A guest post from Jane Shuttleworth
Among amateur musicians, we choral singers are an incredibly lucky bunch. We get to perform with top professional soloists, conductors and orchestras in the country’s best concert halls, without needing music college degrees and whilst still being able to do regular day jobs that pay the mortgage. When I was invited to contribute to this series, there were any number of memorable performances I could have chosen: my first ‘Messiah’, in the Royal Albert Hall; Bach Passions with professional baroque players; a Remembrance day War Requiem in Toronto; another ‘Messiah’ with Ben Heppner; Mahler’s Eighth Symphony… I’ve chewed through a fair proportion of the choral repertoire, but the piece I’ve chosen to write about comes from one of the works that has thus far eluded me – Haydn’s ‘Creation’.
The chorus, “The Heavens are telling” closes Part One of Creation; it was a staple of my church choir’s repertoire when I was a young girl soprano, and we often sang it either as an anthem during a service or at concerts. Everything about it delighted me, particularly the sheer exuberance of the opening phrases, and the madcap dash to the end when the words all tumble out with increasing urgency and the harmony ratchets up the tension; and the simple fact that it was really loud. But the contrasting trio sections with their graceful fluidity, their cast of angels and air of mystery enchanted me too.
To this day, it’s a bit of a mystery why I joined the choir: I think it was mainly to escape Sunday School, but I had always enjoyed trying to sing along with hymns. One of my earliest memories is standing on a pew next to my father, trying to sing a hymn and asking him what all the words meant. I wasn’t particularly good at singing – the school choir-mistress had made that quite clear. But David Strong, the choirmaster, was willing to take on any trebles who wanted a go, and he put in extra time with us before adult choir practice to help us learn our parts.
And this is really the point of this article. Thanks to that early experience of good Anglican choral music, I have spent my whole life singing in choirs; church and chapel choirs, big choral societies, and smaller chamber choirs. I’ve sung in big concert venues, a fair number of cathedrals and have been moved to all extremes of the emotional compass by music I’ve sung. And it’s all thanks to David Strong, that organist who took the time and effort to bring children into his church choir, and just as importantly to let us sing the same music as the grown-ups. This sort of thorough, accessible and (most importantly) free musical education is so hard to come by and should be valued, supported and lauded wherever it can be found.
I only realised just how grateful I was to David Strong when I heard last year that he was seriously ill, and I was glad that I had the opportunity to get back in touch and thank him. He died a few days before I sang my first St Matthew Passion, in Durham Cathedral, and some of the tears I shed during that concert were tears of gratitude.
We sang plenty of other good repertoire but “The Heavens are telling” captured my childhood imagination so strongly that it’s the piece that sums up my early choir years, and whenever I hear it, I think of my 10-year old self, singing out with more enthusiasm than accuracy, and still oblivious to just how much amazing music-making I had ahead of me. And if I ever get to sing Creation, I’ll be thinking of David…and probably resisting the temptation to attempt the soprano line that I used to sing with such delight.
Jane Shuttleworth is a singer, recorder player and writer, reviewing
for Bachtrack, Early Music Review and her own local music website
Music in Durham (www.musicdurham.co.uk). She currently sings alto in
The Durham Singers, a 40-voice chamber choir specialising in
unaccompanied music, and in Voces Usuales, an occasional cathedral
‘Music Notes’ is a new occasional series, mostly comprised of guest posts, in which contributors discuss favourite or significant concerts, performances, artists, recordings or musical experiences. More ‘Private Passions’ than ‘Desert Island Discs’, the series is an opportunity for people to share their love of music and attempt to explain why certain pieces, places and artists have such distinct resonances and associations for them. Further information about the series here: