Introduction

Charles enjoys collaborating with musicians, and in recent years has established himself as a powerful lyricist and librettist, principally through his work with leading choral composer Bob Chilcott. Charles and Bob always have something they are working on – but this does not preclude other composers approaching Charles from time to time, and this is a welcome addition to his portfolio of work. For example, Charles has recently begun to work with Francis Pott and has also has a poem set by Ian Venables. As more work emerges from these fruitful partnerships, the pages will be updated.

Click on a title for the full text, more information, a programme note if available, and (for those who may wish to purchase a score) links to the publisher’s websites.

Musical Collaborations  Click each title to see more
The Advent Candle The Miracle of the Spring
As the Bells Ring The November Piano
Five Days that Changed the World The Rose in the Middle of Winter
Furasato The Seeds of Stars
Hands Across the Darkness The Sparrow’s Carol
Marriage to My Lady Poverty Swimming Over London

AsTheBellsRing

As the Bells Ring 

Snow will fall at Christmas time
As the bells ring,
Snow to bring us peace of mind
As the bells sing.

Let the Christmas bells ring free
Ring to sing the mystery
Ring, ring, ring the Christmas bells!

Birds will sing at Christmas time
As the bells ring,
Birds like angels in the sky
As the bells sing.

Gifts will come at Christmas time
As the bells ring,
Gifts from God to all mankind
As the bells sing.

Christ will come at Christmas time
As the bells ring,
Christ the man and Christ divine
As the bells sing.

With a lively tempo, dance-like rhythms, and bright harmonies, Chilcott’s music perfectly expresses the festive joy of this original Christmas text by Charles Bennett. The uplifting melody is interspersed with jubilant bell-like tones, and the driving chords in the piano add an underlying sense of excitement. A real Christmas gift for choirs!

Programme Note – As the Bells Ring

I was once fortunate enough to witness a bell being smelted. This was at the famous old John Taylor foundry in Loughborough, on a day of terrible weather. When I came to celebrate this event in a poem (‘The Storm Bell’) I expressed my feeling that weather and bell had somehow become inter-fused. It is this linking of sound with event that energises ‘As the Bells Ring’. It is probably impossible to be certain how the bond of bells and religious experience became established. Bells feature in so many forms of worship across the globe we have no choice but to acknowledge this special relationship as uniquely potent. Bells perform the function of speaking  – a voice which summons us to church, celebrates our marriage, dignifies Mass, and counts down our years as we are put to rest in the grave. The divine voice of bells has now been largely transferred to their function as announcers of the time – but each day at six o’clock on BBC Radio the sonorous boom of Big Ben adds a visceral resonance to the news – dignifying the affairs of humans with a majestic tone as if to provide the secular with a sheen of something deeper.

However the bells reach us – through chiming gongs in old clocks, or the bleeps of alarms which squeak and squawk in electronic mimicry of their ancestors – bells retain their significance. It is this moment of announcement, a profound shout of joy, which I found myself reflecting on as I wrote ‘As the Bells Ring’. The white vowels of snow which speak of winter, the angelic notes of birdsong, and the promise of gifts, are all combined in this carol. Perhaps I was hoping for something like the function of a bell as I wrote the words. In their silent potency as they rest, in their names and messages, their pealing combinations and chiming harmonics – and especially in their fusion of enormous weight with lightness and grace of tone – bells combine gravitas with clarity. Day by day they have something to tell us still.

Furasato

Five Japanese Songs 

Furasato (My Home)

Hometime

Dreaming I saw the green mountains again
Rivers so clear where I swam as a boy
Playing in the water and running in the mountains
My home is calling, calling to me.

Father will sing in our garden again
Mother will smile like a blossoming rose
Voices like rainfall on midsummer’s evening
As if the garden were calling my name.

Dream of tomorrow and I shall be home
Home where my childhood is waiting for me
Playing in the water and running in the mountains
My home is calling, calling to me.


 

Momiji (Coloured Leaves)

Watercolour

Brush-strokes of leaves are painting the mountain
I watch them turn from apricot to umber
In the glow of late September
I see the mountain shiver and glimmer.

Drifting on the wind of the stream
Lifted and released in peach and primrose
Just like a dress you wear once only
Autumn is painting leaves on the water.

Autumn is painting leaves.


