ‘home-made’) as follows:

Hazy, lazy (daisy, maisie) summer afternoon…
Out in the sun I lie,
Under the pale blue, humid and cloudless sky…
Hazy, lazy (daisy, crazy, maisie) summer afternoon…

The music is quite laid back, with fragments being passed between the two choirs, and at times the simple two-note phrases morph into extended decorative passages, which are finally taken up, in canon, by the whole choir, dying away to a final ‘lazy’. The overall intention is to communicate a kind of weary, light-headed, enjoyable excitement!

You can hear the first performance here, recorded on a mini-disc recorder (remember those?) from the back of the auditorium – a not-ideal recording of a wonderful performance!  It’s a scrolling score, so you can follow the music as well. (The recording is of the complete five-movement piece, but this link takes you to the beginning of ‘Summer Afternoon’)

More details of the complete score can be seen (and purchased) here. I shall probably make a separate copy of just this movement – please let me know if you would be interested.  And I hope you enjoy ‘Summer Afternoon’!