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.....