INSIGHT no. 3 Prayer - for The Dunedin Consort - The People's Mass

For the third in this series of insights into my compositions, I thought it was high time I wrote about my contributions to 'The People's Mass', a wonderful collaborative project commissioned by The Dunedin Consort and released on Delphian in 2004. The label is going from strength to strength having won Gramophone award for classical music 'Label of the Year' in 2014. Many congratulations to them!

For 'The People's Mass' project, six Scottish-based composers (Malcolm Lindsay, Christine McCombe, Tommy Fowler, John Gormley, Anthea Haddow and myself) were commissioned to compose one of six mass movements to be sung SSATBarB. These were to be interspersed with plainchant and settings of poetry, chosen by the composers, that would unify and connect a thread running throughout the work.

I was thrilled that my great friend and fellow composer Tommy Fowler, had suggested that I be responsible for closing the work with my poetry setting for baritone solo and harp, 'Prayer', and my mass movement, the Agnus Dei.

I was delighted; Tommy knows my choral work going right back to the early nineties and he recognised that at the time of composing this piece, I was very well-placed to compose a fitting end to this magnificent project, which toured the major Scottish cities and through the highlands too. What an honour!

So. To select the poetry..... Something contemplative and meaningful, yet understated and gentle. I turned to 'An Iona Prayer Book', edited by Peter Millar which contained these beautiful words:

I believe that behind the mist the sun waits.                                                                                                          I believe that beyond the dark night it is raining stars.                                                                                         I believe that this lost ship will reach port.                                                                                                       They will not rob me of hope It shall not be broken, it shall not be broken.                                                   My voice is filled to overflowing with the desire to sing, the desire to sing.                                                        I believe that peace will be sown throughout the earth.                                                                                        I believe in our nobility, created in the image of God,                                                                                     

And with free will reaching for the skies.                                                                                                           

They will not rob me of hope It shall not be broken, It shall not be broken.

I love setting poetry and written words; sometimes there is such an immediacy and instant connection with the imagery or intent within them, that I often find I know exactly what to do with the words; how to set them. Harmonies, melodies, the narrative flow, the direction and conclusion are all very quickly imagined. Then comes the setting it down, phrase by phrase, so the pacing and build-up is just right. These words were a joy to set: 'the desire to sing', for example, and the imagery of ships and stars.

On the tour, the baritone solo was performed by Will Dawes; on the recording, Matthew Brook was the soloist. Both brought a great sensitivity and gravitas to the part. Helen Thomson was the harpist, playing with such delicacy and thoughtfulness.

The solo was written specifically to lead directly into the final mass movement, the Agnus Dei. 'Prayer' ends with a sense of doubt, as if the hopes yearned for may not be fulfilled. This is achieved with an ambiguous harmonic context, which resolves into the opening of the Agnus Dei. All six singers, including Susan Hamilton's beautiful soaring soprano were a joy with which to work. The Consort and the composers of this piece were delighted with the success of the work. A truly innovative way to collaborate.

It was particularly gratifying to have Prayer and Agnus Dei selected when the recording was reviewed on BBC Radio 3, upon its release.

 "Rebecca Rowe's recitative-like Prayer is both simple and passionate, and the soaring lines of her Agnus Dei emerge from a cloud of richly saturated harmonies."

To purchase:

An excerpt:



Insight no. 2 Shine Out, Fair Sun

As we approach the advent season and winter draws nearer, I thought I would say something about my 1994 composition, 'Shine Out, Fair Sun'.

It was commissioned by Cappella Nova, for their 'Carols by Candlelight' series that took place in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness during mid-December of 1994.

Rebecca Tavener, ever the imaginative and dedicated campaigner for new choral music, had heard and been inspired by my 1993 composition 'Lament', written for The Hilliard Ensemble (more on that piece another time...).

And so they commissioned a carol for their Christmas/advent season.

Written for standard chamber choir, S, A, T, B (with divided parts if desired), I set about finding a text to set.

Growing up, our house was full of poetry and literature and I remember as a teenager, nabbing a book my mother had used at teacher-training college in the 1960s. It remains a much-loved volume: VOICES, a Penguin Education poetry anthology first published in 1968. It is crammed full of the most wonderful, evocative poems, complete with illustrations; (albeit sadly black and white) reproductions of classic paintings and engravings to complement the words.

I was particularly struck by the use of Brueghel's 'December' to illustrate what was listed as an anonymous poem, 'Shine out, Fair Sun'


 Shine out, fair Sun, with all your heat,
   Show all your thousand-coloured light!
Black Winter freezes to his seat;
   The grey wolf howls, he does so bite;
Crookt Age on three knees creeps the street;
   The boneless fish close quaking lies
And eats for cold his aching feet;
   The stars in icicles arise:

Shine out, and make this winter night
Our beauty's Spring, our Prince of Light!


