Joy in the morning
Unborn: A Processional Introit (Alec Roth)
Wexford Carol (Trad. Irish)
In the bleak mid-winter (Benjamin Britten)
The holly and the ivy (John Gardner)
Joy in the morning (John Joubert)
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (John Gardner)
In the bleak mid-winter (Harold Darke)
Noël (Naji Hakim)
A Christmas Caroll (Kenneth Leighton)
¡Oy es día de placer y de cantar! (Tomás Pascual)
For he shall give his angels (Felix Mendelssohn)
O magnum mysterium (Giovanni Gabrieli)
When Jesus, our Lord (Felix Mendelssohn)
There shall be a star (Felix Mendelssohn)
This little Babe (Benjamin Britten)
Epilogue: Child of son (Alec Roth)
O horo eeree caidil gu Lo (Trad. Scottish arr. Peter Hunt)
Stille Nacht (Franz Xaver Gruber)
Three Songs for Christmas (Martin Bates)
He comes in the night
How will you your Christmas keep
With a merry ding-dong
Ole leloila (Trad. Lapland)
Sussex Carol (Trad. English arr. David Willcocks)
Jubilate (Trad. arr. Jeffrey Skidmore)
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
JOY IN THE MORNING
Christmas has always been a special time for Ex Cathedra and our roots are firmly established in the wonderful repertoire associated with this joyful time of year.
In our forty year history we have made two LPs, two cassettes, and four CDs. This is the first recording which features the Choir, Consort, and our Academy of Vocal Music.
Ex Cathedra’s concerts of ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ are eagerly anticipated. Tickets are snapped up and sold out way ahead of ‘normal’ concerts. And at an incredibly busy time of year the singers commit themselves to eight performances. There are three ‘out-of-town’, one in London and four in St Paul’s Church in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, the place of worship for James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Washington Irving, a frequent visitor to the city. In addition Ex Cathedra performs a major seasonal work with orchestra or Baroque ensemble, usually in Birmingham Town Hall, around twenty Nutcrackers with Birmingham Royal Ballet in the Birmingham Hippodrome, sings for the presentation of the Sandvik Christmas Tree to Birmingham City Council in Victoria Square, and gives the now traditional Lucia Service of Light in Birmingham Cathedral for the Swedish community. Some singers have real jobs too!
What makes these popular concerts so special? They aim at the heart of Christmas. Although they are not without some humour, they are serious concerts. A seamless stream of seasonal music and readings performed in a handsome 18th century church, lit only by singers’ candlelight, creates the unique atmosphere. Many people tell us that, for them, Christmas begins here.
Our work throughout the year is a constant search for knowledge and understanding, often trying to understand that which is difficult to understand. Ex Cathedra’s ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ is this in essence. In a world of conflict there are cynics who will dismiss our insignificant efforts, but it is a start for us to take personal responsibility. Ben Okri writes in his anti-spell for the 21st century – Mental Fight:
For we are each one of us saviours
And co-makers of the world we live in.
But we should begin now, here,
Among one another,
And in solitude.
I am not averse to commercialism and enjoy ‘tissued fripperies’. I have a collection of hideous ties that mean a lot to me! But all the ingredients of Christmas present us with the opportunity to reflect with joy on some serious issues – peace, love, relationships, sharing, giving, parenthood, spirituality – angels, prophets, saints!
Repertoire is important and I agonise over programme selection and have the pleasure of working my way through the pile of new music which is sent to me each year.
We have always celebrated local composers. Martin Bates was Ex Cathedra’s rehearsal accompanist for many years and a former teaching colleague of mine at John Willmott School. He was the first composer to write for Candlelight. He comes in the night was written in 1983 and is the first of Three Songs for Christmas which he completed in 1986. They were published in 1988. They show Martin’s flair for choral writing and his delicious musical humour. John Joubert is one of the great symphonic choral writers, but he has a particular gift for writing exquisite miniatures. We have commissioned several new works, large and small, and given many premieres. Ex Cathedra gave the first performance of Joy in the morning in 1996.
