Sunday 14 May 2017

Michael Finnissy's premiere at Evensong at St John's College, Cambridge

Michael Finnissy - Composer in Residence at St John's College, Cambridge
Michael Finnissy - Composer in Residence at St John's College, Cambridge
Having enjoyed hearing the music of Jonathan Harvey performed at Evensong at St John's College, Cambridge last year (see my article), it was a pleasure to return to St John's College on Saturday 13 May 2017 for Evensong led by the chaplain, the Rev'd Carol Barrett Ford, with the choir of St John's College, conductor Andrew Nethsingha, assistant organist Joseph Wicks and organ scholar Glen Dempsey. The music included John Taverner's Dum transisset Sabbatum, Richard Shephard's Preces and Responses, William Walton's Chichester Service and as closing voluntary Judith Bingham's St Bride, assisted by angels. But the main musical focus of the service was the anthem, which was the premiere of Dum transisset Sabatum by Michael Finnissy, the college's composer in residence.

Chapel of St John's College, Cambridge
Chapel of St John's College, Cambridge
It was a busy week for the choir of St John's, at Evensong during the week music included Gibbons Second Service, Vivaldi's Magnificat, Stanford in C, Purcell's Rejoice in the Lord alway and Alex Woolf's O vos omnes which was written for the choir in 2016. On Saturday the choir had already performed in a large memorial service that lunchtime for a fellow and sometime Master of the college, and then on Sunday (15 May 2017) the music at Sung Eucharist was to include Jean Langlais' striking Messe Solennelle.

Made up of boys from the college's choir school and young men from the college, the choir fielded 16 trebles and 14 singing men, a substantial line-up and one which would be the envy of a number of cathedral establishments.

We heard a poised performance of John Taverner's Dum transisset Sabbatum, it was lovely to hear this early Tudor polyphony being used in a liturgical situation rather than just as a concert work and the high treble part seemed to hold few terrors for the boys. It was lovely to hear Psalm 68 chanted (the first 20 verses), I do not get to hear much Anglican chant nowadays, but yet again I was struck by how complex and forbidding some of the more sonorous passages in the King James bible can be.
Walton's Chichester Service was commissioned  in 1974 by that great supporter of the arts Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, as part of the celebrations for the Cathedral's 900th anniversary. There is a wonderful swagger to this Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (something that isn't true of all Walton's late music), it hardly matters that one could pick out bits of Belshazzar's Feast and the Coronation marches recycled and sounding striking in their new home. And of course the choir gave a confident and vivid performance.

Though Michael Finnissy has written plenty of choral music and a number of liturgical pieces, his is not a name that one immediately associates with the organ loft. Dum transisset Sabbatum, which was commissioned by the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge, is the first of a planned sequence of four motets each of which will be based on a setting of the same text by a 16th century composer. Finnissy is composer in residence until 2019, the 150th anniversary of the completion of St John's College chapel and in addition to the anthems Finnissy will also be writing five organ pieces. Finnissy's past relationship with the choir has included the writing of St John the Baptist in 2015 which won a British Composer Award.

My previous exposure to Michael Finnissy's work was via Michael Norsworthy's disc of clarinet music and in some of the works Finnissy explored music based on earlier models (see my review). Finnissy says of these new pieces for St John's:

 'The new works for St John’s College Cambridge will find their material in the music of the eponymous composers. The material is re-located, destabilised, re-visioned from different angles. Sometimes it sounds deceptively like the named composers, or like more and more distant memories of their work, or apparently remote, alienated in manner and style from it. This is also a way of examining and reflecting on our musical culture, in which new Art Music is marginalised and almost completely overwhelmed by the past, or by venal commercialism.'

Taking the music of John Taverner as a model, even though the finished work was very much a 21st century piece, seems to have brought an interested mellowness to Finnissy's music as well as a very English quality. Certainly Finnissy's style of writing with the complex rhythms and busy poly-rhythmic passages is a long way from standard Anglican liturgical music, yet the sound-world sounded familiar and seemed to fit into the service in a good way whilst providing music food for though.

On the meaning of Dum transisset Sabbatum Finnissy commented:
'It is early in the morning, three women come to anoint the body of the Son of God, but his tomb is empty. Following Taverner's example, I do not paint the moment-to-moment emotion, puzzlement and confusion, but remain calm moving towards the mysterious and miraculous outcome of this scene: text and music are for contemplation.'

And of course it is good to shake things up and challenge the performers. It was the striking complex and highly mobile textures which I noticed, yet all written in a way which stretched but did not over burden the young trebles. Listening to a piece for the first time during a service is hardly the moment for a detailed review, but I felt that Finnissy's motet was a striking addition to the liturgy. I look forward to the choir's performances of future Finnissy commissions and do hope that they return to Dum transsiset Sabbatum soon.

We finished with Judith Bingham's St Bride assisted by angels played by the chapel's assistant organist Joseph Wicks. This had us wondering what it was that St Bride did, in fact the piece is based on a Celtic myth relating to the Nativity, and Bingham's textures in the piece create some wonderful bits of magic. Intriguingly, the score includes fragments of poetry, describing the scenes referred to in the music, but marked 'for the eyes of the performer only'.

St John's Choir website now includes regular webcasts of Choral Evensong so that you can catch the choir even if you cannot get to Cambridge, and the webcast from 7 May 2017 includes John Taverner's Dum transisset Sabbatum.

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