 

Mura Matsuri (the Village Festival)

Fruit on the Tree

This is the morning when the villagers will sing
Sing in the morning to the Spirit of the Year
Don don hyalala Don hyalala
Drumming in the celebration, piping in the joy

We are the harvest on the spreading village tree
We are the harvest that is glowing in the sun
Don don hyalala Don hyalala
Drumming in the celebration, piping in the joy

We are ever thankful for the promise of the year
Pouring your blessings on the people of this land
Don don hyalala Don hyalala
Drumming in the celebration, piping in the joy

Don don hyalala Don hyalala
Drumming in the celebration, piping in the joy.


 

Oborozukiyo (Hazy-moonlit night)

Dancing with the Moon

This yellow field in front of me is nothing but a blur
Those hills on the horizon may be clouds for all I care
The moon’s a drowning opal in a sky of cooling blue
The scent of spring upon the breeze has come to speak of you.

The windows in my village are a primrose-glimmer now
The dress you wore so long ago was like the moon when new
And here’s a bell that’s rolling the time along its tongue
To tell me I must dance the moon as I did when I was young.

To tell me I must dance the moon as I did when I was young.


 

Sunayama (Sand Dunes)

Sparrows in the Storm

Waves on the sand are falling, falling from the evening sky
Sparrows are shreds of darkness; darkness flies on feathers of night.
Birds in the storm are clinging; clinging at night like sparrows in the cold.

Under our feet are sand dunes; under our feet, the shifting sand.
Stars are blown like sparrows; stars are flown on darkening wind.
Leaves on the storm we scatter; lost on the wing, no place to land.

Fly to my hand like a sparrow; fly to my hand, I’ll shelter you.
Storms will be gone tomorrow; waves will sing a lullaby.
Waters caress the shingle; breezes kiss beneath our wings.

I provided English translations for these five haunting Japanese folk songs, fitting them to the existing melody, and trying to capture, in my adaptations of the original, something both hauntingly evocative of the Japanese texts and also providing a contemporary nuance of English lyricism. Each song examines a different aspect of folk tradition: Sand Mountain, Village Festival, Blurred Moon, Homeland, Maple Leaves. My personal favourite of these pieces is ‘Dancing with the Moon’, my own variation on a captivating original text.

 

FiveDays

Five Days That Changed The World

Five days that changed the world 1

Thursday 29th March 1455: The Invention of Printing

Chorus: The quick brown fox. Quick brown fox.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

I saw them walking like footprints in the snow.
Saw them walking into houses all over the world.
Open the door of the eye and let them in.

I saw each letter. Saw each letter like a person.
Z was lonely and E was everyone’s friend.
I watched them gather together into words.

I knew if I took the letters one by one.
Knew if I held them tight in forty-two lines.
They could speak to everyone everywhere.

In the beginning there were footprints over the page.
The footprints of a fox who jumps.
Into your eye and over the lazy dog.

Five days that changed the world 2

Friday 1st August 1834: The abolition of slavery

Sometimes a piece of paper. A piece of white paper.
Can set a person free. Just a few words.
A few words written in black ink
on white paper. Can set a nation free.

Sometimes one person. One good person.
Can set a nation free. Just a few words.
A few words written on the open page
of the human heart. Can set a people free.

Give me the good words. Make me the right person.
Give me a piece of paper to set me free.
Pure words written on my open heart.
Just a few words can set me free.

Five days that changed the world 3

Monday 14th December 1903: The first powered flight

A thought can learn to fly if you give it wings.
I said to Orville Perhaps.
Maybe if perhaps we might possibly try.
And we did. And it was. Difficult.

Below us the ground was green and heavy with failure.
Ready to break our fall.
But a thought will fly sometimes if you give it wings.
I said to Wilbur Why not?

Most everything that could went wrong before.
But it pulled us up in the end.
We said to each other Let’s toss for who goes first.
And we did. And it was. Glorious.

We carried it back to the top of Kill Devil Hill.
How many times? I forget.
But we did and it was and it is and there you have it.
Sometimes a dream will fly.

Five days that changed the world 4

Friday 28th September 1928: The discovery of penicillin

Green/blue. It was green/blue.
I happened upon it. Stumbled across it.
It wasn’t supposed to be there but there it was.
Sometimes you find what you’re looking for
Where you never thought it would be.

