Melissa Bradshaw

Premieres: December’s new music

10:00, 1st December 2019

Joanna Marsh’s latest work, a motet centred on the text O Magnum Mysterium, receives its world premiere this month. Melissa Bradshaw finds out more

Commissioned by organist and director of the Westminster Cathedral Choir Martin Baker, for their concert ‘O Magnum Mysterium – Songs of the Incarnation’ at London’s Cadogan Hall, Marsh’s new piece will be premiered in a programme of traditional Advent classics and contemporary Christmas favourites. Among the repertoire performed will be several other O Magnum Mysteriums, including Morten Laurisden’s much-loved piece. ‘I sat down with my four year old when I wrote this and said right, I’m going to kick Morten Laurisden’s arse!’ Marsh laughs, adding: ‘But the truth is, you cannot be thinking of other composers’ work when you sit down and write a piece, you have to just think about your own, because otherwise nothing’s going to happen. It’s like a cage, like a prison, to be caught up in thinking about anything else. I think every composer brings their own take to something.’

Marsh was first introduced to Martin Baker back in 2017, when he premiered her organ work Mensch, willst du leben seliglich at Westminster Cathedral. ‘I really appreciated his handling of the music, so I was delighted when he commissioned this piece and I’m delighted to work with him again,’ she says. Another exciting aspect for the composer is the chance to work with the Westminster Cathedral Choir for the first time – ‘to get to know the choir, to know what makes them tick and what their strengths are.’

“I find myself intrigued by what words can do, the pictures that can be painted by words, by text”

Currently based in Dubai, where she’s lived since 2007, Marsh always makes it a priority to travel for the premieres of her works. ‘I think, after all the slog of writing a piece, if you don’t make it to the premiere it’s kind of profoundly skewed,’ she points out. ‘It’s like you do all the hard work and then don’t have the opportunity to finish that job, to hear it when it’s done, it’s a shame.’ One thing that Marsh does find difficult about the premiere of a piece is to separate herself from the work and to let it go: ‘It’s almost as if your mind is still in creation mode and you’re still judging it, you don’t have the clarity to be an audience. It’s very difficult to get away from the details.’

At the time of our conversation, Marsh was still writing the piece and working on finishing its final section. She explains how she finds that the most important thing about the process of composing is to decide how you’re going to start a piece: ‘It’s the germ of everything that follows, it’s like a seed which will grow a plant … The opening idea is the one that sets the tone for what comes next, the sort of magnetic force of it, and you’d never stray so far from that that you’d feel disconnected.’ Coming from a background in choral and organ music – Marsh was an organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where she is currently composer in residence – has allowed for a certain natural flow to her writing process. ‘I do tend to sing all my lines when I’m at home in my studio working on it, I just find myself doing it. Music is all about the forces, gravitational pull and movement, and that movement is expressed in terms of harmony, dissonance, resolution… and it’s also articulated in the sense of speed and rhythm. The two tie together in this particular way, and by doing the thing yourself, you get a sense of what is needed.’

In addition to her early choral background, Marsh notes that her love of poetry is a strong force in her connection to writing choral music. ‘I find myself intrigued by what words can do, the pictures that can be painted by words,’ she says. ‘There are things that you can smell, that you can sense, and that is where music is. It’s the smell of a thing rather than a literal description… and that’s where music is a tremendous tool, because it amplifies an image according to what you choose.’


Joanna Marsh O Magnum Mysterium (Westminster Cathedral Choir, Martin Baker, director, Cadogan Hall, 7.30pm)



(World premieres unless otherwise stated. Full listings at classicalmusicmagazine.org)


Joanna Marsh O Magnum Mysterium (Westminster Cathedral Choir, Cadogan Hall, 7.30pm)


Jake Heggie Moby-Dick: suite UK prem (The Hallé, Cristian Măcelaru, conductor, Sergio Castelló López, clarinet, Bridgewater Hall, 7.30pm)


Timothy Cooper New work (Ensemble 1604, The Hug and Pint, Glasgow, 7.30pm)


Kaija Saariaho Figura UK prem (Explore Ensemble, Kings Place, 8pm)


Paul Henley The Firmament on High (Bridgnorth Sinfonia, James Ross, conductor, St. Mary’s Church, Bridgnorth, Shropshire, 4pm)


Anna Disley-Simpson ice-shining, glittering ice (London Oriana Choir, Dominic Ellis-Peckham, conductor, St James’s Church, London, 7.30pm)


Sophya Polevaya Spellbound Tableaux (London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, François-Xavier Roth, conductor, Simon Halsey, choirmaster/conductor, Alisa Weilerstein, cello, Barbican Hall, 7.30pm)

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