Once or twice a year, I am fortunate to have my music brought to life by the wonderfully talented Bristol-based choir, Harmonia Sacra. On 2 December, it was the choir’s annual Advent Reflections concert, an occasion for which I have been invited to compose a new piece for the last three years running.
My latest composition, a setting of Veni Sancte Spiritus, can be heard via the SoundCloud player below. It features a flattering introduction by Harmonia Sacra’s conductor and musical director, Peter Leech – plus you get to hear me doing a little bit of public speaking at the end.
As this was the third piece I have composed for Harmonia Sacra, I knew that on this occasion I needed to up my game and do something a little different. Having received encouraging feedback about my previous setting of Christe Redemptor Omnium, with listeners having described the music as possessing an immersive and almost hypnotic quality, I wanted to see if I could expand on this notion further and create a piece that was even more transcendent.
My process for composing these choral pieces is always to begin by studying the text so that I understand its full meaning: this then allows me to compose music that has the appropriate mood for each section of the piece. Once I have determined how I believe the music should feel, the task of uncovering the music hidden within the words becomes far easier. It is difficult to articulate this part of the process, as it tends to involve my sitting at the piano until I go into some kind of subconscious trance whilst improvising. It is at this point that some melodic or harmonic idea usually reveals itself. With my previous two choral compositions, settings of Creator alme siderum and Christe Redemptor Omnium, this process allowed me to conceive strong melodic themes. I used these by stating them at the outset of each piece before subjecting them to variation and development throughout the remainder of the work.
During one of my improvisation sessions while working on the Veni Sancte Spiritus text, I stumbled upon a very simple four-note motif which fitted very nicely with the final word of the sequence: Alleluia.
I continued experimenting with this melodic fragment by adding accompanying harmonies and soon found I had developed it into several minutes of music. Though these ideas didn’t fit rhythmically with any of the other text in the piece, they still felt relevant to the composition as a whole. So instead, I decided simply to take the word Alleluia and repeat it over and over again. My aim here was for the repetition of this word to act like a mantra during meditation, quieting the conscious mind and liberating it from the day-to-day worries and anxieties we all have to face.
Once I had sketched out this finale section, it provided me with a significant number of harmonic ideas from which I was able to derive material that could be hinted at earlier in the piece. Whilst composing the rest of the piece, I consistently tried to keep in mind the four-note motif, and reprise or hint at it as often as possible.
With this composition, I also made an extra effort to pass the melodic fragment between different sections of the choir: I did not want the sopranos alone singing all the most interesting lines, leaving the other sections of the choir getting bored. I have come to realise that one of the secrets to composing music to be played or sung by real-life musicians is to strive to make it enjoyable to perform, as any sense of enjoyment is inevitably conveyed to the audience.
Once again, I found it surreal to be the only living composer featured in the concert programme: the second youngest composer to have a piece performed at this concert passed away in 1894. I think one of the factors that makes composing of choral music appeal to me is its potential timelessness: I love the possibility my music being sung long after I’m dead and buried!
We had a few minutes to spare before the concert began, and decided to capture a short video tour of the church. The tour also captured several flattering testimonials from choir members!
Thanks again to Harmonia Sacra and Peter Leech for their hard work and support for my music. And thanks to Alex Killpartrick and Sam Thompson for coming along and helping with the recording!