Category Archives: Decomposing

Welcome to Decomposing – a series in which I slowly take apart my music until there is nothing left, and we can all heave a huge sigh of relief.

Nunc Gaudet Maria for SATB choir with divisi

Music by Edward Caine
Words: Anonymous 14th/15th Century

Nunc Gaudet Maria (“We worship Mary”) is one of many Marian hymns found in the Sloane 2593 Manuscript.

The Source

I’m always on the lookout for interesting texts and I’m not sure why but I’m drawn to ancient, medieval and middle-english texts. 

I came across this particular collection of carols on the Internet Archive . The cover reads “Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century”. It is a transcription of items from a collection which now resides in the British Library, Sloan MS 2593 . It is an early source for some rare and important texts including “adam lay ibownden” and “I have a gentil cock” (snigger).

It is a collection into which I dip regularly for inspiration and there are some really interesting texts. I should take this point to thank Janet Walker, who helped me with the translation, having studied middle and ancient English at Exeter University.

Nunc Gaudet Maria struck me as an interesting text because of the chorus:

Source: Wright, T, Songs and Carols from a manuscript in the British Museum of the Fifteenth Century

Although the a, a, a, a probably refers to the repetition of the word “Alleluia” (so many of these settings start that way), I was interested in being more literal with this setting, and wanted to create a hocket between singers with the “a” of Maria. I imagine these singers to be placed in the gallery at different sides of the church.

We could easily replace the “Maria” of this hocket with “Allelujah” if we fancied but at this point I should site an influence here –

This hocket is inspired by Sean Doherty’s setting of “A newe werke is come at hand”, which was performed by Ex Cathedra in the same year that they performed my “Jankyn at the Angnus”. It is wonderful setting and well worth a listen by this up and coming composer.

I still had in my head the harmonic basis of the last setting I’d written “Jhesu, Jhesu, saf us allle thorw thy vertu”, so the harmonic context for the opening of this piece is an A major chord in root position, The introduction of the tenors singing “Nunc gaudet Maria” (we praise Mary), leading to A B major chord for heightened interest and to influence the hocket.

The A major sonority is a ruse though, and the basis for the piece is E minor. I can’t claim to have planned the nature of the theme and harmony beyond using my ears and imagination, but I enjoy the shape of it, staring dark (E minor) and spread out, and then ending up brighter (A major) and close together. The antithesis of this thesis is an outward motion spreading out, and the melody ends in unison, a powerful tool in Choral writing.

I am aware of the lack of attention to detail when it comes to consecutive 5ths. My ear often forgives this sonority and I enjoy little quirks of harmony, here for example the rogue C# in the tenor line.

Note the harmony never resolves but keeps the tension going, following on from the opening by ending on a B major chord. Movement is also maintained by interjections of the soprano hocket. When the verse melody repeats, this time with a more regular 3/4 rhythm and fewer, changed harmonies. To give the ear a break and keep it interested, the hocket is replaced by interjections from two solo men.

The last two verses I felt deserved a different treatment and I somehow needed to resolve the harmonies. C major saves me and gives an uplifting and exciting change of texture and the harmonies eventually resolve on to E major in a nod to the tierce de picardy, the whole choir now echoing the hocket which began with the solo soprani.

Owing to the pace and tessiatura (how high in the voice) of this piece, I expect this would need a very good choir to do it justice, and one with 4 good soprano soloists.

Jhesu, Jhesu, Saf us alle thorw thy vertu for SATB choir

Jhesu, Jhesu, Saw us alle thorw [sic] thy vertu was written in the winter of 2020 under national lockdown. I had two rare daytimes when I could focus on composing, and fancied working on some more Sloane MS 2593 texts. It is as yet unperformed.

The Source

I’m always on the lookout for interesting texts and I’m not sure why but I’m drawn to ancient, medieval and middle-english texts. 

