Piece of the Week – Jackdaw!

This November marks exactly twenty years since the first performance and recording of my piece Jackdaw! for male voice choir. This suite of seven songs, for four-part male voice choir, optional soprano solo, and piano was commissioned by the Huntingdon Male Voice Choir, director Peter Davies.

I remember Peter Davies asking me for something that would ‘stretch’ his choir a little bit (possibly I stretched it a little more than he anticipated with this nearly 20-minute piece). Peter has long been involved with the male voice choir movement – he was director of the Cornwall International Male Voice Choir Festival for many years – and he encouraged me to write something that would break through the traditional male voice repertoire mould, encouraging new ways of thinking about male voice singing, while retaining that sense of good humour and fun to be found in their concerts. He also suggested I used the guest soprano soloist to add extra colour, which I did in several of the movements (though her part can be taken by the first tenors if necessary). I took all this as a challenge and wrote some quite difficult stuff with often independent lines and at times modal harmony and irregular rhythms, while still giving some opportunity for the traditional unaccompanied harmonic passages that male voice choirs were used to. I have to say that the choir rose to this challenge admirably!

The text is adapted from ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims’ by R. H. Barham, an unusual and once-popular narrative poem. You can read the complete poem here:  and for my setting I cut it a little bit (e.g. the final three lines) and made a few changes, but most of it is as Barham wrote it.

The amusingly fanciful story tells of the jackdaw who steals the Cardinal’s gold ring. The Cardinal puts a curse upon the jackdaw who becomes ill and loses his feathers, but when the ring is eventually found in his nest, the jackdaw repents and is forgiven. His plumage returns, and he becomes a holy and devout jackdaw, living a long life of prayer: and on his death he is made a Saint.
There are seven movements:
1. The Cardinal’s Chair
2. The Feast
3. The Singing Boys
4. Where’s the ring?
5. A Solemn Curse!
6. Crime doesn’t pay
7. Repent and be forgiven, Saint Jackdaw!

I picked up the recording again last week and I don’t think I’d listened to it for nearly 20 years, and it was lovely to revisit it. The story-telling aspects of the poem gave me the opportunity for an almost operatic drama at times, and the choir responded to this with colour and character. Here’s the performance on YouTube at their 35th anniversary concert in November 1997, with Jennifer Thompson (soprano) and Norma Heayes (piano).

The music is unpublished, but it is printed, and I can send a pdf to any choral director who is interested.

2 thoughts on “Piece of the Week – Jackdaw!”

  1. It really doesn’t seem like 20 years! The time has flown by and ‘Jackdaw’ has entered the folklore of the choir with wonderful warmth. It was hard work to learn the movements but SO worthwhile. The audience (some 500 people that night in the largest auditorium in the area) marvelled at the writing, were very amused by the humour and thoroughly enjoyed the story and the way it was told. The pieces themselves set the text perfectly with wonderful emphases on particular aspects of the text. The music is, as always, to Alan Bullard’s incredibly high standards and retains its freshness no matter how many times it is listened to. It was a huge delight to be able to commission the suite and, while it has not been sung by us since, we plan to bring it back to life for the choir’s 60th anniversary celebrations. The Jackdaw will live again, saint or not! Thank you Alan for such a superb suite.

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