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Video Interview, Daniel Hyde on Lenten, Passiontide and Easter music from King's

Daniel HydeThe Choir of King's College Cambridge is, of course, world-renowned for its Christmas broadcasts, which reach vast numbers of music-lovers all around the world each year. But there's far more to the church's year than Christmas, and the dramatic events retraced every Spring in the runup to Easter have inspired at least as much magnificent sacred music over the centuries as Christmas has - works ranging from the depths of despair to untrammelled joy.

Now the Green Blade Riseth, the Choir's latest release, features a mixture of well-loved repertoire and more rarely-heard works for Lent, Passiontide and Easter; Director of Music Daniel Hyde managed to find a few minutes amid his busy pre-Easter schedule to chat to me about descants, plainsong, the transatlantic connection, vocal training and much more.

Famously, carol service treble soloists are chosen at the last second with a tap on the shoulder. Do you extend this approach (egalitarian yet terrifying!) to other contexts, such as the solo section in Ireland’s Greater Love recorded here?

The only reason for doing that on Christmas Eve is to stop the boy - and perhaps even more so the boy's parents - becoming anxious. Three or four kids will be auditioned on Christmas Eve, and then I'll have a fairly clear idea in my head at lunchtime. In fact it's not so much a tap on the shoulder as just pointing to whichever child it is to step forward.

So in the normal course of events, no. I would always make sure that there's more than one person ready for any solo, so for some of the solos on this recording there would have been two or three people ready - one as the likely contender but a couple as understudies. That's sort of common sense in that it takes the pressure off the boys, and it also avoids - which I'm always keen to avoid - this idea that there might be one or two boys who are always the soloists.

I think it's a mistake, if I have a really good boy, to rely on him for the majority of the solos, because I've also got to be nurturing the next generation. There are also different types of repertoire; a lot of the English Tudor verse services that we do during the term, but that we might not necessarily put in a concert or a recording, they're slightly less public and slightly less high-profile, and there's a chance for a child to maybe not do it perfectly, but to learn from that experience. It's not always the case that a soloist drops the mic every time.

Many listeners will do a double-take on hearing Lotti’s gorgeous six-part setting of the Crucifixus, rather than the frequently-performed version in eight parts. What led you to subvert the normal expectations by choosing this piece over its more famous companion?

The genesis of this disc was really around the television programme that we make, Easter from King's. During Covid, in December 2020 when that show was to be filmed, we actually had Covid in the back row, and we had to stand down our choral scholars and we brought the King's Singers in. So we made this CD to try and capitalise on the work that we'd done that we then couldn't follow through on in the filming. One of the decisions would have been with the television editors, when that programme was being planned, to try and do something that might not necessarily be all the old favourites but also might not necessarily be completely unknown to people. It's the same little box of tricks, really, around the same text.

Why did I choose the six-part? Well, I just thought that King's has done the famous eight-part one many times - it was something that we hadn't done, so I thought there was enough novelty but also coupled with some familiarity.

The use of descants to enhance Christmas carols is a key part of that festival; adding them to Good Friday hymns, which are often deeply moving rather than gloriously celebratory, might seem less obvious. How widely do you incorporate descants into worship over the course of the year?

It's interesting with these specific Passiontide hymns, and we've actually been talking about it only last week when we finalised the liturgies for Holy Week here at King's. I suppose it's a mistake to think of a descant as being just a crowd-pleaser at Christmas; as you say, they are quite moving, and liturgically they can work extremely well even when the season itself is penitential and meant to be a little bit more low-key. I do remember, before coming to King's when I worked at St Thomas Fifth Avenue, that the Holy Week liturgies there were extraordinarily elaborate. Some of these descants I've brought with me from there, and others I've found elsewhere. But they did work rather well, because they give a different sense. They're not like the end of the Christmas carol service, and I think the secret to a good descant is to have good tune to begin with, the thing that you are descanting, and some of these Easter hymns I think are extremely powerful and don't need a descant. So if they're going to have one it has to add something.

You’ve included a work by T Frederick Candlyn, who for many years led the music at St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York (as you yourself did); is this a further nod to the great affection you’ve previously remarked on among Americans for the King’s choral tradition?

I suppose it is; the Candlyn piece is not an Elgar symphony but it's still worth hearing! There is a little nod in that; it's a hymn-anthem, so it's a tune that people would recognise. Like you say, King's has this extraordinary exposure in the States, and that comes from the Christmas broadcast - the Christmas Eve service is taken by over four hundred radio stations across the US, so the interest does come a lot from that. But I think there's always repertoire for us to discover, and this is just one of a handful of things that I brought with me in my case, and just thought it would sound rather good in that chapel with that organ and that choir.

