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Lockdown Blog 24: Four stories

If you decide to read on, I thank you for staying with me. I’ve chosen to write nostalgically about a few memories from my musical life (aged 9-16) which will always stay with me. Goodness knows, I’m adding to these moments fast enough with every KS concert we do, but given there aren’t any concerts on the immediate horizon I thought it was time to delve back to some of these moments from earlier in life. I am hugely grateful for each of them, and for all the circumstances which have given me a life (thus far!) full of beautiful music and travel. I’m sure everybody has those moments in life where things seemed to ‘click’, and where formative experiences seem all the more magical when reflected-on. I’d love to know about some of yours, but in the meantime here are a few of mine. I’ve included a few links throughout the blog, so you can listen to some of the pieces I mention, and in some cases particular recordings of them.

 

Dad’s morning jukebox (2002-6)

Every morning, as my Dad drove me 30 miles from our hometown of Ludlow into Hereford for the daily 8.10am Cathedral Choir practice, we would have cassettes and CDs playing in the car. There would always be a little stack of recordings in the glove-compartment: some romantic orchestral repertoire, an album or two from an esoteric 70s rock group, Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues was a regular one too. There was all sorts, but we’d sometimes play a game where Dad got me to work out which instruments were playing, or which century it was written in, or who had composed it. Thinking back, it was jolly good parenting considering the profession I’ve ended up in, but at the time it just seemed an interesting way to pass the time each day. One of the CDs that would occasionally end up in the pile was one of my Dad’s own recordings, which he made in the 90s, as part of a folk group with his friends Polly Bolton and John Shepherd. The recording is all settings of poetry by A. E. Houseman, and as well as playing on the album, the compositions were all written by either John or my Dad (Steve). 

In the scheme of my Dad’s musical career this is just one of many wonderful and interesting things he’s done (presently I’m helping him typeset a song cycle he’s been working on). But perhaps because of its regular slot on our morning car journeys, some of the songs from that album (which is called ‘Loveliest of Trees’) have really stuck with me. One of my Dad’s tracks is a setting of the text ‘Into my heart an air that kills’. That song in particular has stuck very strongly with me ever since; there’s something about a slightly unexpected shift into the dominant minor halfway through each verse that’s very haunting. There’s also something very nostalgic for me in Polly’s singing — something both dexterous, and also plainly honest. I think some of that influence informs my love of our folk song arrangements in The KS. Sadly, having built it up, and just checked, the recording is not on any online platforms, so all I can do (if you’re interested to hear it) is suggest you purchase a physical CD here.

But another track written by my Dad and sung by Polly — with all of Dad’s same songwriting skill and Polly’s vocal colour — is this track, from another one of their albums: The Lake Isle of Inisfree.  I’d be delighted to know whether it’s just nostalgia from those morning car journeys, or if you enjoy it as much as I do.


A chorister confession (c.2003) 

This story requires the admission of a small transgression when I was about 9 or 10 years old. You heard it here first. One Saturday evening in Hereford Cathedral, the Choir was scheduled to sing the motet ‘O Lord in Thy wrath’ by Orlando Gibbons. In the Friday evening rehearsal the night before we were practising it, and on the first run-through the final chord of the piece took me utterly by surprise — like a kick in the gut. It’s a very beautiful piece and I commend it to you as one of Gibbons’ greatest anthems, and to listen to the piece now I find it strange that the final chord struck me quite like it did. But for the rest of the rehearsal, I kept flicking back to the Gibbons and using my mediocre elementary music theory to try and work out what was so great about it. When the rehearsal finished and I hadn’t found my answer, under the nose of our choirmaster Geraint Bowen, I rather naughtily hid the copy under my school blazer and took it home with me. Quite a harmless crime, I hear you say, but honestly I felt guilty about it for months. When I got home, I asked my Dad to play it to me on the piano so I could work out what was quite so good about that final chord. After a little bit of playing around, we eventually realised that it was the major third (A natural) in the tenor part which was beguiling me, and it wasn’t really the chord itself but the context of the rest of the piece which made it sound so brilliant. In the cold light of day, it is a pretty straightforward tierce de picardie* ending, but I remember it so clearly as the first time that I’d really noticed, or felt anything from, a tierce de picardie. 

  • * For those who aren’t sure, this is when a work which is in a minor key (or a phrase within the work) finishes on a major chord instead of the expected minor one. The musical effect is the equivalent of sitting in a dark room for a few minutes, then turning on the light. You’re still in the same room, but it all suddenly looks brighter.