It was PERFECT! The imagery, the language, the vivid depiction of the coming of Christ, represented as brilliant sun breaking through the cold, stark winter....

On researching further I discovered that it has been attributed to George Chapman (1559? - 1634) from "The Masque of the Twelve Months".

I knew almost immediately how I could use this text, with warm harmonies contrasting with sparse texture in the central section. I experimented with what became a favourite device: spoken or whispered words or non-pitched vocal sounds and consonants to give the colours and effects I wanted. The way the poet selected the words; in an almost onomatopoeic-fashion, to illustrate coldness: in the frozen section, there are many 'ee' sounds 'three knees creeps the street' which are not warm to sing. The mouth is stretched thinly, the sound is more empty and cold. This contrasts with the more open, full-bodied 'i' sound which is possible on the word 'shine'. The 'sh' propels the voice onto the vowel and is very satisfying to sing.

I discovered that in the line-up for the concerts the choir was giving, they would include renowned Edinburgh male alto, Sandy Chenery.

Knowing Sandy and his rich, velvety voice...I just had to include a passage in which the alto line would blast forth out of the texture, sitting still on a high note, triumphantly announcing the arrival of Christ.

I was very pleased with this composition, written during a chaotic spell of working at a boarding school in Edinburgh, with little peace or quiet, nor time to concentrate. The piece was composed very quickly, with such a wonderful text with which to work. It has reaffirmed my strong love of working with poetry. It spurred me on to seek ways of setting poetry by present-day poets, and forming collaborative ways of working with them, especially if the words have been written specifically to be sung.

Shine Out, Fair Sun was very well-received during its premiere and subsequent concerts.

       “My choir sang your great piece Shine Out, Fair Sun a couple of years ago. It provides  an absolutely unique piece for the mid-winter season with its wonderful textual focus on the  black winter and the radiant light of the sun.”

Michael Deason-Barrow, Tonalis Choir, Gloucestershire, June 2009

It featured on Cappella Nova's CD of Christmas music 'Nou Lat Us Sing' (see Discography for availability ) and was warmly acclaimed during Kirsteen McCue's review on BBC Radio Scotland. Sandy was also singing on the CD and his triumphant high note can be heard shining forth! It is a wonderful moment!

The recording (featuring also John Tavener, the late Ed Harper, Peter Maxwell Davies, Bill Sweeney), led directly to many more happy collaborations and commissioned from Cappella Nova and other ensembles and choirs.

Such a wonderful text. Amazing to think of those words all those centuries ago and that Brueghel reprint. That book, published in the 60s and sitting on our bookshelves whilst we were growing up... those wonderful words. Waiting to be sung.....





Poetry please!

So, have embarked on setting some new poetry by a friend; working long distance, sending stuff back and forth via email. An interesting way to work; Exciting prospects. She has a great style and we share various musical influences so I think it could work well! I adore setting poetry and have written various things by poets from different ages, but working with LIVE ones!! You get a real collaboration going! Very stimulating...

Insight no. 1 - MIND MOVES

My great friend Nic said she would love to know more about what inspired certain pieces of my music or how they were created. So here is the first 'Insight':

MIND MOVES - a one-movement piece for String Quartet.

It was written whilst I was a nineteen-year-old student at Hull University. I remember the Allegri String Quartet had come to our Music Faculty and led various workshops on string orchestra repertoire. I had led the cello section in our string orchestra for some of these. Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings... I'm sure there was another. String-playing friends from that time will remember.

Anyway, they commissioned a string quartet and I was very happy to hear them play the finished piece. I still have the recording. The lovely Bruno Schrecker was the cellist. He was like a cuddly old Grandfather; witty, dynamic, a giggler and such a passionate player. What a joy to hear him!

Back to the piece....

It was started, I remember vividly, whilst sitting on a rug in Pearson Park, Hull. You know....Philip Larkin. Toads etc. It seemed a good place to be inspired. We loved that park. Autumnal breezy days, walking through the trees to Park Road, to go and hang out and listen to Nick Drake records, only to walk back home realising light was starting to come up at four in the morning. Summer nights spent drinking wine and playing trivial pursuit, al fresco, only to wonder, years later why there were dried old leaves in the box. Rainy showers spent sheltering under a tree. The duck-pond and the ice-cream van.

So MIND MOVES will always be Pearson Park.

The piece owes at least a nod to the great twentieth-century traditions of English string-writing (Elgar, Frank Bridge, Britten, Finzi), harking back in some ways, whilst forging new paths for me harmonically and in a minimalist style. I remember certain passages coming in for criticism and being advised to re-write (not by my beloved Alan Laing, I hasten to add - the lecturer who understood what I was doing and where I was going), but I yearned to leave it. My style was becoming ever-more concrete and this was an important piece for me. I did leave it...

(The recording will appear soon, meanwhile the score and parts are available. )

I promise that the manuscript won't be covered in dried old leaves....




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