in: News & Features

October 12, 2015

“To Make Undying Music in the World”



Nicholas White, composer and conductor

“My journey as a composer,” says Nicholas White, Music Director of Boston Cecilia, “has been richly influenced by poetry. The challenge of setting a text is a necessity for my creative process.” Nicholas White is beginning his third season as the 53-member chorus celebrates its 140th. White also conducts the choir at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH, where he is Chair of the Arts and Director of Chapel Music. His compositions are performed widely.

On Sunday, October 18th, 3 PM at All Saints Parish in Brookline, Cecilia will illustrate the rich tradition of English music from the early 20th century to the present through works of Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi, and Nicholas White himself, whose two new pieces, one written last June will be performed for the first time here. Set to powerful words on the autumnal subject of death and loss by Donne, Campion, Crashaw, Vaughan, Hardy, George Eliot, and others, the works summon deeply personal and elegiac moods., Finzi’s Lo, The Full Final Sacrifice and White’s The Choir Invisible were written with organ accompaniment. Barbara Bruns, associate conductor and organist of The Boston Cecilia will play the church’s large Casavant organ.

“I was not familiar with the Thomas Hardy or George Eliot poems prior to the commissioning of those pieces,” White says. “The words often dictate various elements of the compositional process—time signature, key, lilt of a melodic phrase, textures of the vocal parts, instrumental accompaniment, and so on.”

“ ‘With Regret Not Me,’ the obligato soprano solo suggested itself right from the start. I wanted the poignancy and fluidity of the line associated with an exposed soprano melody. Something in the mood of Hardy’s poem cried out for that: the idea of the soul lamenting, perhaps weeping, by the wordless soprano voice soaring above the narrative.” White describes the simple lilting phrase in 12/8 time built over the transparent harmony, duplets against triplets. And there it is for the keen listener right in Hardy’s poem, “triple-timed romance, in coupled figures.”

“As I was composing the piece, I was attempting to conjure up a certain feeling of timelessness, as well as playfulness, in the middle section, that ultimately returns to the feeling of longing and, yes, regret. I loved writing this little composition, and the fact that it was commissioned by our beloved John and Susanne Potts [longtime Cecilia board/chorus members] gave an extra layer of emotional power.”

As for his setting of George Eliot’s poem, “The Choir Invisible,” White says that he wrote it just after the death of English composer Richard Rodney Bennett in 2012. In addition to traditional choral music, Bennett composed movie scores and played jazz piano in New York City, where he and White became friends in the late 1990s. The sonorities and cross-rhythms of Bennett’s jazz can be heard in this setting of Eliot’s poem, adding another dimension to “the choir invisible, whose music is the gladness of the world.”

The Anglican Music featured on this program encompasses the wealth of repertoire from English cathedrals and churches. In Britain and beyond, this tradition still thrives. White began as a treble chorister in his local parish in the county of Kent, with the sound of voices and organ ringing in his imagination. Parry, Howells, and Finzi were initially trained and employed outside this tradition (Parry worked for Lloyd’s of London, to appease his father and in-laws, and later as an editor at Grove’s Dictionary of Music; Howells taught at the Royal College of Music; and Finzi labored both as an orchardist, rescuing varieties of heirloom apples, and as a music publisher. But inevitably their music was influenced by this canon and the great English literature that it set.

What brings Parry, Howells, and Finzi together in this concert is that all of them, whether by war or illness, suffered deep personal tragedy and loss. By turning inward in private contemplation, they nevertheless managed to create powerful and timeless art which reaches out.

“All of these pieces are intensely personal,” says White. “I find them profoundly moving. I never tire of hearing, singing, or conducting them.” From these composers’ experiences of tragedy and struggle, “they created some of the most enduringly serene and beautiful music—in Eliot’s words, music that is “the gladness of the world.’ ”

Nicholas White and the Boston Cecilia
“The Choir Invisible”
Sunday, October 18, 2015 at 3:00 PM

All Saints Parish
1773 Beacon Street
Brookline, MA 02445

Gerald Finzi – Lo, The Full Final Sacrifice
Herbert Howells – Requiem
Herbert Howells – Psalm Prelude, op. 32, No. 2 – Organ Solo
Nicholas White – The Choir Invisible
Nicholas White – Regret Not Me (First Performance)
Gerald Finzi – Eclogue, Op. 10 (arr. Robert Gower) – Organ Solo
C.H.H. Parry – Songs of Farewell

Barbara Bruns, organ             Nicholas White, conductor

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