Thrown away. It was nearly thrown away.
I clettered the dishes. Washed the pots.
I thought there was something wrong but it turned out right.
Sometimes where you never thought it would be
There’s what you’ve been looking for all along.

Holiday. Just back from holiday.
It was meant to be. Serendipity.
What went wrong had gone as right as rain.
Sometimes what you’re looking for will find you.
Sometimes what seems wrong was right all along.

Blue/green. It was blue/green.
I hope you find what you’re looking for.
Hope what you’re looking for finds you.

Five days that changed the world 5

Wednesday 12th April 1961: The first man in space

I saw how beautiful our planet is.
Seventeen thousand miles an hour.
They thought I might go mad.
But I saw the face of God.

The son of a carpenter circling round the Earth.
I saw how beautiful our planet is.
April twelfth nineteen sixty one.
Stars are the alphabet of God.

One hundred and eight minutes.
Can it be that you have come from outer space?
Well yes and I’ve seen something beautiful.
Keep this beauty safe and let it grow.

Stars are the smile of God.
His face was the Earth looking back.
Five hundred and twenty people
Have seen how beautiful it is.

Setting a newly written text by Charles, this fifteen-minute choral work takes singers on a journey through five historical events: the invention of printing, the abolition of slavery, the first powered flight, the discovery of penicillin, and the first man in space. In each movement, music and words come together to create a strikingly vivid and personal account of each protagonist’s experience, from the printer seeing ‘each letter like a person’ to the astronaut commenting on the beauty of our planet from space. Chilcott’s music is as captivating as ever, with energy in abundance alongside moments of clarity and stillness. 

Programme Note – Five Days that Changed the World

When I was first approached by Bob Chilcott to write the words for this series of five songs, he already had a strong sense of content: each element should focus on a historic moment of human achievement and be rooted in a positive or enlightening activity which represented the creative vitality and potentiality of our species. Each song would celebrate our inventiveness. We quickly sketched out, in a burst of excitement, a variety of possible options, and it was only when I began work on the piece that these moments came to rest. A number of creative challenges presented themselves – the first of which was how to unify these five disparate historical events. In the end I resolved this by setting most of the poems in the voice of the historical figures involved, which provided me with the opportunity to engage imaginatively with Johannes Guttenberg, The Wright brothers, Alexander Fleming and Yuri Gagarin. I found this process fascinating – and I incorporated a little of my background research into each poem. 

The first song combines references to Guttenberg’s famous 42-line Bible (‘In the beginning’ echoes the first words of Genesis) with the surreality of the ‘quick brown fox’ sentence, which was used to teach touch-typing, since it incorporates all the letters of the alphabet. The Wright brothers actually flew from Kill Devil Hill, penicillin was discovered during washing up, and Yuri Gagarin spoke some of the lines freely translated and incorporated (along with other moments of information) directly into the poem.

As the central characters started to speak, the verbal energy of their voices took shape as a series of dramatic monologues. But as I continued to explore the potential of the piece something strange happened: I found that I was not simply speaking for them, I was speaking through them. The poems achieve authenticity through incorporating moments of personal meaning. My love of letters and words radiates in the first song, and the aeroplane is seen as the tangible result of an original conception in much the same way as a poem is a linguistic contraption designed to fly in your mind. The fourth piece touches on the nature of artistic as well as scientific discovery and the final piece uses elements from my engagement with ecology and the environment. 

Overall, three songs engage with our tool-using ability which has resulted in the current dominance of technological innovation: we move from the invention of movable type which gave us printing (and, via the mass-production of books, educational possibilities for millions) through powered flight to the first man in space. The other two songs emphasise other fundamental aspects of behaviour. The discovery of penicillin, a happy accident, represents advances in medicine. The abolition of slavery however is neither an accidental discovery nor ultimately attributable to one person: it is the slow and deliberate victory of human compassion over human greed, and shows how empathy may sometimes triumph over profitability. And so the second piece is not voiced for any one individual because the abolition of slavery, and indeed the continuing struggle for racial equality and human rights, is not the sole responsibility of any one person but of us all. The language of a legal document – a language made common to all though Guttenberg – may seem very different from the language of a poem, but both can, in their own ways, set us free. Let us hope that our personal achievements continually incline towards the positive and that, in its own way, music helps to makes things better.

 Francis Pott

Hands Across the Darkness

As a quiet flame that glimmers against the dark
to wake a bright echo in the distance,

or trees whose branches mingle
following years of growing side by side,

Chorus: A hand is reaching out,
reaching across the border.
Now is the time to draw close.