I came across this particular collection of carols on the Internet Archive . The cover reads “Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century”. It is a transcription of items from a collection which now resides in the British Library, Sloan MS 2593 . It is an early source for some rare and important texts including “adam lay ibownden” and “I have a gentil cock” (snigger).

It is a collection into which I dip regularly for inspiration and there are some really interesting texts. I should take this point to thank Janet Walker, who helped me with the translation, having studied middle and ancient English at Exeter University.

I chose Jhesu Jhesu saf us alle thorw[sic] thy virtue, as ever because I could imagine how I would start. Here I have to acknowledge an influence: Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. In my head I heard this repeated “Jhesu, Jhesu” being repeated by the women in an A major chord contracting to a B-D. 

This is essentially the opening to Britten’s Wolcum Yule and if you listen to it (video below) you’ll hear more devices which I’ve essentially copied, although not cynically – I just like the ideas and heard them that way. It causes me chagrin when I hear something and realises it’s someone elses thing – it’s not a deliberate attempt to copy Britten, I just can’t think of another way to set the text, and thought this would be fun.

While we talk about Britten, we can talk about the harmonic structure of the piece – These chords are a frequent device Britten uses. They are based on the tones of a squeezebox, melodian or early accordian. If you play a traditional non-chromatic harmonica you’ll notice these chords as you breath in and out – this allows you to go up and down the scale by breathing in and out alternatively and directing the flow of air over the tone generator. This is the same structure as inside these early accordians. The result is depending on which buttons you hold down and the direction of air going through it, you can create a progression of thirds. 

Another example of a Britten work that references this type of harmony is the wonderful Ballad of the Green Broom from Five Flower Songs op. 47:

This is particularly useful in this setting as to me the thirds evoke a rustic early setting and a peasant dance. It also gives me a convenient “escape” from traditional germanic harmony, something I enjoy doing to keep the language fresh. The men however follow an A major diatonic mode. The melody I thought of reminds me of a heroic, superman motif.

Of course, once I’ve set up a good context and repetative motif, the very first thing I want to do is tear it down, and that’s what I do, switching to the distant key of C# minor for the bulk middle section  (and in fact opening in Dorian mode in B major). Again I’m thinking of a peasant dance. 

The women in the choir continue to use the squeezebox paradigm, this time moving up and down the mode, modulating as they do up a third to the relative major.

In the third verse I need to acknowledge another influence in American folk musics and the “Sacred Harp” shape-note singing tradition. This lusty fifths-based harmony is joyous and I enjoy referencing it when I want the choir to express jubilation. Another feature is that the melody is often in the tenor and surrounded by higher harmonies

Of course, I needed to return to A major to conclude, and i do so with no transition. “grant us grace” gives me leave to snap into A major, and I re-establish the key by having a play on our squeezebox and a little virtuosity for the singers.

This piece is aimed at a high quality choir with a skilled director and singers. It is a difficult sing, but I think it would be very fun to perform.

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Jankyn at the Angnus for SATB choir and Organ

Jankyn at the Angnus is a carol that I wrote in the hope that Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra would perform it, and which they performed in their Christmas Music by Candlelight Series in 2019. It was also performed by community choir In Sound Company that year in St. James Church, Wollaston.

In it Somebody f**ks a priest. Merry Christmas Everybody!

The Source

I’m always on the lookout for interesting texts and I’m not sure why but I’m drawn to ancient, medieval and middle-english texts. 

I came across this particular collection of carols on the Internet Archive . The cover reads “Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century”. It is a transcription of items from a collection which now resides in the British Library, Sloan MS 2593 . It is an early source for some rare and important texts including “adam lay ibownden” and “I have a gentil cock” (snigger).

It is a collection into which I dip regularly for inspiration and there are some really interesting texts. I should take this point to thank Janet Walker, who helped me with the translation, having studied middle and ancient English at Exeter University.

This was one of the first MS Sloane 2593 settings I completed. I was drawn to the text because of its narrative function and because of this figure of “Jolly Jankyn” who seemed to be a larger-than-life character at the center of it. It has to be said that when I first set the words I did not fully understand them, and might have done it slightly differently if I did.