Mendelssohn was the darling of Victorian England and a celebrity in Birmingham. He wrote an intriguing sequence of three Oratorios – St Paul, Elijah and Christus. Elijah was commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1846 and Ex Cathedra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment recreated that original version, using Derek Acock’s new edition, in October 2008. For he shall give his angels is the soothing, comforting octet from Part One, sung here by the Ex Cathedra Consort. Christus remained unfinished at Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 but the three opening movements, the recitative When Jesus our Lord, the trio of kings Say, where is He born?, and the chorus There shall a star display his delightful melodic and harmonic facility.
Kenneth Leighton is another favourite composer from the second half of the 20th century. In 1951 he studied with the wise and generous Bernard Rose in Oxford and was awarded the Mendelssohn scholarship to study with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. Leighton’s little known A Christmas Caroll was written in 1953 and is probably one the finest settings of Robert Herrick’s uplifting and cheering poem What sweeter music can we bring?
Traditional repertoire is always found in our Christmas concerts. Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter finds its way to the top of any poll. David Willcocks’s gladdening arrangement of the Sussex Carol, and the haunting Wexford Carol and Scottish Lullaby O horo eeree are also popular favourites which seem to take us back into the depths of time. Familiar texts in new settings also refresh our palates – John Gardner’s whimsical The holly and the ivy cannot fail to raise a smile, and contrasts well with the rhythmic vitality, energy and passion of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. Benjamin Britten’s atmospheric setting of the first verse of Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak mid-winter, super-imposed with the Corpus Christi Carol, is taken from his set of choral variations written by the precocious 19-year-old over a six month period between November 1932 and May 1933, and was first performed 75 years ago. The round This little babe is from The Ceremony of Carols which was completed on board the Swedish cargo vessel bringing Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, home to England at the height of the battle for the Atlantic. It has the intriguing final inscription ‘At sea, MS Axel Johnson March 1942’. The first performance was given in Norwich Castle on 5 December in that year, by the women’s voices of The Fleet Street Choir. Subsequent revised versions refer to ‘children’s voices’, ‘ boys’ choir ‘ and ‘treble voices’. We use children’s voices, women’s voices, and male altos!
Naji Hakim is a Lebanese organist born in 1955 who was trained in the great Parisian organ tradition. He was a pupil of Langlais and succeeded Messiaen as organist of La Trinité. His Noël sets his own words – Christmas is joy, hope and love – and complements the famous passage from Corinthians on the nature of love.
On two previous occasions Ex Cathedra has recorded the original version of Stille Nacht with guitar accompaniment. On this recording a simple, choral four-part harmonisation is sung in German, Swedish and English. It is a version our Academy performs each year at the close of the Lucia Service of Light for the Swedish community in Birmingham, which has developed its own style over the last ten years. The service has developed an international flavour within the Scandinavian tradition. The Oik is a unique style of singing in Lapland and traditionally it is a song used to call in the reindeer!
A large part of Ex Cathedra’s work is in the field of Early Music and at Christmas this might include Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Handel’s Messiah. Programmes may be based on musical centres in Venice, Paris, Versailles, or Latin America. Oy es Día is from early seventeenth century Mexico but shows many of the characteristics of early Spanish villancicos. Giovanni Gabrieli’s exquisite double-choir setting of O magnum mysterium, the fourth Responsory for Matins on Christmas Day, is one of the gems of late Renaissance Venice. Jubilate is an “arrangement” of a well-known Christmas melody in 14 parts, for three choirs, in the “Venetian style”! As an act of retrograde scholarship the text has been translated into Latin by Father Guy Nicholls, a priest at The Oratory in Birmingham, home of Newman and Caswall.