As a bridge, leaning its arches over water
over the sundering flood of a deep river,

or stepping stones that lead us
to an island in the middle of a lake,

Chorus: A voice is calling out,
calling across the barrier.
Now is the time to listen and be still.

As a bird who flies from the wilderness
and brings from beyond the sea a song of spring,

or a ship that sails serene
its cargo of wonders safe against the storm,

Chorus: A heart is calling out,
yearning across the wire.
Now is our time to smile against the dark.

As flames, as mingling branches,
as stepping stones and bridges,

as wings above an ocean,
as the voice of spring in the wilderness:

Chorus: Hands, voices, hearts are reaching out,
reaching across the border, the barrier, the wire:
let us turn the darkness into music.
Now is the time for all to be at peace.

Charles and Francis have written a piece for the King’s Singers and the Hanover Girls’ Choir. Francis has this to say about it:

This work was commissioned by the Hanover Girls’ Choir in 2014, a year marking not only the centenary of the Great War (1914-1918) but also the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian Succession to the throne of England upon the death of Queen Anne in 1714. While the latter circumstance prompted a desire for a work reflecting upon friendship and unity, faint but abiding resonances of the former suggested that the theme might be viewed in more universal terms, especially since the music was commissioned with a view to collaborative harmony between distinguished German and English performers. It was with this in mind that Charles Bennett provided his libretto, which, going yet further afield, listens to the still, small voice of peace and humanity as it insistently reaches us from the oppressed of any time and place. 

A piece written for the combined forces of the Hanover Girls’ Choir and the King’s Singers presents an arguably unique challenge in terms of reconciling and balancing widely contrasted forces: a group of six male soloists, of whom only three occupy the bass range, and a far larger complement of massed upper voices. Taking my cue from Charles Bennett’s strophic arrangement of verse and chorus, I decided to confine the King’s Singers initially to the chorus sections, and to provide them with self-contained material – in effect, almost a separate piece altogether – which would be heard initially as a quiet backdrop to the girls but gradually acquire greater prominence: no small challenge, given the need for both linear independence and overall harmonic unity. At the same time, I needed to respond to the text’s gradual transition from the personal and intimate to the universal and all-encompassing (reflected in imagery which moves cumulatively from microcosms of nature to the elemental power of the ocean). Therefore the first two verses deploy only two upper parts, while the third divides the sopranos to create three parts. Meanwhile, the chorus provided by the King’s Singers expands from an initial three lower voices to four parts, then six. In the final verse, roles are initially reversed: it is the King’s Singers who present the verse, with a brief interpolation from the upper parts, before a chorus in which finally all voices come together. Until this point, the material given to the King’s Singers has made use of the final part of the ‘Agnus Dei’ from the text of the Latin Mass: ‘Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’. This has been set in strictly imitative polyphonic counterpoint which continued as a backdrop to the 

chorus. Now the Latin polyphony is abandoned and all voices join in a polyphonic tapestry of sound which confines itself to the modern, English text. Gradually this subsides (through the phrase ‘let us turn the darkness into music’) to leave only the girls’ chorus, whose music expires in unresolved mid-cadence, leaving the King’s Singers to continue in the first unaccompanied music of the piece. This is a homophonic setting of the ‘Agnus Dei’ text (that is, one in which the parts now move verbally and rhythmically as one). It was actually written before the rest of the music, the reason being that it provided the melodic contours of the respective imitative ‘points’ or motifs on which all the foregoing Latin contributions to the chorus were to be based. These are therefore heard now ‘end to end’ in one continuous span, broken only by a pair of brief echoes of the earlier English chorus sections (based on the very opening notes of the piece, where they are heard on the piano). Finally, ‘dona nobis pacem’ awakens a direct response from the upper voices, in the form of the final words from Charles Bennett’s text: ‘Now is the time for all to be at peace’. The King’s Singers then echo the word ‘peace’ and the piano has the last word of all, ending very much as it began. 

This music as a whole seeks to fashion an unlikely marriage of accompanied music for the girls’ choir, its syncopations at times loosely suggestive of a more popular idiom, to liturgical polyphony with roots detectably in the music of many centuries ago. In general, the piano part is identified with the girls’ chorus rather than the ensemble of adult soloists, and its dynamic contrasts reflect this, although it also provides essential weight in the bass regions of what would otherwise be an unworkably top-heavy texture. Above all, I have attempted to create singable and melodious lines for all, allied to an approachable harmonic idiom capable of accommodating many disparate elements. 