As the “closing voluntary” to this album we hear Duruflé’s transcription of one of Charles Tournemire’s incredible chant-based organ improvisations. Tournemire himself did not write these improvisations down; how did Duruflé manage to capture them as written-out pieces for posterity to enjoy?

The things that Tournemire did write included a cycle of chant-based compositions for the entire liturgical year. Like so many French organists he was born out of improvisation, and I think he must have been recorded whilst improvising. It would probably have been a "mono" recording! But Duruflé transcribed, I think, five of these, of which this is one. In the same way that David Briggs, a famous former King's organ scholar, transcribed a whole load of improvisations by Pierre Cochereau at Notre Dame - there is a kind of culture of learning your craft from transcribing these things. Playing around with the notes on the page. You can see that Duruflé learned a lot from doing that, and was himself a very fine improviser.

Besides Tournemire’s improvisation on Victimae Paschali, there’s plenty of other plainsong-derived music here, reflecting its place as the common musical inheritance of the Western churches; how much use do you make of plainsong itself in the liturgy at King’s?

It's actually something that Stephen Cleobury introduced a lot of when he came to King's from Westminster Cathedral, so if you come to King's on a regular Sunday during termtime you will hear all the Propers of the Mass - the texts specific to that day - sung to chant in Latin, which is kind of unusual because the rest of the service is not particularly Catholic. It's quite regular Anglican. That's quite a nice kind of hybrid. Why did he do that? I suppose there was an educational aspect to it, but also it's such beautiful music, which just wafts around our building.

I'm fascinated by chant, and I've introduced a little bit more of it since coming here, so whilst maintaining what Stephen introduced we've also done things during Lent that have used a lot of chant, which means I've been able to teach the children how to read it - because obviously the notation is different. But the main reason for doing it, in my mind, is that it teaches a really keen sense of line. You're always wanting your choirs to sing with a sustained line, and in a building like King's it's very easy to rely on the acoustic to provide that, and of course with chant, when it's just a single line, you can't rely on the building. It's been both a creative and an educational endeavour, which seems to be going down well. As an educational tool not just for the children but also for the adults, who are themselves undergraduates. Some of them come with quite a bit of experience, some of them not as much - it really is a kind of training that's very valuable.

Archive recordings included on 2018’s centenary album demonstrated the choir’s changing tone over the years, with different directors of music favouring styles ranging from delicate to full-throated. Do you have a particular vision for the choir’s overall sound?

This is always a tricky subject, because people have this idea that there is the "King's sound", and it's predicated on the idea that what Willcocks was doing when recordings became more commonplace is the King's sound. But if you were to compare some of the Willcocks recordings with, say, some Ledger recordings, they sound quite different. Or if you were to compare early Cleobury with later Cleobury the sound changes. I think there is a sound which is, if you like, linked to the building and the fabric - the sound of the chapel - but the sound of the choir does change - it develops depending on who's in it and who's directing it. But my concept of sound is also based on what sort of music we're singing at a given time, so I quite like to investigate and play around with different sounds for Schütz compared to, say, Lennox Berkeley.

I could get shot for saying this, but I think my concept is perhaps different to some of my predecessors' - but also different from some of the people who, if you like, subscribe to the "King's sound". For me, the enjoyment is finding different sounds for different styles of music, and it all comes out of what the music itself suggests, and how that sound can give the colour of the language and the sonorities of the music that are there, prompted by the words. I try to go for a broad palette of colours that might be different depending on the repertoire, but then again it depends who you've got in the choir. Our back row, our adult members, are earlier on in their careers than, say, some of the other equivalent professional choirs that we're often compared to, so there is a different sound, and it's how to harness that younger sound, how to make it colourful, how to make it interesting, how to train it... it's a weird thing that the work is never done. I'm sure if I were to listen back to this recording now, I might think "well, it doesn't sound like that any more" - it's a work in progress.

Interestingly, I do find that with the children, there is an element of handing-on; we spend so much time working together, doing very detailed work in the song school, and initially you're teaching children not only how to use the voice that they've got, and developing that voice, but you're also teaching them how to read and how to understand the emotive content of the music. It's a kind of additive process, and by the time they get to their penultimate and last years, they're fully formed and they do hand that down to the younger years - so there is a consistency which is part of the challenge. And because they start as such a blank slate, arguably it comes with greater responsibility, because you're setting them up. That's what I see my job as doing - setting them up for a love of music that they will have for life. Some of them may go on to be professional musicians, but some of them might not, and they need to take away the best positive experience from all of this.

Choral Music For Easter

Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Daniel Hyde

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC