Mark Williams on The Pillar of the Cloud
The choral tradition of the Anglican Church is a unique musical institution that is instantly recognisable to music lovers the world over, and among the main inheritors of this rich musical legacy are the collegiate choirs of Oxford and Cambridge. Under their new director of music Mark Williams, the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford have recorded a new album focusing on composers with a specific connection to the city. I spoke to Mark about his musical choices, and about the place held by Oxford and indeed Magdalen in this musical lineage.
The title of this album is presumably a reference to the imagery in Exodus of the pillars of fire and cloud leading the Israelites on, and Stainer’s anthem opening the album fits with this theme. Does this thread continue to run through the rest of the repertoire?
The Pillar of the Cloud is the title of the poem by Cardinal Newman set by Sir John Stainer in the opening anthem on this album. Whilst the reference is to the imagery of the pillars of cloud and fire leading the Israelites out of captivity, it’s also a title that seems to evoke something of Oxford, a city often entombed in cloud and fog, and whose dreaming spires are most romantically depicted rising from the mist. Whilst all of the repertoire on the album is sacred, it would be fair to say that the Exodus theme is not a unifying one. I have, instead, sought to select pieces that meditate on a range of emotions from despair and sorrow in Weelkes, to the ecstatic praise of Leighton’s setting of George Herbert’s text, hoping to capture not only the breadth of musical styles Oxford has witnessed over the centuries, but also the rich variety of texts that have been set by Oxford composers.
The roll-call of composers represented here is of enviable calibre – all with some concrete link to Oxford and many specifically to Magdalen. Do you think it’s simply the presence of so many high-quality foundations in one city that has stimulated such a high level of composition, or is there something more profound at work?
It is hard to avoid feeling some small sense of wonder in Oxford when treading the pavements and hallways that generations of scholars, scientists, writers, musicians and artists have trodden before us. In the earlier centuries of the University, Oxford and Cambridge were the obvious destinations for musicians of skill who sought an education. Weelkes and Tomkins were both enrolled for the B.Mus at New College and Magdalen respectively, but it’s not entirely clear quite how much they had to do with the university - Tomkins, for example, was the Organist of Worcester Cathedral whilst also a student at Oxford, and it is likely that he was found a place at Oxford as a result of an arrangement between the University and the Chapel Royal where he had been a chorister.
In more recent centuries, the situation was rather different and a number of distinguished composers became intrinsically linked to the city through their work in its colleges, as academics, composers or performers, and often all three. The likes of William Harris, Kenneth Leighton, Hubert Parry, Bernard Rose and Edmund Rubbra inspired generations of students through their teaching, and are names associated with Oxford over a long period of time. Others, like Lennox Berkeley and William Walton, enjoyed the more common experience – the three-year undergraduate degree – yet their names became entwined with the University, no doubt as they took what they had learnt there into the wider world.
It’s sometimes said that English music underwent a period of decline between the Renaissance and the era of Stanford onward, and indeed the lack of composers from the eighteenth century on this album seems to reinforce that. Was this an intentional artistic decision, or did you just find that the earlier and later periods offered more gems?
The repertoire of choral gems by composers with an Oxford connection over five hundred years (and we didn’t go further back to the likes of Davy, Appleby and others of the Eton Choirbook generation) could easily fill twenty discs. It’s true that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries didn’t yield as many fine composers as the sixteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the picture in Oxford perhaps reflects the broader picture in the country at that time. As a result, it was hard to justify including obscurities of historic interest. There were notable composers, of course – Daniel Purcell in the seventeenth century and William Hayes in the eighteenth century, were both at Magdalen – but Purcell’s music is largely instrumental, and a fine disc of anthems by Hayes has recently been produced by the Choir of Keble College, Oxford, so we felt safe leaving them alone for the time being! The disc doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive survey of music at Oxford – just a selection of pieces by composers who lived and worked here for a time and whom we celebrate in a rather eclectic collection. There could, quite easily, be a second volume…
Britain’s choral “market”, if it’s right to use such a crass term, is more crowded than ever; a true embarrassment of riches. Against a national backdrop dominated by two big Cambridge colleges, and within a city where others such as New College and Christ Church often enjoy much of the limelight, where does Magdalen fit in and what do you think makes it unique?
I think that the world of choral music has been greatly enriched by the recent profusion of vocal ensembles, many of them based in the UK, who hold themselves to the very highest standards of musicianship and professionalism. Our ‘raison d’être’ is very different – we sing seven services a week in the College Chapel with Choristers who attend school every day and Academical Clerks and Organ Scholars who are reading for undergraduate and graduate degrees in a range of subjects. Recordings, tours and concerts are a treat for the school holidays!
However, the increase in ‘competition’ and easy access to recordings are just two factors that have driven up the standard of cathedral and collegiate music-making significantly and we are deeply conscious that those who come to hear us sing Evensong on any given day have a choice of several fine choirs in beautiful chapels just yards away from our door. We know that somebody could be secretly recording on a phone during the anthem at Evensong, and we have to be confident that we would not be embarrassed were that to appear online the next day. But that is not our primary motivation. Ultimately, we seek to serve the local community and the College by providing public worship, aiming to complement the beauty of Magdalen’s magnificent, yet intimate, chapel with singing of the highest standards.
What you hear when you buy a disc of the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford should be what you would hear on any day of the week in the College’s chapel. We are a choir whose duty is the ‘opus dei’ and we devote our energy to that, first and foremost. Our sound is formed partly by the building in which we sing, and in larger part by the young voices that make up not only our treble line but also our ‘back rows’. I believe that brings a vibrancy, freshness and honesty to the sound, and I hope that might be an element of our character that appeals to listeners, but ultimately I hope that people might hear a choir that faithfully continues a tradition stretching back, unbroken, to 1480. Whether you can ‘hear’ that in the sound, I do not know, but I am deeply conscious of the work of my predecessors, from John Sheppard to Daniel Hyde via Daniel Purcell, John Stainer, Bernard Rose and many others far more distinguished than I. I feel honoured to be continuing their work as the latest Informator Choristarum.
Do you see the seeds being sown – at Magdalen and elsewhere within Oxford – of the next generation of composers who can take on the baton from Berkeley, Walton, Rose and other giants of the late twentieth century? Are there any emerging names you’d tip listeners to watch for the future?
I’m deeply excited by the range and depth of new choral music that’s appearing at a rapid rate these days. That sacred music for choirs is still very much a part of many composers’ portfolios is a tribute to the strength and vitality of our choral tradition. Merton College has engaged in important work with its Merton Choirbook project, and several other choirs have exciting commissioning schedules. We are blessed to have had a number of composers associated with Magdalen in recent years, including Grayston Ives (former Informator Choristarum), Matthew Martin (former Organ Scholar) and Roderick Williams (former Academical Clerk). In the wider university, there is exciting music being written all the time, and we enjoy singing works by current and recently-graduated students. I won’t nail my colours to the mast at this stage by naming names, not least because I believe that there’s huge potential for a disc of music by contemporary Oxford composers to complement The Pillar of the Cloud!