‘Some partnerships have stardust sprinkled on them. That between the writer Vikram Seth and composer Alec Roth is turning into the Rolls and Royce of the arts world.’ Thus wrote Richard Morrison in The Times in June 2007. Over the last few years Ex Cathedra has been developing its own special relationship with Alec Roth. We have given several first performances, are commissioning a 40-part motet for our XL Anniversary celebrations, and have plans for a major choral work in 2012. In summer 2008 Ex Cathedra’s education team was involved in the premiere of his latest masterpiece, the oratorio The Traveller. He has adapted the opening passage especially for us to use at our concerts of ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’. It is a processional introit entitled Unborn. The solo tenor sings words translated by Vikram Seth from the Dhammapada, a Buddhist collection of teachings from the 5th century BC, and the chorus sings a processional refrain with a drum ostinato. Child of son uses similar material but forms an epilogue to the work. The allusion to our South American work is flattering!
The mind precedes all states of being –
They are ruled by the mind,
They are made of the mind.
What is laughter, what is joy
When ev’rything is burning?
Enclosed in darkness
Do you not seek a lamp?
Better than a thousand meaningless words
Is a single word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand meaningless verses
Is a single verse that brings peace.
And if one should recite a hundred verses,
All filled with meaningless words,
Better is a single word of truth
That brings peace.
This is the Angels’ message of peace. Have a joyful Christmas!
© Jeffrey Skidmore 2009
From its home in Birmingham, Ex Cathedra has established an international reputation as a leading UK choir and Early Music ensemble.
Under founder and Artistic Director Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra is known for its vibrant performances and a passion for seeking out not only the best but the unfamiliar and the unexpected in the choral repertoire.
Since its formation in 1969, Ex Cathedra has grown into a unique musical resource, comprising specialist choir, vocal consort of 8-12 voices, period-instrument orchestra and thriving education programme.
Recent years have seen a major increase in Ex Cathedra’s national and international reputation thanks to its trail-blazing performances of Early Music “ in particular the French and Latin American Baroque “ and its role as a leading exponent of choral training and vocal skills education.
Ex Cathedra presents its own subscription season of concerts “ which spans music from the fifteenth to twenty-first centuries “ in the West Midlands and London, and is an Associate Artist at Town Hall, Birmingham.
The group is also delighted to receive invitations to appear at festivals and concert series across the UK and Europe. Performances have included the Aldeburgh, Aranjuez, Canterbury, Chelsea, Chichester, Kilkenny, Lichfield, Lufthansa, Newbury Spring, Poissy, Santiago de Compostela, Salisbury, Stratford, St David’s and Three Choirs festivals.
Jeffrey Skidmore is one of the country’s foremost choral conductors and is highly regarded by instrumentalists, singers and audiences for his thoroughly researched and carefully crafted programmes and the high quality of his performances.
He read music at Magdalen College, Oxford, before returning to his native Birmingham to develop Ex Cathedra into the internationally-acclaimed choral group it has become today.
Directing Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey has appeared in concert series and festivals across the UK and abroad and made a dozen highly-acclaimed recordings. He has worked with a number of other ensembles, including the CBSO, the OAE, and the BBC Singers.
In recent years Jeffrey has conducted many world premieres and commissioned new work from a wide range of established and new, young composers, such as Hutchins, Jackson, Joubert, Roth, Runswick, Sculthorpe, Shepherd, Wiegold and Williams.
Jeffrey is a pioneer in the field of research and performance of neglected choral works of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and has won wide acclaim with Ex Cathedra, in particular for his recordings of French and Latin American Baroque music. An Honorary Fellow at Birmingham Conservatoire and a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, he has prepared new performing editions of works by Araujo, Charpentier, Lalande, Monteverdi and Rameau.
Jeffrey is Artistic Director of the Early Music Programme at Birmingham Conservatoire and Director of Ex Cathedra’s wide-reaching and innovative education programme. He frequently gives choral training workshops and teaches at summer schools in the UK and overseas. He has regularly directed the choral programme at Dartington International Summer School and was Classical Music Programmer for the 2005 Kilkenny Festival.
‘…my favourite Christmas choral disc of 2009.’ (Choir & Organ, November/December 2009)
‘…an exhilarating mix of Christmas music from all periods and countries.’ (Birmingham Post, 5 November 2009)
‘… The standard both of singing and playing is absolutely first rate throughout the programme.’ (John Quinn, Musicweb-international.com, 9 November 2009)