In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

Proms premiere – Cheryl Frances-Hoad


The Beginning of the World by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood (Proms Chamber Music 1)

Duration: 10 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

What’s the story behind the piece?

Talking in an interview for this site, Cheryl Frances-Hoad explains:

“The Cardinall’s Musick wanted a piece for eight voices (double SATB choir) (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) that was a homage to Tallis, and about 7 minutes long (I ended up writing a piece that’s closer to 9 minutes). They suggested some words (I eventually selected my own) but were otherwise completely free about how I should approach the commission.

Tallis lived in Greenwich towards the end of his life, which lead me on to reading about the refinements of timekeeping and the calendar during his lifetime, which then lead on to discovering that there was a major astrological event that happened whilst he was alive…which came to symbolize (to me) the massive changes that occurred during Tallis’s lifetime (including for instance the Reformation)…which lead to discovering Tycho Brahe’s (A Danish astronomer) ‘Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’….

Read the full interview here

Did you know?

Cheryl was chosen as a featured composer on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week (‘Five under 35, March 2015)

Initial verdict

The first and immediately striking thing about From the Beginning of the World was the relevance of the words to today’s climate. In a week where NASA received ground breaking pictures of Pluto and Charon this tale of an earlier astronomical event – the ‘comet with a very long tail’ resonated strongly, especially with its talk of ‘Mighty and destructive wind storms’, ‘Poisonings of the air’ and ‘Terrible earthquakes’.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music only enhanced the dramatic impact. Written as a homage to Tallis its acappella setting carried the same freedom through the air – but here the harmonies were daring, rich with added notes, the most distinctive melodies tending to use wide leaps and drops. This heightened the feeling of unease – especially when the tritone was used to highlight the ‘great wars and bloodsheddings’.

The end of the text is curious, the author questioning suddenly that the comet might not destroy the earth after all – but the damage has been done in all the worrying beforehand, and it was on this that Frances-Hoad’s music really made its mark.

The performance, subtly directed by Andrew Carwood, was one of clarity and pure intensity.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Cheryl has a Soundcloud site, where you can hear another of her works for choir, This is A Blessing:

Proms Interview: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World

Cheryl Frances-Hoad Photography by Mat Smith Photography

Ahead of an appraisal of her new piece on this site, here is an interview with composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad about The Beginning of the World, a commission for the BBC Proms – to be performed in the company of the music of Thomas Tallis. Cheryl talked with Arcana about rubbing shoulders with one of the greats of English music – and the thrill of writing for the BBC Proms:

When did the BBC approach you with this commission?

Actually it was the Cardinall’s Musick who approached me, in March of last year (my piece isn’t an official BBC commission, although it is a Prom Premiere. Originally my new work was supposed to be premiered in Leeds, but the timings didn’t work out, so, it was decided that it would be premiered at the Proms instead. Leeds is a wonderful city, but in this case I’m glad the original premiere date didn’t work out! 🙂

Was there a particular brief?

Yes, the Cardinall’s Musick wanted a piece for eight voices (double SATB choir) (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) that was a homage to Tallis, and about 7 minutes long (I ended up writing a piece that’s closer to 9 minutes). They suggested some words (I eventually selected my own) but were otherwise completely free about how I should approach the commission.

In the Proms guide the working title for your new work was ‘Homage to Tallis’. At what point did it become ‘From the Beginning of the World’?

At the time we had to list the piece in the Proms brochure, I still had absolutely no idea what the piece was going to be called (or, I think, what text I was going to use – I only finished the piece on the 20th June!)

I got a bit stuck when I began to think about this piece – Tallis is such a wonderful composer but I found a lots of the texts he set, well, a bit boring (mostly because a large amount were in Latin). I wanted to find an exciting text that was somehow relevant to Tallis and contemporary times, but for about a month I was utterly stuck.

I plodded through a two foot high pile of books about Tallis but got nowhere. But, little by little (and at this stage with quite a lot of help from Google) I started connecting things – Tallis lived in Greenwich towards the end of his life, which lead me on to reading about the refinements of timekeeping and the calender during his lifetime, which then lead on to discovering that there was a major astrological event that happened whilst he was alive…which came to symbolize (to me) the massive changes that occurred during Tallis’s lifetime (including for instance the Reformation)…which lead to discovering Tycho Brahe’s (A Danish astronomer) ‘Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’….

