Piece of the Week 71 – Canticle of Freedom – A Song for Peace

It is now twenty-five years since I wrote Canticle of Freedom – A Song for Peace. It was commissioned by Colchester Choral Society to celebrate the millennium, and it is a 45-minute cantata for choir, youth choir, soprano and baritione soloists, and orchestra.

The idea came out of a conversation with Ian Ray, the conductor, in which he suggested that I take as a starting point the Christmas hymn It came upon the midnight clear, (see the illustration) which speaks so poignantly of angels singing over the weary and suffering world, and a future when peace shall come to the whole earth. And indeed I found this a very fruitful and helpful suggestion, and I took one line from each verse of Edmund Sears’ poem as the title for each of the four movements (with the basic subject matter in brackets):

  • The world in solemn stillness lay (Earth)
  • And still their heavenly music floats (Heaven)
  • Two thousand years of wrong (War)
  • When peace shall over all the earth (Peace)

I then selected a range of poetry from several centuries and cultures to flesh out these moods and words.

I also based the musical ideas upon It came upon the midnight clear. The music (by Arthur Sullivan), has four lines, and I used these in turn for the basic material of the four movements:
In the first movement (Earth), the first line of the music is used, first of all in fragments but then unchanged, together with the original words ‘The world in solemn stillness lay’. The various poems that follow describe nature and the beauties of the landscape.
The second movement (Heaven) begins with a solo baritone recitative (‘The trumpet of God’) based on a syncopated version of the second line of the hymn, leading to a kind of fugue based on the same material, and this idea is interspersed with a setting for solo soprano of the seventeenth-century description of Heaven in ‘The Celestial City’, and with an unchanged statement of the hymn’s second line, ‘And still their heavenly music floats’.
The third movement (War) is probably the most intense and desolate movement.  The words and melody of ‘and man at war with man’ combined with that of ‘ten thousand years of wrong’ provide a backcloth to Walt Whitman’s horrific description of the American Civil War (‘Vigil Strange’), Blake’s cynical ‘Garden of Love’, and Rossetti’s ‘The Blessed Dead’.
Then, the International Prayer for Peace leads us into the fourth movement and a rhythmic call for freedom – this leads to a range of texts on equality, individuality, and peace, and finally a syncopated version of the last line of the hymn melody in the brass leads to a rhythmic setting of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new’. At the climax, this is combined with the words and music of the last line of the hymn: ‘When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling, and all the world give back the song which now the angels sing’.

I’ve not looked at this piece for some years, and I have to admit I was quite moved, coming back to it again, by the range of emotion expressed in the words. You can read the complete text and get more details by following the link on this page.

You can hear the piece, with a scrolling score, here. This performance is not the 2000 one, but in 2004, in which Ian Ray conducts the combined choirs of Colchester Choral Society and the Waltham Singers (director Andrew Fardell) with the Salomon Orchestra, in Snape Maltings. The soloists were Jeni Bern and Adrian Clarke, and the children’s choir was from Orwell Park School.

My link with these two choirs continues, in that the cantata that was commissioned and performed by the Waltham Singers last year, ‘Endless Song,’ was given another sparkling performance last Saturday by Colchester Choral Society!