It Was Only the Angels Who Sang (2005)
Three Voices, Actor, Clarinet, Cello & Piano, 45'
- Mary and God
- The Genealogy of Blood
- St John
The work started life following a successful concert given in London in December 2004 by Joe and sopranos Sarah Gabriel and Eleanor Rastall. The programme for that concert was selected from the wonderful, yet small, Christmas song repertoire - as distinct from the large-scale choral works such as Handel's Messiah. This threw light upon a gap in the repertoire for a unified chamber work on a Christmas theme.
Joe approached Adam Goodyer, a friend and former collaborator, whom he had met when the two were undergraduates at Oxford University. Adam agreed to provide the text for the song cycle, and the two of them set to work on the ambitious project of retelling the Nativity.
Adam began to develop his ideas whilst working in consultation with Father Nicholas King SJ, of Campion Hall, Oxford University. The intention behind the text was to offer a more dramatic, less sentimental presentation of the Nativity. The poems attempt to construct a version of the story which vividly evokes the experiences of the characters, bringing out the darker and more mysterious dimensions of the narrative, whilst also taking account of contemporary historical fact. After all, this is a story which contains powerful mythical meanings which should be accessible for the religious and irreligious alike, whereas in its sentimental guise, these are hidden from both.
The music expands the traditional Lieder format of one singer and keyboard to encompass three voices and a chamber ensemble of clarinet, cello and piano. The music also draws upon the intimate story-telling tradition in Classical song, as well as its dramatic and, at times, operatic mode of delivery. The use of multiple performers, as well as creating opportunities for ensemble singing, allows for several off-stage effects (used especially to convey the music of the angels). An actor has been added to the ensemble to bear the voices of the Shepherds and of St John. This multiplicity of voices and techniques serves to highlight the theatrical and emotional intensity of the story.
The work received its world premiere on 4th December 2005 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, where the performers were Sarah Gabriel (soprano), Eleanor Rastall (soprano), Maciek O'Shea (baritone), Stephen Clark (clarinet), Jane Rimer (cello) and Joseph Atkins (piano).