Songs and Visions of Joy
Songs and Visions of Joy by English composer Janet Wheeler received its first performance on Thursday 29 June 2017 at Sing a Song of Joy, a summer concert given at St Mary's Old Church, Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 9ES, UK by the women's choir Psallite, directed by Nancy Hadden.
The new work has been commissioned by the choir through the support of The Cockayne Trust and The London Community Foundation. Two other contemporary works, Andrew Smith's Regina caeli and Ivan Moody's Troparion of Kassiani were also on the programme, plus motets by Morales, Palestrina and Trombetti, and chansons by Lassus, Heurteur and Dufay.
Of Songs and Visions of Joy, its composer Janet Wheeler writes: 'In compiling the libretto for this piece I took my cue from the choir's name, Psallite - sing praises - which features widely in the psalms.
'The first movement begins with a fanfare-like setting of words from Psalm 68. Three of the psalm verses in Latin alternate with verses from Walt Whitman's A Song of Joys, which I have set to more excitable music. I was delighted to have the option to include a flute part for Nancy Hadden to play on the Renaissance flute.
'The shorter second movement sets four verses from a poem by the English poet and composer Thomas Campion (1567-1620) in which the rhythm hovers between duple time (6/8) and triple time (3/4), sometimes combined. Each verse has essentially the same melody, with verse one in unison/octaves, verse two as a two-part canon, verse three in harmony and verse four as a further two-part canon over an ostinato.
'The third movement sets a prose text adapted from a passage from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. This contrasts two visions of happiness, one lying peacefully on the moors in the heat of the day, and the other rocking in a rustling green tree in the wind, with birdsong and the movement of nature all around.
'Each vision is preceded by a setting of the words "Heaven's Happiness" featuring rhapsodic flute interjections. The first, more static vision has a solo part over an ostinato accompaniment. The second vision, which one feels is much more that of Emily Bronte herself, uses a more active ostinato accompaniment for a trio of soloists set against the words in the rest of the choir. This leads to a section of birdcalls ending with a cuckoo. At the words "And the whole world awake and wild with joy", the music harks back to the setting of the Whitman in the first movement, leading to a new setting of the psalm words "Psallite Domino Psallite Deo", often in six parts. Indian bells add a touch of sparkle to this final section.'
Janet Wheeler is a busy composer and choral conductor working in the Cambridge and Saffron Walden areas. She read music at Cambridge, where she studied composition with Robin Holloway and Hugh Wood. After an early career in teaching, she worked as music producer for BBC School Radio before concentrating on freelance choral conducting, working with singers of all ages.
Her choirs include Saffron Walden Choral Society, Granta Chorale and the youth choir SignuptoSing, and she frequently conducts these at Saffron Hall. She will conduct Britten's War Requiem there in November 2017.
Janet's compositions range from small a capella pieces to large choral and orchestral works. MAZE, to a libretto by regular collaborator Nick Warburton, was performed by combined choirs with Britten Sinfonia in the 2012 Olympiad. Her most recent work, I Sing and Ever Shall, was commissioned by Southampton Philharmonic Choir and first performed last November. BBC Radio 3 has broadcast Janet's music from London's Wigmore Hall (by I Fagiolini) and Gloucester Cathedral, and upcoming performers include the National Youth Choirs of both Great Britain (Ben Parry) and Wales (Matthew Thistlewood). Her works have won a number of composition prizes and she is currently working on four commissions.
Psallite women's choir was formed in 1994 by flautist, singer and conductor Nancy Hadden. She has created an impressive and unusual repertoire of early music for women's voices, drawn from music for high voices and also pieces which Nancy has arranged from music originally for mixed choir.
In recent years the choir has added contemporary music to its programmes, highlighting works by Sally Beamish, Judith Cloud, Jennifer Higdon, Cecilia McDowall and Hilary Tann.
Psallite sings regularly in London and other UK cities; in 2011 the group performed two concerts in Arizona, USA.
The choir's first CD, Ceremonyes of Carolles was released in 2008. It juxtaposes Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols alongside the melodious, vigorous and mystical Medieval and Renaissance lyrics and music which inspired Britten's settings. In 2014 Psallite released its second CD, Judith Cloud's Three Spells, composed especially for Psallite, with motets by Lassus, Victoria, Guerrero and others.
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Posted: 2 July 2017
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