Six of the best: 20th-century British choral works

As the BBC Proms begin, we name half a dozen works to sing loudly and proudly about

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Hurray! It’s that time of year again. No, not The Open Golf – though that also is fun – but the First Night of the Proms. When conductor Sir Andrew Davis lifts his baton to begin the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom this evening, he will also be setting in motion eight weeks’ and 84 concerts’ worth of wonderful BBC Proms music-making.

There couldn’t be a finer work to get the season going than Elgar’s big-hitting, dramatic oratorio, which was one of the first of a number of first-rate large-scale choral works to flow from the pens of British composers over the course of the 20th century. To celebrate those works, we choose six of the best, while also raising a glass, of course, to the beginning of the Proms season itself. Cheers!

 

1. Elgar: The Kingdom
After The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles, The Birmingham Triennial Music Festival commissioned Elgar (above) to write The Kingdom for its 1906 festival. This mighty oratorio follows on from where The Apostles left off, and narrates the lives of Jesus’s disciples, leading to the foundation of the early church. Elgar had considered The Kingdom as the slow movement in a trilogy that started with The Apostles, but never got round to writing the third instalment. 

 

2. Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem 
Dona nobis pacem (‘Grant us peace’) is a cantata written by Vaughan Williams that was first performed in 1936 to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. Vaughan Williams, who was determined to create an English voice in his music, wrote with an uncanny prescience. Just as the gathering orchestral clouds of his The Lark Ascending in 1914 appeared to forewarn of dark days ahead, here, three years before World War Two, the ominous tone unmistakeably hints at his unease at the direction in which Europe was heading.

 

3. Tippett: A Child of Our Time
The first performance of A Child of Our Time took place in London in 1944 and, again, was triggered by events of the time – this secular oratorio has its origins in Tippett’s reaction to the Nazi regime’s notorious ‘Kristallnacht’ that followed the shooting of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew in 1938. Tippett’s libretto narrates the story through the voice of a pacifistic non-believer. His quintessentially British musical language can be seen through his madrigal-like emphasis to the natural stresses of words, while elements such as the tango accompaniment to the tenor solo ‘I have no money for my bread’ also shows influences from popular music. 

 

4. Howells: Hymnus Paradisi
His confidence rocked badly by a boorish critical reception to his Second Piano Concerto in 1925, Howells would go on to confine himself mainly to smaller-scale liturgical music in later life. In between, though, came this intensely personal yet dramatic work for soloists, choir and orchestra, written after the death from polio of his son Michael, aged just nine, in 1935. Howells kept the work to himself until Vaughan Williams convinced him to allow it to be performed at The Three Choirs Festival in 1950. Howells later remarked: ‘The sudden loss of an only son … might impel a composer … to seek release and consolation in a language and terms most personal to him. Music may well have power … to offer that release and comfort. It did so in my case.’

 

5. Britten: War Requiem
Britain’s most significant 20th-century choral work? Quite possibly. The War Requiem was first performed in 1962 to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt amid the ruins of the old cathedral which had been destroyed in World War Two. Britten’s mastery of text-setting is at its finest here – the traditional Latin Requiem Mass, depicting human suffering, is sung and played by a large orchestra, chorus and solo soprano, and interspersed with First World War texts by Wilfred Owen, sung by male soloists and a chamber orchestra. The overall effect its exceptionally moving.

 

6. Sally Beamish: The Knotgrass Elegy
Finally, we amble over into the 21st century for The Knotgrass Elegy, written in 2001 by the Scottish composer Sally Beamish. Beamish’s work, which coincidentally was also premiered at the BBC Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Andrew Davis, uses texts by the poet Donald Saunders and has a green message to it – the words mourn the disappearance (from pesticides) of the Knotgrass of the title, and with it the decrease in population of life higher up in the food chain. The music itself is rich in variety, with influences that include jazz, folk and cabaret. 

 

Camellia Johnson

 

Sir Andrew Davis conducts Elgar’s The Kingdom at the BBC Proms tonight at 7.30pm. Visit: bbc.co.uk/proms

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