Five years ago I was accepted on to the Lake District Summer Music Festival 4×4 Composer Scheme (bear with me here…) where four composers were to write pieces for the vocal group the Orlando Consort, under the supervision of renowned composer John Casken. It was a fine week with good weather, musical conversation, real ale and general bonhomie. However, the piece I wrote for the consort was not my finest – I couldn’t at the time put my finger on what exactly I didn’t like about the piece, it was generally well composed with some good ideas and nice textures, all the usual stuff. However, it was only when I got home that I realised what was wrong with the piece – it wasn’t Geoff Poole’s Wymondham Chants.
Now, you may also be aware that my work was also not Machaut’s Messe de Nostre-Dame, nor Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 nor Tristan und Isolde – but what makes this comparison so acute, is that Wymondham Chants is such a fantastic piece (both in concept and execution) and is so well written and conceived for a vocal consort (in this case a six voice group) that anything else in a similar vein just pales in comparison. That’s the problem, and will no doubt continue to be a problem!
In case you are not aware of Geoff Poole and his work, he was born in 1949 and was largely self-taught until the age of 21 before studying with Alexander Goehr and Jonathan Harvey. Large scale commissions, broadcasts and recordings followed alongside professorships at both Manchester and Bristol Universities (he retired in 2009). All fairly straight forward you might think, but during this time he had spells learning traditional performance in East Africa and in Korea, as well as a visiting fellowship at Princeton – and he has a keen interest in medieval music and folk traditions – much of which is evident in his work, including the early success that became Wymondham Chants.
Wymondham Chants was written in 1970 for the internationally renowned vocal ensemble the King’s Singers and has since gone on to be Poole’s most successful and performed work. It is a setting of four medieval texts (‘carols and lyrics’ states the score) which Poole sets in the formal scheme of Prologue, Scherzo, Prayer and Epilogue. The opening piece ‘Ave, rex angelorum’ contrasts slowly unfolding phrases with intense bursts of jaunty melismas (more than one note per syllable), the two types of music gradually coalescing in the final statement. The second, ‘Tutivillus’ is an incredible burst of angular speech and percussive vocal effects punctured by brief moments of repose before a savage fortissimo ending. The emotional heart of the work is the third piece, ‘Mary Modyr’ which contrasts long solos and duets with warm choral sonorities and textures. The final piece, ‘Blessed Jesu’ is perhaps the most intriguing with a processional effect as one group of singers moves towards the performance space independently of the others. Like the first piece, there are two contrasting musical ideas which gradually move closer to one another before the re-introduction of the melismatic material from the first piece brings the work to a powerful end.
What appeals to me most about this piece (other than the fact that it is so well written for the group) is the constant inventiveness and Poole’s relationship with pre-existing material and a historical continuum. The work is hugely indebted to medieval music and medieval compositional practices, but also to the feel and very nature of the period (apparently the work was inspired by the ruined abbey at Wymondham, in Norfolk). Poole does not try to re-create the medieval soundworld, or to try to create something entirely disparate from the texts, he creates a historically-aware setting, fully infused with the sounds of the fifteenth century musical world but something very much with both feet in the twentieth century. This is what appeals to me as both a composer and a listener. The work is also influenced by Britten, certainly the Britten of Curlew River and the Prodigal Son, but also by composers such as Penderecki and his seminal work of 1966 the St Luke Passion. It also is inspired by the English choral tradition, which was anathema to many composers in the late 1960s and 70s – it is hard to listen to ‘Mary Modyr’ without being aware of the centuries of church music that have gone before.
It is interesting looking and listening to this work nearly 45 years after its composition: some of the effects (particularly in ‘Tutivillus’) are rooted in the musical language of the 1970s, but much of the work is fresh and entirely in keeping with current musical trends (particularly in contemporary choral music) – the use of the macaronic form (using two different languages simultaneously) is very in vogue as is the re-encountering of texts and musical practices from previous epochs. What marks the Wymondham Chants out from other works of the period is that there is no apparent irony in this work, rather a poignant, thoughtful and somewhat tender approach to the texts and the long line of musical history – that’s why this work appeals to me and why I’m constantly disappointed that I didn’t write it.
‘Ave, rex angelorum’, from the Wymondham Chants
To purchase this recording (King’s Singers, BMG) click here.