Where does the text come from?

Tycho Brahe‘s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577.  I spent several weeks in libraries attempting to find a suitable text. Whether Tallis knew about the comet is unknown of course, but this seismic event, to me, seemed emblematic of all the great changes that occurred during his lifetime, in areas such as religion, the calendar, and time-keeping (finding out that Tallis lived out his last days in Greenwich was an extra bonus).

The text also seems to speak to contemporary times: whilst Brahe may have thought the comet’s birth would cause the sun to ‘bring unnatural heat’, nowadays we know that its ‘venom [will be] spewed over the lands’ due to mankind’s continued pillaging of the earth’s natural resources, a fact which our political ‘pseudo-prophets’ seem to deem less important than saving us from a false austerity.

The full text of From the Beginning of the World

Then it comes to pass that something new is born in the heavens

Contrary to the custom of nature
And all mankind holds it to be a great wonder.

Videte Miraculum  (Behold the miracle)
A miracle of the heavens.

From the beginning of the world
From the uppermost sphere of the fixed stars
This new birth reveals itself
A comet with a very long tail.
Something new can be generated in the heavens.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto (Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost)

But what do such unnatural births mean?

Creator caeli et terrae! (Creator of Heaven and Earth),
Respice humilitatem nostram (Be mindful of our lowliness)
Peccavi (Have mercy)

Great mortality among mankind.
Mighty and destructive wind storms
Poisonings of the air
Terrible earthquakes
Great harm by fire.

Great mortality among mankind.
The sun will bring unnatural heat
The sun will bring harmful, unnatural heat
It will spew its venom over the lands

Great mortality among mankind
Gruesome pestilence
Incurable pains

Those who deal with political regimes
Will be much stifled
(Creator caeli et terrae)
Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets
(Respice humilitatem nostram)
Will be punished, punished.

Great wars and bloodsheddings.
Miserere Nostri  (Have mercy on us)

However, there are actually no reliable grounds
For predicting the end of the world from this comet.
It thus behooves us to use well our short life here on earth,
So that we may praise him for all eternity.
Our short life here on earth…

The music itself is very influenced by Tallis, and canons and imitation abound. During my time as a ‘cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, I performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis many times, and so From the Beginning of the World, which also uses Tallis’s Third Mode Melody from the English Hymnal, is really a homage to both composers.

How would you describe the piece?

At this point of interview I haven’t heard the piece yet (I have to wait until Saturday 18th to hear it for the first time!) But, I hope it is a tremendously dramatic piece, perhaps a bit melodramatic! (also see paragraph above this question…)

Is it daunting knowing the work will be performed around such a well-loved work as Spem in alium, or does that become an inspiration as it is a homage to Tallis himself?

It was inspiring when I was composing, but now it’s daunting. It’s silly, I’ve written far bigger pieces than the one that’s to be premiered on the 20th, but I have to say I’m getting incredibly nervous for this premiere! I really hope I haven’t gone and written a dud! However! I’ve consciously both based this piece closely on Tallis, AND tried to do some things that are very different in style – so, at the very least, my piece will stand out hopefully!

How does it feel to be writing a piece for the Proms?

Really exciting!

Does it help that the concert is available on the iPlayer afterwards, for people to get a chance to properly get to know the piece?

Absolutely! And this year, all the Proms are also downloadable which is wonderful! Particularly as my piece is being performed at lunchtime, I imagine many people won’t be able to listen live, so it’s so wonderful to be able to nag people to listen to it on iPlayer for 30 days after the premiere!

The BBC are actively encouraging new music with programs like ‘Five Under 35’ – do you feel the corporation is stronger than ever in its support for current composers at the Proms?

I’m not really sure to be honest – I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have been chosen as one of the Five under 35 (as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations) and feature in the Proms – but I’m not sure how connected the two are.

You can listen to the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s FromThe Beginning of the World as part of the first Proms Chamber Music concert of the season, given by the Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood, by clicking here

You will shortly be able to hear Cheryl’s thoughts on how it went – and an Arcana appraisal – on the site in the next few days.

For more information on Cheryl you can visit her website – and as a taster here is a recent YouTube post of her Mazurka for violin and piano: