HANDWASHERS’ NEWSLETTER 11th April 2021
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (1921 – 2021)
With Easter Day barely a week ago, I apologise for returning to the gloom of Good Friday quite so soon but, with the sad death of Prince Philip on Friday, perhaps, it doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate.
To be honest, this is a bit of an excuse to share with you our live-streamed Good Friday offering from Tewkesbury Abbey which I thought you might like to see and hear as it is, shall we say, a little bit different. Via Crucis, a colourful new work written earlier this year, loosely based on the traditional Stations of the Cross, is a meditation in words and music for the season of Passiontide, combining prayers by Eric Milner-White (a former Dean of York and the man who originally compiled the famous service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge) with newly composed meditations for organ by Philip Moore, formerly Master of the Music at York Minster.
The organ pieces (none of which are very long) provide a descriptive musical commentary to the words. Whilst much is of a reflective nature there are some dramatic moments as well. All the material is cleverly based on the opening motif heard at the outset although the final movement, ‘The Crown’, uses a well known hymn tune as its basis. I am sure that most of you will recognise it…
SONG FOR A SPRING FESTIVAL Andy remembers further connections with the music of RVW:
‘What is the meaning of spring this gay spring morning?’ These opening words of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams and set to music by husband Ralph, will conjure up memories for those who have sung in Surrey’s Leith Hill Musical Festival (LHMF). However, as I will explain, these singers are the only ones who will ever have had the opportunity to perform this song.
Song for a Spring Festival was composed by RVW in 1955 to celebrate the golden jubilee of the festival. LHMF was founded as the Leith Hill Musical Competition in 1905 by Margaret Vaughan Williams (Ralph’s sister) and Lady Evangeline Farrar. They had been inspired by the recent explosion of new musical competition festivals around the country and were determined to provide one for their local surrey village choirs. RVW was the first Festival Conductor, a position he held for 48 years until 1953. Under his leadership LHMF expanded and flourished, and in all that time he never missed a single festival concert. For many amateur singers in and around Dorking, the competition days, held just after Easter each year, remain an important focus for their choral singing – as it was for Diana and me in the 1980s and early 1990s before we moved west to these parts.
But back to Song for a Spring Festival . . . After retiring as Conductor, Vaughan Williams remained the LHMF President until his death in 1958. To mark the special place it held in his heart, he chose to gift the song to the LHMF for their exclusive use. A letter to the Festival Accompanist, Margery Cullen, explained his intentions. As one of over 5000 transcripts of RVW correspondence that can be accessed on-line it can be read here: http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl2993.
Ever since, Song for a Spring Festival has been sung at the beginning of each day of the 3-day festival, in recognition of the great man. It’s a fine warm-up – and a good way to calm everyone’s nerves before the adjudicators announce the test passages they have chosen for the morning’s competition! The scores for the song are kept under lock and key and only distributed to the singers for festival day – and then collected in again. As a result a good familiarity with this deceptively simple but beautiful song can take several years to acquire – and then lose! The music of the opening phrases, though, has stayed with us over the years.
Dorking Halls with RVW statue
One of the great joys of the LHMF format is that any frustrations and disappointments from the morning competitions can be forgotten as the choirs combine for the afternoon rehearsal and the evening concert performance. Miraculously, any difficulties that you or your own choir may have had before suddenly fall away when you’re surrounded by the forces of the combined choirs.
Song for a Spring Festival was the second-last choral piece that RVW composed. We also had the pleasure of singing his rarely performed final choral work, Epithalamion, in the 1988 festival. This cantata was based on Edmund Spenser’s 16th century poem Epithalamion and was conceived in the late thirties, initially as a masque – The Bridal Day – but then recast as a cantata, replacing speaking parts with choral writing and dispensing with the instrumental dances of the former. Like the later Song for a Spring Festival, this was also a collaboration between Ralph and Ursula Wood, the young poet being the instigator, having studied Spenser’s Epithalamion at finishing school. Both were bowled over by the early months of their love affair and the work was largely assembled within a matter of weeks, though World War II and the need for post-war revisions delayed its final completion until 1957, some four years after they were eventually able to marry. Sir David Willcocks had been invited as Guest Conductor for our 1988 LHMF performance, so the pressure was on then Festival Conductor, Bill Llewellyn, to prepare his choral forces well: several extra Sunday afternoon rehearsals were needed to get us all up to a presentable standard!
For the reasons explained, there is no recording of the Song for a Spring Festival, but here’s a recording of The Bridal Day and Epithalamion, featuring a photo of Ursula Wood in 1938 on the sleeve: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_nknEqlizZaTy01uXa4Ll9ZxeHrg4aRpKs. If you don’t want to listen to the whole of Epithalamion, get a flavour from tracks 16 (Procession of the Bride) and 17 (The Temple Gates). Basses and tenors, in particular, should listen out for the 9/8 rhythm of the middle ‘drinking’ section of The Temple Gates: ‘Pour out the wine without restraint or stay, pour not by cups by the bellyful’! Great fun, once you get the hang of it!
ZOOM SINGING Jane writes:
Before Easter, Carlton held five zoom sessions with about 23 choir members of whom I think I was probably one of the most reluctant to dip a toe into the water. Truthfully, I was wrong! It was great to see so many familiar faces from the choir and have a quick zoom catch up and chat, before muting to start with the usual exercises with Carlton directing and playing the piano.
The purpose of the sessions is to keep our singing voices going – or in my case, to start it up again. I quickly realised how much my voice needed some exercise and hard work. With Carleton playing the piano and directing us, we sang pieces we had for the most part performed in concerts: Bach Chorales, Parry’s Crossing the Bar and My Soul there is a Country, Pachelbel’s Magnificat. We also tried a very few new, short pieces including the wonderful Bruckner Locus Iste and Simon Lindley’s Ave Maria which reminded us that we do still have an ability to sing new pieces, however hesitantly.
Of course this is absolutely not a substitute for singing together but to my surprise, it was FUN, energising, and a very worthwhile way to spend just over an hour.
There will be three more zooms after Easter: 20/4, 27/4 and 4/5. If you didn’t join the last sessions, do think about joining for the next three!
Please e-mail Bob Merrill if you’re interested, so that he can send you the details and joining instructions, and the links so you can download the music. Ros Ivison actually hosts the sessions. They have both been involved in similar singing activities during lockdown and are happy to talk to you about their first-hand experiences if you want to give them a call. They can also help you to get started on Zoom if it’s new to you and will be able to offer help on the day to anyone having IT problems.
AND FINALLY . . .
On Radio 4 yesterday a young man was interviewed who had completed all three stages of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award while in prison for grievous bodily harm. He had done the outdoor stage of the Bronze award by camping on the prison football pitch and the Silver and Gold in the Chilterns and Brecon Beacons while on parole. He was asked whether the Awards had changed his life and replied, ‘Not changed it – saved it.’ He had studied cooking for the Awards and is now working as a chef.
Asked whether he had met the Duke he replied that HRH had presented his Gold Award and had commented, ‘The expeditions must have been difficult with a ball and chain on your leg!’