Christ Church Composers and Organists – The Next Generation

Posted on December 2, 2012


Ming played our opening hymn "All People That On Earth Do Dwell"

Ming played our opening hymn “All People That On Earth Do Dwell”

November was a very special month for our choir, not least the culmination of months of rehearsal, with the performance of our special 150th Anniversary Concert! As well as looking back at our history, we were also able to look forward. On 18th November we celebrated a baptism as part of the 10am Eucharist. Mia was the fourth generation of her family to be baptized in our church. It was also an extra special morning for two younger members of our choir.

Ming Xiu (16) who sings bass, is a talented musician and has been playing the piano for three years. On 18th November he sat at the organ console during a service for the first time; so faultless was his playing that you will not have realized that it was Ming, rather than David or Harvey, who played our opening hymn – The Old Hundredth ‘All People That On Earth Do Dwell.’ Based on Psalm 100, it is one of the most well-known melodies in our hymnal. His playing was as majestic and triumphal as the brass fanfare composed by Vaughan Williams to introduce the hymn when it was sung at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Ming says the biggest difference between playing the piano and the organ is the lightness of touch of the keys – and the lack of a sustain pedal means you have to play smoothly on the organ. We think Ming did a great job and we hope he takes to the console again soon!

Later in the service, after Mia’s baptism, we sang a setting of the Agnus Dei dedicated to our choir by the composer, Florence Butterfield (15) who sings alto. We asked Florrie how she set about composing the piece and how she felt when she heard it first performed at Christ Church:

My Agnus Dei – Florence Butterfield

Florrie composed the setting of the Agnus Dei which we sang on 18th November

Florrie composed the setting of the Agnus Dei which we sang on 18th November

Last summer, I went on a music course in Andorra run by ‘Languages and Music For Life’, where amongst other subjects I took composition lessons with William Godfree. Coincidentally, he taught with my Grandpa over twenty years ago and we discovered we share a passion for Flanders and Swann! In my first lesson he asked me which instruments I played and I told him I play the violin, viola and piano. He suggested that I might write a violin sonata or maybe a string quartet but when I mentioned that I sing in my church choir he proposed that I write an Agnus Dei.

After deciding on this, we looked at the words, which are clearly divided into three sections. I started by writing the melody, which begins ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis’. I fiddled around on the piano helplessly for a while, not knowing how to start. William told me that music needs to begin with something that captures the listener’s interest. I decided on a key, a time signature and a starting note before coming up with what seemed to me to be a rather feeble four-note theme. Did it ‘capture the listener’s interest’? I didn’t think so. Was it too simple? Boring? Unimaginative? I had a million other settings of these words going through my head at the same time, and to compete with Mozart, Byrd, Stanford, Schubert and Fauré suddenly seemed a very far-fetched undertaking. Somehow, though, I managed to compose the rest of the first section’s melody before the end of the lesson and instinctively knew that the hardest part was over.

On day two, I harmonised this opening melody, first deciding what chords to use, which was again challenging, then working out how best to distribute the chords between the Alto, Tenor and Bass parts, which I suddenly found much easier to do. Being an Alto in our Church Choir, I understand that the middle parts of the texture shouldn’t leap around too much, but at the same time must be interesting enough to satisfy the singers. I know which syllables of the text should be emphasised. I am aware of the approximate range of each part without thinking, and the general limit before the sopranos and tenors start complaining that a particular note or phrase is too high. For the first time I really appreciated just how much I’ve learnt since joining the Choir in September 2010.

As the days went by, the piece began to take shape. On day three I decided that the melody would stay the same in all three sections, but the harmony would change. On day five, I began to add the organ part. Because the organ can play notes with the feet as well as the hands, my hands were no longer big enough to play all the notes at once on the piano, and the following day I began transferring it onto the computer program, Sibelius, which not only makes the music neat, legible and ready for printing, but it can play back the music so you can get an idea of what your piece sounds like.On day eight I finally finished composing. I added dynamic markings (loud/soft), tempo markings (fast/slow) and phrasing, and then printed out forty-five copies in time for the piece to be sung later that day by the course choir. Although the fact that choir was compulsory (even for resident parents) meant that the sound produced was not always exquisitely beautiful, it did mean that every single person on the course heard and performed my composition. At first this was very daunting, but I was touched by the supportiveness of all my new friends, and began to think seriously about the possibility of showing it to Harvey and asking him if he would consider including it in a service at Southgate. So I was thrilled when Harvey agreed to conduct it on November 18th and felt so privileged to be given that opportunity and incredibly grateful to the Choir for singing it so beautifully.

Florence Butterfield