Echoes of the future (August 2008) 

On 5 August 2008, I went to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall with my Dad, to watch a group called The King’s Singers. I’d recently heard one of their CDs and was so keen to go and see them live in concert, and this was their next UK appearance. It was part of their 40th anniversary season, and I remember hugely enjoying the concert, and being especially struck by ‘Scenes in America Deserta’ with its atmospheric opening figure between the countertenors. As an aside, another person in the Albert Hall watching that concert was a guy who was visiting from New Zealand with his chamber choir; he was called Chris Bruerton. Who knows, perhaps we bumped into each other in the corridors without realising; but the next time The King’s Singers would perform on the main stage of the Albert Hall, both Chris and I would be standing on stage rather than in the audience (albeit dressed up as wise men, on the instructions of John Rutter…), and it gives me shivers to think about it even now — soppy and nostalgic as I am.

About a week after that Proms concert, on 13 August 2008 a friend of mine called Tim Symons who sang countertenor in Hereford Cathedral Choir, organised a day out for me. We went on the train to visit the library at Christ Church, Oxford (where he had been a music student, and where there is a vast library of ancient music manuscripts). Being the geek that I was, I had recently become interested in early music and the process of editing it, and one of the treasures we were going to view was the Dow Partbooks – a set of manuscripts from the 1580s which contain many of the greatest musical works of the 16th century.  When the librarian presented me with the manuscript partook (the one for the highest voice part), I turned to William Byrd’s ‘Civitas sancti tui’. I put in my headphones, and having recently attended the King’s Singers Prom, I found the KS recording of it from their album ‘Treason and Discord’. As the music played, I followed along with my finger on the ancient parchment and found the experience utterly otherworldly. Here was the sound of one of my favourite pieces, one I’d known since I was a boy chorister; and here I was, sitting with the manuscript in my hands, written out during Byrd’s own lifetime with quill and ink. It was like time-travelling and I will never to my dying day forget sitting there hearing David singing the line that I was following on the manuscript page with my finger. I think if someone had told me that the next time The King’s Singers recorded ‘Civitas’ (from 3:49) I would be singing that line, I would have genuinely passed out.

 

A life-changing carol (Christmas 2009)

 

It was Christmas Eve of 2009, and I was at home listening to BBC Radio. For anyone who loves Christmas and loves choral music, the compulsory listening on that date is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. It comes from one of the most beautiful buildings in the western world, with one of the most sumptuous acoustics of any chapel or cathedral, and is sung by a choir whose sound embodies the magic of Christmas like no other. As I listened in 2009, I was the recent recipient of some (surprisingly..) good GCSE grades at school, and was thinking about the possibility that I might apply to Oxford or Cambridge University. If I was lucky enough to get in, I wanted to sing in one of their many choirs, and sitting at home listening on that Christmas Eve these guys sounded like the bees knees. Another carol started, and it was the English medieval carol ‘There is no rose of such virtue’. As the first chorus came to an end, the duet verses started, and they were sung by a single countertenor choral scholar and a single tenor choral scholar. I had just started singing countertenor around this time, and voice of the guy on the radio blew me away. I was also bowled over by the idea that a guy just a few years older than me could be singing such an exposed solo live on the radio, to millions and millions, and sound so controlled and expressive as he did so. That particular piece, in that particular broadcast was a very real part of my decision to apply to King’s following year. I later learned that the soloist I’d heard was a chap called Ed Rex, who is also a fantastic arranger and composer, and now a friend of ours, who arranged the song ‘The Truth Untold’ for us on The Library Vol.1. 

In a serendipitous and rather Hollywood turn of events, the next time ‘There is no rose of such virtue’ was programmed for the Christmas broadcast was on Christmas Eve 2014. By this time I was in King’s College Choir, and I was chosen to sing the countertenor part in those duets, with my friend Phil Barrett (who was my closest pal throughout university). Sadly, the 2009 broadcast isn’t available online, but for some reason the 2014 one is, and you can hear Phil and me do our thing from about 36:50 through that link. I remember being so nervous at the time, and indeed I can certainly hear the nerves now as I listen back. As I waited for our solo part to begin I recalled listening to Ed doing this exact thing five years earlier, and remembered the impression it had on me. It’d be fair to say Ed did a much classier job of it than I did, but it would mean the world to know that I’d had even a fraction of that same effect on someone listening. It turns out the 2014 broadcast was heard by 119 million people around the world, but I’m glad that I had no idea of that before it began, otherwise I would have sounded even more wobbly!

 

 

So there you have it. Some of my key musical memories from a life which has, so far, been undeservedly fortunate and serendipitous in so many ways (touch-wood).

 
 
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