 

Ian Venables

Charles’s poem ‘The November Piano’ (from Wintergreen) was set by Ian Venables and can be found on his Naxos CD On the Wings of Love (English Song Series 21).

 

MarriageToMyLayPoverty-cover

Marriage to My Lady Poverty

Here is the ring I have made for My Lady Poverty;
a ring I’ve woven from grass and wayside flowers.
It will sing on her hand like a skylark.

I am the bird who has come to take crumbs from your hand,
I can only stay for a moment. In my soft grey plumage
I fly to our wedding barefoot. I am far too shy to look at you.

We need no more than birds: they sing at dawn
and wander wherever they please. We ask for nothing
more than the birds of the sky: we ask for song.

We need no more than flowers: they flourish
in summer and sleep all winter long. We ask for nothing
more than the flowers of the field: we ask to blossom.

As I fly from our wedding I look back over my shoulder:
my husband is the flower in my heart;
his ring is singing on my finger.

When I hear the song of a lark I shall think of you.
When I lie in the open field on a bed of meadowsweet,
I shall hear your music singing me to sleep.

 

Marriage to My Lady Poverty – Programme Note

Creative curiosity may sometimes lead to the discovery of wonders. When I found myself, for a variety of reasons, contemplating the life of St. Francis, I discovered a marvelous painting by the artist known as Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, ca.1392–1450). The painting is one of a series on the life of St. Francis, and depicts a mystical marriage to a female virtue interpreted as Poverty. In this way, the artist represents visually a symbolic description attributed to St. Francis: his life, he said, was ‘Marriage to My Lady Poverty’.

The text deals with essential virtues, and though I might have called it ‘The Marriage of St. Francis to My Lady Poverty’, I resisted because this would have limited its scope and meaning to a religious framework. Instead, I re-framed hagiography into an intimate conversation. In my poem, the male voice of the first stanza is answered by the female voice in the second. There follow two stanzas spoken by each partner, and then the pattern reverses, with the female voice followed in turn by the concluding words of the male. When it came to imagery I was naturally drawn to the connection of St. Francis to birds, and the flower imagery complemented this, suggesting natural richness as opposed to material wealth. The poem represents not only the spiritual aspects of secular experiences such as marriage, but might also be read as speaking of devotion to artistic creativity and of a union with the natural world, seeking to re-establish the profound meaning these values bring to our lives.

 

Swimming Over London

Swimming Over London 

A woman is swimming over London,
a fox turns up his face to see her pass,

there are blackbirds in the sleeping streets,
a pear tree, luminous with blossom:

it’s the dream she always has,
the dream where she’s touching a cloud –

The night is a tide she is pulled by
while a taxicab slumbers underneath,

and a robin is a fish who sings
from a treetop of coral below her:

it’s the dream she always has,
the dream where she’s dancing through air –

Aerials point like signposts
until all the houses are gone,

and fields give way to a beach
where the ocean is calling her name:

it’s the dream she always has,
the dream where she’s swimming over London –

where she sings to the stars like a mermaid
and darkness is a murmur in her hair.

This is the first piece Charles worked on with composer Bob Chilcott. It sets a poem from How to Make a Woman Out of Water, [link to page] which was adapted and revised for the King’s Singers. Bob’s ravishing setting sparked a very productive collaboration, and this track (described as his favourite in a podcast by Stephen Connolly) was chosen as the title for the King’s Singers’ CD [link to Signum] Swimming Over London. The vocal score is available from Oxford University Press, and is described as a vivid musical depiction of the colourful dreamscape created in Charles Bennett’s text. The solo tenor floats over the soft, jazzy harmonies of the other voices as he narrates the journey through London’s sky, noting the ‘blackbirds in the sleeping streets’ and a taxicab slumbering below. 

 

 TheAdventCalendar

The Advent Candle

Tonight we are lighting a candle,
a candle to burn until
you come to bring light to darkness
and warm us with goodwill.

Tonight in the sky there’s a star
we’ve never seen before,
a star to lighten our darkness
and bring us to your door.

Tonight there’s a window inside us,
a window you’ll open wide.
We are lighting a candle to guide us.
Soon we’ll be by your side.

