I was 9 years old when I first saw the King’s Singers in concert. It was March 1981 and my father, Sebastian Forbes, had taken my sister Emily and me to see them at the Queen Elisabeth Hall because they were performing a piece by him. (Dad had sung bass in the choir of King’s College Cambridge when the KS formed and had written a number of their early arrangements; he also composed their first commission, for their London debut at the QEH on May 1st 1968). Once the encores had ended and the applause was beginning to subside, my sister and I had the privilege of being allowed to walk round to the dressing room to meet the singers, a moment forever etched on my memory because I was completely star-struck, having just spent two hours watching them on stage, agog. I had my copy of their new book “The King’s Singers: a self-portrait” [pictured] clutched in my arms and somehow summoned up the courage to ask them all to autograph it for me. It remains a treasured possession to this day. Those signatures were just names on a page then; not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that our paths would ever cross again but, then again, life is funny sometimes.
Ten years later I was reading Music at Oxford, and started dating a rather handsome guy with an interesting surname in the year below me, who sang countertenor in the choir at Magdalen College. I went along to flirt at him during evensong and afterwards was introduced to the choir’s conductor, none other than Bill Ives! Bill’s wife Janette became my singing teacher and thus begun a lovely friendship. A few years after graduating, when I had just been appointed Soprano with The Swingle Singers, I went to hear The King’s Singers’ 30th Anniversary concert at The Wigmore Hall. There was an after-show reception for former members of the group to which Bill kindly wangled me a pass and once again I found myself in the company of illustrious King’s Singers past. A friendly-looking man came up to me, introduced himself as Brian Kay and then, rather mysteriously, said “No need to tell me who you are – I can tell by your hands! You must be Seb’s daughter!” It is true that my father and I have near-identical hands – though I’m happy to report that his are a little bigger – but never before or since have I been identified in such a way! Some years later, I found myself playing my cello in an orchestra in which Al Hume was playing double bass; shortly after that I was judging an international a cappella competition in Leipzig alongside the charming Simon Carrington who told me that he and his wife Hilary had been good friends with my parents before they’d separated and had even babysat me on occasion! So, as it turned out, those “names on a page” have become much more than that.
The boy with the interesting surname (who, as a chorister at New College, Oxford, had stood in front of David Hurley) became my husband and, 21 years later, we found ourselves writing a piece together for the King’s Singers’ 50th anniversary. Our remit was to produce something entertaining, ideally referencing some of their best-loved numbers, and incorporating jazz style (but of course). Having previously penned all of the arrangements for the Great American Songbook album and several more for the KS before and since, Alexander was poised and ready to get arranging….just as soon as I had come up with the lyrics and structure! Whilst creating my shortlist of snippets to include, I was like the proverbial child in a sweetshop, spoilt for choice. During many happy hours of listening to recordings from the past five decades of the group’s history, I rediscovered another treasured childhood possession: my LP of the 10th Anniversary Concert, recorded live at the RFH [pictured]. Gordon Langford’s arrangement of The Oak and the Ash gave me my inspiration to begin writing for, like the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree, the KS, standing shoulder to shoulder and each in his place, were, in the beginning, British….quintessentially.
After that, it was a matter of writing the rest of the lyrics, around which we could place the musical quotations or use them as the vehicle for the words. We wanted to tell the story of the group, but not necessarily in a musically chronological way, looking for opportunities for comedy wherever possible because it was this element of entertainment which, for me, put the KS in a league of their own when I saw them as a child. Growing up, I’d heard plenty of wonderful classical concerts (particularly string quartets, since my grandfather Watson was the viola player with the Aeolian Quartet) but not until I saw the KS did I realise that excellent music-making could also be funny. Listening again to that 10th Anniversary show, it’s the audience’s spontaneous and often helpless laughter, as well as the exemplary singing, that makes that record so appealing. As a member of the 6-voice a cappella group Tenebrae Consort, directed by former King’s Singer Nigel Short (singing alongside another former KS Gabriel Crouch), I’ve been fortunate enough to perform many classic King’s Singers arrangements and still, at certain moments, I expect to hear the particular shrieks of laughter from that LP! I’d like to mention at this point a particular musical highlight of a few years back when we recorded an entire album of arrangements and originals by Bob Chilcott entitled ‘Sun. Moon, Sea and Stars’.
As a lyricist one can never be certain that what one finds funny will also make an audience laugh so it was hugely gratifying (and something of a relief) to sit amongst the great and the good in the audience at St John’s Smith Square for the premiere of Quintessentially last Saturday, hearing them all ho-ho-ing away. The KS and their management wisely decided against printing the lyrics in the programme so as not to give away any of the jokes but I’d like to share them with you here, in case you haven’t yet had a chance to hear the piece performed.
Quintessentially – LYRICS
O the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree
It’s the King’s Singers fiftieth anniversary.
Five decades ago we first put on a show
Choral scholars on stage in a neat little row.
Two altos, a tenor, two baritones, one bass,
Standing shoulder to shoulder
And each in his place.
Like the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree
We were British, quintessentially.
We sang every kind of music, from madrigals to pop,
And we knew that once that train got going
It just didn’t stop (I’m a train I’m a train I’m a chuka-chuka train, I’m a train I’m a chuka-train)
And whatever we sang, in the closest harmony,
We were perfectly blended, like afternoon tea.
Yes whatever we sing, in whichever country,
Six men sounding as one is our USP.
The madrigals we sang without trickery or jest
Likewise with Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and all the rest
We just sang the notes upon the score
We did, we still do,
With proper words and nothing more
Not a single “tiddlypoo”!
But when we needed to make up lyrics
Because there were none in orchestral pieces
We summoned all our craft, to make the audience laugh,
By going “tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly poo”
Bor bor bor bor bor
Ba-da ba-da ba-da ba-da ba-da ba-da da (tiddly poo!)
What is he singing?
It what the person who arranged it told him to do (tiddly poo!)
Tell him to stop!
Stop it at once, it’s annoying!
Tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly tiddly poo!
Back when our group was formed
They needed a title
They tried “Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense”
Something snappy was vital
That didn’t quite catch on
How about The King’s Swingers?
They finally got it right and we’ve had
Fifty years of The King’s Singers.
Oh Danny Boy, how often we have sung of you,
Oh Silver Swan, who living had no note (leaning her breast)
And So It Goes, and all those Good Vibrations,
And Beatles songs, too numerous to quote [Blackbird whistle]
These have been loved by many generations
The classic songs and new commissions too;
Let’s not forget the Great American Songbook
Come on Get Happy at the Seaside Rendezvous
(Give us a kiss? NO!)
Special thanks to Gordon Langford,
Our main arranger in the early years,
And to the genius Daryl Runswick
We’d like to give a hearty cheer (hip hip hooray)
And the inimitable Robert Chilcott
Not to mention Peter Knight and Philip Lawson
All these friends put pen to paper (Richard Rodney Bennett)
To make the harmonies just right
Time for a key change – it’s Alexander L’Estrange!
In our 50th anniversary
We’ve given you a potted history
Showing off our versatility
From Eric Whitacre to Ligeti
We’ve scored our first half century
Keeping hold of our USP
Singing in the closest harmony
And showing you what’s quintessentially
The King’s Singers:
Six voices sound as one.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I will always be a huge fan of the King’s Singers and I wish them the very happiest of 50th birthdays. Having directed The Swingle Singers for six years, I’m well aware of the particular challenges which face a group of this kind, and I still marvel at the uniqueness and intimacy of a small number of singers on stage without instruments.
Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, January 2018
Joanna and Alexander can be contacted via their websites and Twitter.
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