The Text

So, about that text. This is the last in the collection and an anonymous poet, but contemporary with figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote Cantebury Tales. In Cantebury Tales there are quite a few references to “Jankyn” (a medieval variant of “John”) and “Alison”, often synonymous with a lady of, well, dalliance. The carol is the telling of the yule day service and is told from the perspective of Alison. Jankyn, the clergyman, is taking the service. When Alison comes up to kiss the pax board (a tradition in which to avoid the spread of disease and encourage sin the parishoners kiss a board one by one instead of each other), Jankyn “twinkles, but says nowt” and “upon my foot he treads”, essentially telling her to keep quiet. 

The setting is full of puns and is intermingled with religious ceremony and ritual. The refrain “Jankyn sing it merry with Aleyson”, meant to rhyme with “eleison”, part of the kyrie eleison chant (“Lord have Mercy upon us”). The punchline is a mixture of the sacred and the profane: “Cryst from shame me schylde, alas! I go with chyld”. Note in modern English this is a half-rhyme but it is likely that in 15th century England schylde would rhyme with chyld.

One of the sources for the analysis of this poem is a very interesting and thorough blog post on the website love-literature.com.

The Setting

It surprised me when this was performed that a number of people asked me if it was inspired by the 14th century round “sumer is icumen in” and indeed the opening does bear striking resemblance to it, as evinced when Jeffrey Skidmore introduced the piece with s small section of it on the organ and how perfectly it fitted. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been working for Ex Cathedra for over 4 years now and these influences are bound to drift in unannounced. 

In fact I first heard the opening in my head while wondering through the grand central station in Birmingham, simply thinking about what to do with the repeated “kyrie” and “so kyrie” I was reminded of the squeezebox and its association with folk musics and of the works of Benjamin Britten, who uses it frequently. While I was less dogmatic in my use of it than in Jhesu, Jhesu, Saf us alle throw thy vertu, this is what I opened this setting with – a squeezebox playing in and out. A peasant dance.

Similarly when the men come in they are performing a heavy peasant dance. I’m put in mind of Breugel’s “Wedding Dance”. To that end it is rhythmic and fun. I imagine this yule day to be a whirlwind of activity and excitement. I used a simple hemiola in the melody – This was a challenge for the singers and we took to using a tambourine in rehearsal to get them used to performing it.

Jankyn at the angnus
beryt the pax brede,
he twynkelid, but sayd nowt,
and on myn fot he trede.

This line about Jankyn bearing the pax board is sung by the men but now that I know more about the poem, it should probably be sung by the women. I might still change it to better reflect the text.

Also, I chose to leave out a couple of lines from the poem in this iteration which might find their way into a future iteration of the carol. It just felt like too much text at the time, and there is a change in structure which I was ill-equipped to deal with at the time, wanting to leave the bulk of the setting as a simple repetitive structure. It’s also problematic in terms of meaning:

Jankyn crakit notes,
an hunderid on a knot,
And ƺyt he hakkyt hem smallere
than wortes to the pot.

(Jankyn cracked (“sung”) notes,
a hundred (at a time),
and yet he hacked them smaller
than (vegetable matter) for the (stew)pot

I can imagine setting this and having a solo Jankyn perform long melismatic passages, however it would not not necessarily fit with the structure of the piece, and “wortes” although still sometimes referred to in modern English, would not translate to a modern audience.

In the performance of this carol there are quite a few difficulties. I decided to be non-dogmatic about the modernisation of the text, and it presents some difficulties, not least pronunciation. The main difficulty is in whether to use modern words (trod), (shield) (health) or to preserve the rhyme and approximate early pronunciation, which is complicated without the help of an expert.

Similarly, although the notes seem straight forward, when In Sound Company community choir performed it there were some definite points of difficulty which I did not forsee (although they did a fantastic job).

If you’d interested in purchasing a copy of Jankyn at the Angnus then please contact me via the Contact Page.