This tender Advent carol sets an original text by Charles that creates a sense of anticipation. Underpinned by a gently rippling piano part throughout, the piece opens with a simple choral melody which blossoms into expressive harmonies before the music gently fades away.

 

The Miracle of the Spring

1

If I follow a white cloud,
one white cloud in a blue sky,
perhaps I’ll find the place
where water waits.

Or maybe the cactus wren
who drinks from white blossom,
will show me where
the flower of water opens.

If I sip the burning air
as if it were a question
perhaps I’ll learn to taste
the smell of water.

At night the brilliant stars
are raindrops in heaven.
Each of them ready to fall
as the light of water.

2

In the bed of a dried-up river
I found a broken boat
swept away by floods
and stranded there.

Today I’ll repair its hull
and heal the gash
where its floating
was eaten by a stone.

Tonight I’ll make an oar
from a desert tree
and row myself to sleep
by following a star.

Tomorrow I’ll drift on a lake
and go wherever I’m taken
until in the end I find
the source of the spring.

3

The desert opens its mouth
to sing of water,
as if the sand was asking
to be a beach.

Once, a lake was here:
under the surface are fish
made out of stone,
but still swimming.

Go down deep enough,
and you’ll find the place
where a wave
is waiting to break.

Under our feet is a sea,
I feel it call in my blood
as if I were a fish
who longed for the ocean.

4

I went to the desert
because I was so dry
I knew the sand and rock
would be like my skin.

I came to the desert
because I wanted to taste
water that fell as rain
where the light was young.

I stayed in the desert
because I learned its name
was a drop which washed me
clear of all my days.

I became the desert
because I wanted you to come
and let me show you
what it means to drink.

5

Under these rocks
I hear the voice of water
speaking a cool language
beneath these scorching stones.

The soft voice of water
asking if I am thirsty,
how can it know I am dry
as an autumn leaf?

O water rush to touch me,
gush and dash in streams.
O let me hear the tears
a mountain cries.

O water speak to me now
and I’ll listen by drinking.
O let the voice of water
sing in my mouth!

 

This series of five poems employ the geographic location of a desert to symbolise an inner landscape. Each poem examines various aspects of thirst as the narrator explores the seemingly barren environment, wandering and wondering while searching for refreshment.

Programme Note

This poem in five sections found its way towards me from reading I undertook some time ago on the life of St Francis and the legends associated with him. On a long climb up a steep mountain in the baking heat of midday, St Francis strikes a rock from which a cooling spring gushes. His wilting companions and their animals drink and are able to continue. The story has a number of resonances: the water from stone paradox is especially appealing poetically, the altruism of the saint in which water becomes a gift of life, and the suggestion that even in what seem the most unpropitious of circumstances, refreshment for the sprit is available (if hidden).

All these resonances were present in my mind for a long time before I found, through Bob Chilcott’s welcome commission, a vehicle for their expression. The poems are voiced for a narrator whose quest for physical and spiritual refreshment is couched in the trope of a desert wanderer. Each poem consists of four quatrains, and this sixteen line form – perhaps one of the simplest and yet most effective of all poetic shapes – provided me with a number of verbal opportunities for refrains, variations, counterpoints and leit-motifs. In the first section for example, the final line of each verse plays out a series of variations: ‘the flower of water’, ‘the smell of water’, ‘the light of water’. In the second section, stanzas are developed on the foundation of ‘today’, ‘tonight’, ‘tomorrow’. These chiming and echoing techniques give the whole piece a sense of tingling apprehension and expectation: each section has the word ‘water’ at its heart: and the light-headed delirium of some of the imagery becomes transmuted by the end from dehydrated rasping to ecstatic revelation; from drought to drench, mirage to miracle.

 

TheRoseOfWinter

The Rose in the Middle of Winter

There’s a rose in the middle of winter
a rose which has no thorn,
into the garden it comes
like a child who is waiting to be born.

        And while he waits for the rose to bloom
        the gardener sings –
        and the clouds all dance to his tune.

There’s a bird in the middle of winter
a bird whose song is a prayer,
into our dreams it comes
like a child who is almost here.

        And while he waits for the bird to sound
        the gardener sings –
        and the stars all dance in a round.

There’s a child in the middle of winter
a child like a flower in the snow,
into our days he comes
the child who is with us now.

