The New Music Director of Sydney Chamber Choir, conductor Sam Allchurch reflects on creating A Royal Affair
Like many lovers of choral music, I have a real soft spot for Handel. His works for choir express the full range of human emotion from uplifting joy to poignant tragedy. Unlike that of his contemporary Bach, Handel’s music is no need of a revival because it has never gone out of fashion. Soon after his death, large-scale concerts of Handel’s music were being staged in London, and his oratorios became the backbone of the English-speaking choral tradition in the 19th century (an amusing quirk of history, given that the German-born composer’s English was notoriously poor).
His best-known work, the oratorio Messiah, with its famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, is performed at least once a year in Sydney. Second in fame to this iconic earworm is his coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, which opens with possibly the greatest crescendo ever written. The piece has been sung at every English coronation since its premiere in 1727 for the ceremony for George II and no composer is more closely associated with royalty than Handel.
Handel himself was popular with the royal family, also German immigrants in London. When he wasn’t writing oratorios or operas, he was composing music for royal occasions – weddings, funerals, fireworks. In this repertoire there were pieces to celebrate military victories, starting with a setting of the Te Deum for the victory at Utrecht in 1713. Handel much later returned to this text to celebrate the victory at Dettingen, where King George II led his troops into battle himself, the last time an English monarch would do so. The Dettingen Te Deum is a jubilant work, richly scored for five-part choir, three trumpets, drums, winds and strings.
Yet despite the royal connections, Handel never held the post of Master of the King’s Music. The post was created in 1626 and in Handel’s time was held by John Eccles and Maurice Greene. I think Sydney Chamber Choir is often at its best when exploring connections between old and new music and so the idea of a concert matching Handel with contemporary music which has a royal connection appealed to me. In the first half, we sing the music of Judith Weir (the current Master of the Queen’s Music) and Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, the only non-Briton to hold the post.
Malcolm Williamson was born in Sydney in 1931 and studied at the Sydney Conservatorium with Eugene Goossens. In 1950 he moved to London and remained there until his death in 2003. While it is not easy to classify him as an Australian composer based on domicile, his music, especially his choral music, offers an insight into his sense of Australian identity.
I chose two of his pieces, Symphony for Voices and Love, the Sentinel. Written in 1962, Symphony of Voices is a multi-movement work for unaccompanied choir set to text by Australian poet James McAuley. The explorers’ vision of Australia offered, reminiscent of Patrick White’s Voss, might seem to us now rather antiquated: ‘Voyage within you on the fabled ocean and you will find that southern continent’. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore it but instead examine it as part of our musical journey as Australians.
Of more enduring relevance is Love, the Sentinel. Williamson wrote this in 1972, amidst the electricity strikes and industrial unrest in Britain, during which a young man, Fred Matthews, was killed by a strike-breaking vehicle. Desolation and angst mingle in this haunting work for unaccompanied choir.
Judith Weir’s music is supremely well crafted for voices, and notably in the three works we perform. Love bade me welcome is set to text by the 17th century poet George Herbert (who also supplies the text for Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs which we sing later this year). To contrast, we sing a blue true dream of sky, the setting of ee cummings’ famous line, ‘I thank you god for most this amazing day’. Picking up the theme of our first concert in March, Music on Music, we perform The Song Sung True, a four-movement work which explores singing in different contexts – from ‘the littlest bird which sang for me’ to ‘every single thing sings’.
On the surface, this program may seem like a set of unlikely pairings based around an obscure royal court position. What it does, however, is explore how music is always part of a society. Old pieces can take on new meanings and relevance in new contexts – Handel’s setting of the Te Deum hymn doesn’t have to be a bellicose glorification of war but can represent for us a celebration of peace.
For A Royal Affair, the 30 singers of Sydney Chamber Choir work with The Muffat Collective expanded for the event into a 21 piece orchestra. It’s a concert which will certainly have impact.
Sam Allchurch is conducting A Royal Affair at the Great Hall at the University of Sydney on Saturday, 1st June at 7.30pm. More information.