On Geoffrey Poole’s ‘Wymondham Chants’…

April 15th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comFive 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.


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‘Ave, rex angelorum’, from the Wymondham Chants

To purchase this recording (King’s Singers, BMG) click here.

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Review of ‘The Choral Music of Phillip Cooke’

April 10th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comA nice review on the online review site www.crossrhythms.com can be found here. It refers to the CD as a ’splendid new release’ and states ‘Cooke is influenced by his homeland and writes music that is both original and approachable’ – I’ll take that. PAC

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Performance in Canterbury Cathedral

March 27th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comThe excellent Chapel Choir of King’s College, Aberdeen University will perform my motet O sacrum convivium in Canterbury Cathedral on Sunday 6 April in the morning service. They will then perform the same motet, alongside two other motets of mine (Veni Sancte Spiritus and O lux beata Trinitas) in an evening concert at St Leonard’s Church, Hythe on the 10 April.

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Another Review of ‘The Music of Herbert Howells’

March 17th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comThere has been another good review of the book in the current issue of The Musical Times, the esteemed musicologist Arnold Whittall refers to ‘particular clarity from the generally well-crafted essays’ and quotes me twice. I think that is a good thing.

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The Week Ahead

March 13th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comThis coming week is an important one for me with various performances and other events. It begins today with a performance of my first setting of the Evening Service (2009) by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge in evensong in Cambridge tonight (13/03). Selwyn then take the piece to St Paul’s Cathedral in London for evensong there on Monday (17/03). Monday is also the launch of my new CD at Aberdeen University where I will be playing selections of the disc and talking about the recording. On Thursday (20/03) my 2012 work The Hazel Wood will be performed by Selwyn with Onyx Brass and Simon Hogan (organ) at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, London as part of the JAM concert. This concert will also be an unofficial launch concert where I will be giving a pre-concert talk and selling copies of the CD. I then travel to Chester on Saturday (22/03) to hear the Chester Music Society Choir perform the Bach Mass in B Minor – I shall begin writing the new oratorio for the choir later this year. PAC

Categories: Commissions, Performance, Premiere Tags:

Follow me on Twitter

March 10th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comWhether it is a good thing or not, you can now follow my inane dribbling on Twitter @PCookeComposer – there will be regular updates on compositions, performances, recordings and broadcasts. As well as the usual stuff that fills my day-to-day existence.

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New Commission

March 7th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comI have recently been commissioned to write a new organ piece for this year’s London Festival of Contemporary Church Music which will be premiered in a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong on Wednesday 14 May. This continues my close relationship with the festival with my previous two sets of Responses any my motet Verbum caro factum est being featured in previous years. Greatly looking forward to getting started.

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Review of ‘The Music of Herbert Howells’ in ‘The Gramophone’

March 3rd, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comThere is a really nice review of The Music of Herbert Howells in this month’s Gramophone. The review, by Geraint Lewis, states: ‘This book…is a handsome volume…and astonishingly detailed’, ‘Phillip Cooke himself uncovers the sensuous radiance of the Gloucester Service and its legacy’, ‘Anyone who wants to know anything about Howells will find this book both treasure trove and invaluable extension to the existing bibliography’. Nice.

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Release of ‘Phillip Cooke, Choral Music’

February 14th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comI am very excited to announce that the first CD of my work will be released on the 14 April 2014. The CD, entitled Phillip Cooke, Choral Music will be released on the Regent Records label and will be available to buy from all good record stores, the Regent Records website and from iTunes. It features 10 pieces of mine from 2008-12 all performed by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Tim Parsons (organ) and Onyx Brass – all conducted by Sarah MacDonald. There will be two ‘launch’ events: the first at Aberdeen University on the 17 March where I will be playing selections from the CD and discussing my work (as well as selling CDs…), the second will be at the JAM concert at St Bride’s, Fleet Street in London on the 20 March where Selwyn and Onyx will perform one of the tracks, The Hazel Wood in a concert that also features Paul Mealor’s The Farthest Shore. I will be giving a pre-concert talk before the concert and selling CDs as well.

Positive Reviews of ‘The Music of Herbert Howells’

January 17th, 2014 No comments

www.phillipcooke.comThere have recently been two favourable reviews of my recent book on Herbert Howells, The Music of Herbert Howells which came out in October. Classical Music Magazine referred to it as ‘a highly welcome scholastic overview of broad swathes of Howells’s output’ and praises the contributions by Byron Adams and Graham Barber. The TLS referred to the book as ‘an excellent resource for anyone who wants to understand fully Howells’s…musical landscape’. Not too bad I guess.

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