        And while he listens to the song of a rose
        the gardener sings –
        and the child is a dance in his soul.

This is the first of several carols Bob & Charles have written. It’s rapidly become a firm favourite, and currently appears in a number of recordings. It features on Commotio’s Naxos CD of the same name http://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.573159, along with other Bennett/Chilcott collaborations, and also on Bob’s Signum CD The Seeds of Stars  

http://www.signumrecords.com/catalogue/new-releases/the-seeds-of-stars/sigcd311.html

 ‘The Rose in the Middle of Winter’ is published by OUP and described as: a truly beautiful addition to the Christmas repertory, setting a specially commissioned poem by Charles Bennett. The flexible metre creates a sense of movement, while the luscious harmonies and often-homophonic textures provide an anchor to the choral writing. The Rose in the Middle of Winter will appeal to all mixed-voice choirs looking for a poignant centrepiece for a Christmas concert or service.

Programme Note ‘The Rose in the Middle of Winter’

In one sense, the movement of this carol is simple: it records a series of arrivals. In each case, the verse performs the function of a list – with each item appearing ‘in the middle of winter’. But the rose and the bird are functioning as representations and harbingers of the child who features in the final verse, and in each case they act as similes designed to signify an unusual but enhancing force of vital new life (in the case of the rose) and a numinous presence (in the case of the bird whose ‘song is a prayer’). The rhymes and half-rhymes bind these images together, so that the rose, bird and child combine to blossom and sing in the human heart. The images of the verse draw, as do so many of my carols, on the mediaeval folk-song tradition, and their impact and vitality is seen in action through the figure of the gardener in the chorus. To some extent the gardener is a mysterious figure – perhaps his singing helps the rose to blossom, and brings fruition to midwinter. In that role he is actively participating in the regenerative process. On the other hand, his song might simply be a way of passing time until he can witness the miracle of a blossoming rose in winter. In this reading he is the passive recipient of the blessings which stem from hearing ‘the song of a rose’. However we want to regard his involvement in the process the carol records, it is clear that singing lies at the heart of the experience. If we want to find a moral in the carol, perhaps we might frame it as follows: until such time as a rose, bird or child comes to dance in our soul, we may as well sing.

 

TheSeedsOfStars

The Seeds of Stars 

Stars that spill on a melting stem
of brilliance down to earth,
make landfall here like swans
who are burnt by flight.

We find an orphan of ashes,
a child of chilled obsidian:
in the middle of winter we nurture
the seeds of stars.

On days of silver light
at the end of summer,
they’ll lift away to resume
their long migration.

You who’ve been told
There’s nothing, nothing to be done,
you who have come to a place
of broken stones,

remember us
who have sparked a star from dust,
and seen its wings ignite
the darkling sky.

The Seeds of Stars is a resplendent setting of a philosophical text by Charles Bennett. The rippling piano part provides a shimmering accompaniment to radiant and expressive vocal lines, and Chilcott effectively contrasts upper- and mixed-voice sections with stirring passages for all voices. Reflecting the vivid imagery of the text, the upper voices soar above the choir during climatic moments, but also bring the piece to its gentle, profound close.

SparrowsCarol-OUP-image

The Sparrows’ Carol 

Chorus: We are sparrows, sparrows in the snow
frost on our feathers and ice in our bones
so let us have a crumb, a crumb or two
we’ll sing the sparrows’ carol for you.

One: A sparrow flew up, to heaven on high
he sang for the Maker, the Maker of the sky
so let us have a sip, a sip or three
and a sparrow will sing from your Christmas tree!

Chorus: We are sparrows…

Two: The sparrow who flew from Bethl’em afar
sang Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
so let us have a coin, a coin or four
and sparrows no longer shall be poor!

Chorus: We are sparrows…

Three: A sparrow sang loud when the Christ was born
he sang from the holly and from the hawthorn
so let us have a bite, to be of good cheer
and you shall have a Christmas to last all year!

Chorus: We are sparrows, sparrows in the snow
frost on our feathers and ice in our bones
so let us have a crumb, a crumb or two
we’ve sung the sparrows’ carol for you!

Charles enjoys extending the English carol tradition in his writing, and his irreverent tribute to this small but vital bird transforms the traditional carol singers from boys to birds. An honest ‘begging carol’, the verses proclaim a simple exchange of giving and rewarding.