World premiere of David Lancaster’s ‘Of Trumpets and Angels’

On 29 June, 7:30, 2019, the Oxford Harmonic Choir will perform the world premiere of David Lancaster’s work for soprano soloist, chorus, and orchestra Of Trumpets and Angels at Oxford’s Town Hall.

Lancaster writes, ‘Of Trumpets and Angels is a setting of two ‘Holy Sonnets’ by John Donne:

At the round earth’s imagined corners, and

Death be not proud

They are sung without a break, the two parts connected by a short orchestral interlude. I chose to use almost exactly the same orchestra as Mozart employed for his Requiem, initially for reasons of expediency (hoping that it might facilitate future performances!), but the darker sound of an orchestra without flutes and oboes – and which includes a sonorous trio of trombones – certainly shaped my conception of the work, and, to a certain extent, my interpretation of Donne’s text. The only addition to Mozart’s orchestra is the solitary woodblock, which reminds us of the passing of time.

The first part is quick, pulsing and assertive, although the first entry of the soprano soloist introduces a more reflective tone. The interlude, with its mechanical insistence could be seen to represent the relentless progress of time or a transition to a darker state. The second part is slower and altogether less certain, in spite of Donne’s apparent conviction that death has been conquered.

The sonnet is an intense, concentrated poetic form and every word is laden with meaning so I was concerned to develop a full understanding of the text before I became firmly committed to any musical ideas; Donne reminds us of life’s challenges and complexities. These sonnets are both meditations on death, with firm emphasis on the Christian belief in resurrection as triumph over death, but to the modern reader (or at least, to me) there is a sense that Donne ‘doth protest too much’; his assertion that ‘death shall be no more’ seems much more of an aspirational longing than a statement of fact – and my music in the second part reflects this interpretation.

Previous settings of these words, including Benjamin Britten’s song cycle, respect the metrical structure of the sonnet and do not permit repetition of words, but for this work I have taken a more relaxed approach in order to shape the musical form. In my music I often make quite extensive use of repetition to provide recognisable landmarks which can act as pillars supporting the structures and as signposts to direct the listener through the musical labyrinth. So, for example, in the first part I attempt to create a sense of resolution at the close by repeating the words and music of the beginning, and in the second part the opening words ‘death be not proud’ become a sort of refrain.

I am delighted and proud that the Oxford Harmonic Choir has given me the opportunity to set this wonderful text, and grateful for the choir’s bold and imaginative programming which has allowed this performance to take place. Special thanks must go to Robert Secret and Sarah Redgwick, along with all members of the choir and orchestra, for bringing the music to life.

I would like to dedicate ‘Of Trumpets and Angels’ to the memory of David Cutter, my former music teacher at the Deanery High School in Wigan, because it was David who introduced me to the world of cantatas and oratorios, and who taught me all I know of harmony and voice leading. He provides a connection with Oxford because he was music scholar at Keble College, and he also provides me with a link to Mozart through our teachers: I studied with David Cutter who studied with Francis Jackson, who studied with Edward Bairstow, who studied with Frederick Bridge, who studied with John Goss, who studied with Thomas Atwood, who was one of the very few English pupils of Mozart!’

Within this concert, the theme of death and redemption in the Sonnets is continued in Mozart’s moving Requiem which draws on all his operatic and dramatic powers. With a poignancy deepened by the fact that Mozart himself died before its completion, it is full of memorable moments of yearning, awe and exquisite consolation.

We would urge all of our followers to attend what therefore promises to be a fantastic premiere. Tickets to this concert can consequently be purchased here

(10 Jun 2019)

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