Flight of song: Howard Skempton11:14, 7th November 2017
In setting words to music, Howard Skempton believes in ‘unlocking the texts’. David Wordsworth opens the door on the composer’s choral canon.
Many years ago, I asked the British composer Robert Simpson why he had written hardly any choral music. His characteristically genuine response was ‘because I didn’t think I could add anything to the text and I would get in the way.’ One of the glories of the music of Howard Skempton, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year and has in recent years become particularly prolific as far as choral music is concerned, is that in so many cases the music sounds not an addition to the text, but rather something that has always been there.
Skempton has a particular fondness for seeking out words that convey the vividest of thoughts in the most direct, sometimes seemingly naive way – William Morris, George Russell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Elroy Flecker etc. And whatever the text, be it sacred or secular, spiritual or fantastical, Skempton always seems to find not only the most concise way of responding (no wasted notes for this composer), but also makes sure that every nuance of the words he is setting is understood by both the performer and listener. His scores are not littered with performance instructions, however, for Skempton is an astute enough composer to know that in the hands of skilled performers who let his music speak for itself, the effect can be magical and unique. Although often describing his piano and accordion miniatures to be the ‘central nervous system of his work’, it is perhaps not too fanciful to suggest that choral music has become an equally important part of this ‘system’ too.
Skempton’s formative years as a student of the experimental composer Cornelius Cardew and his time as a founding member (with Cardew and Michael Parsons) of the Scratch Orchestra are well known. Although long having an interest in choral music, singing in the choir at school and even at one time considering being a choral scholar, it wasn’t until 1980 that Skempton wrote what we might recognise as his first ‘real’ choral work, Song at the Year’s Turning, a strophic setting of rather bleak verses by R.S.Thomas. The composer remembers this early piece particularly because, before the time when such things might be looked after by his publisher, he had to send a cheque to the poet to cover permission to use his text – an experience that has perhaps prompted him to look for out of copyrighted texts in most of his later choral and vocal works. Already in this piece, the ‘Skempton fingerprints’ appear – he often talks of ‘unlocking the texts’ or ‘letting the text unfold naturally’ and finding a way of directing the rhythm of the words rationally into musical rhythms; his habit sets the text syllabically, sparse, exposed textures are the norm, fluctuating time-signatures follow the rhythmic inflexions of the words, and every change of harmony is carefully and methodically timed. Skempton declares himself ‘ambivalent’ to a lot of choral music of ‘the stodgy kind’ and although far too polite to name names, one can see why such music would be anathema to this most understated of composers. The Five Poems of Mary Webb (1989) for unaccompanied upper voices are another example of this startling economy of means – the close harmony often giving the impression of a single vocal line, highlighting the somewhat claustrophobic and rather tragic nature of the poetry.
The 1990s saw the composition of We who with songs (1995), written for the 10th anniversary of the OUP Chamber Choir, in which the organ helpfully mirrors the hymn-like textures of the choir; and To Bethlem did they go (1995), a tiny Christmas carol which has minimalist economy and a rather sad little tune that finds itself accompanied by a laconic and witty ‘quasi pizzicato’ figure in the lower voices. The familiar bars of 7/8, 5/8 and even 11/8, appear not to create a problem for the singers but to mirror the rhythmic intricacies of the words, again by William Morris. A similarly quirky but thoroughly characteristic take on a Christmas text can be found in the curiously hypnotic Adam lay y-bounden, one of many Skempton ‘ear-worms’ that manage to burrow their way into one’s head and stay there long after hearing the piece – yet another example of a well-known and over-used text given a new lease of life by Skempton’s nimble pen. These began a long series of choral miniatures, most no more than three or four minutes long, but written with as much care and attention to detail as any 40-minute symphony.
Towards the middle and end of the 1990s Skempton seems to find new confidence in his choral writing, and works of this period include a number of what might be called ‘mini-epics’, pieces that although short in duration seem huge in conception – The Flight of Song (with its vocal collage/graphic score first movement); The Voice of the Spirits (1999) setting part of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound; and The Bridge of Fire (2000), which the composer tantalisingly says deals with ‘Gods of Heaven, the great, the good, the bad and the ugly.’ Arguably the two finest examples of Skempton’s choral art are He wishes for the cloths of Heaven (1999), a glowing, rapturous setting of W.B.Yeats, in which a rather spare two-part counterpoint between the sopranos and altos opens out into a dazzlingly warm eight-part texture. Skempton picks up on the way Yeats repeats key words – dreams, cloths, light etc – but makes the repetitions seem natural, even essential: a mini-masterpiece if ever there was one. A similar kind of restrained ecstatic response can be heard in Rise up, my love; texts from the ‘Song of Solomon’ have been set many times (not least by Skempton himself in the beautifully austere male-voice The Song of Songs, written in 2000) with varying success, composers often getting carried away with the emotionally vivid, rich and on some levels rather ambiguous language; but for a composer who seems to have spent most of his working life walking a delicate tightrope and proving that less is more, the texts are a welcome gift. The tenderness of the last movement, ‘How fair and pleasant’, Skempton says, still surprises even him!
Though one suspects Skempton of being far from a ‘conventional believer’, he has found himself responding to a great many commissions for settings of sacred texts. Many of these commissions have come from choirs, or conductors with whom Skempton – ever keen to collaborate – has enjoyed a particularly long and fruitful association: Exaudi director James Weeks and Wells Cathedral director of music Matthew Owens are particularly energetic champions in concert hall, church and recording studio. There are now no fewer than three settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (for diverse combinations of voices, with and without organ); an elegantly terse Missa Brevis for unaccompanied mixed choir; and a substantial collection of short anthems and introits that gleefully, and with a quiet dignity, blow the dust off versions of well-worn texts that are reverently described as part of ‘the English choral tradition’. One of the most recent of these is a beguiling Ave Maria (2016), written for Nottingham Cathedral; but perhaps most remarkable are a set of Three Motets, not written at the same time but published as a set. ‘Locus iste’ is rhythmic and concise; ‘Beati quorum via’ contrasts restraint with glorious eight-part harmony (both pieces are well within the capabilities of choirs which can sing the better-known settings of Bruckner and Stanford respectively); and ‘Ave Virgo sanctissima’ is a gentle version of the Spanish antiphon, which, in rather typical Skempton fashion, creates a sumptuous soundworld with remarkably few notes.
Perhaps only Howard Skempton would make a contribution to the limited repertoire of music for choir and string quartet: Expectancy (2008) sets another favourite if little-known poet, John Drinkwater (1882-1937), the strings providing subtle support to the choir’s chromatic lines; as the composer writes, ‘It seems extraordinary that so little should be written for this medium.’ Skempton’s one larger-scale choral work so far (large in terms of forces, with an accompaniment for substantial orchestra – it lasts around seven minutes), That Music Always Round Me (2003), was commissioned by Manchester University Chorus in memory of its conductor Keith Elcombe. Despite its provenance, it is not a sombre memorial piece but an uplifting celebration of the joy of singing as expressed in Walt Whitman’s timeless poetry – a fine concert opener and a prime example of one of Skempton’s often repeated aims to ‘write imaginative music and make it manageable.’
In the words of the pianist Ian Pace, Skempton’s output is ‘the music of one who is ever the optimist’; surely in our present climate we need this brave and warm-hearted music more than ever before. A list of Howard Skempton’s choral works can be found at bit.ly/2rVlEfH.
David Wordsworth is music director of the Addison Singers; his premiere recording of Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater was released on Delphian last year.