Words for Music
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.
Snow will fall at Christmas time
Let the Christmas bells ring free
Birds will sing at Christmas time
Gifts will come at Christmas time
Christ will come at Christmas time
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.
Five Japanese Songs
Furasato (My Home)
Dreaming I saw the green mountains again
Father will sing in our garden again
Dream of tomorrow and I shall be home
Momiji (Coloured Leaves)
Brush-strokes of leaves are painting the mountain
Drifting on the wind of the stream
Autumn is painting leaves.
Mura Matsuri (the Village Festival)
Fruit on the Tree
This is the morning when the villagers will sing
We are the harvest on the spreading village tree
We are ever thankful for the promise of the year
Don don hyalala Don hyalala
Oborozukiyo (Hazy-moonlit night)
Dancing with the Moon
This yellow field in front of me is nothing but a blur
The windows in my village are a primrose-glimmer now
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
Under our feet are sand dunes; under our feet, the shifting sand.
Fly to my hand like a sparrow; fly to my hand, I’ll shelter you.
|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.|
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.
Hands Across the Darkness
As a quiet flame that glimmers against the dark
or trees whose branches mingle
Chorus: A hand is reaching out,
As a bridge, leaning its arches over water
or stepping stones that lead us
Chorus: A voice is calling out,
As a bird who flies from the wilderness
or a ship that sails serene
Chorus: A heart is calling out,
As flames, as mingling branches,
as wings above an ocean,
Chorus: Hands, voices, hearts are reaching out,
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.
Marriage to My Lady Poverty
Here is the ring I have made for My Lady Poverty;
I am the bird who has come to take crumbs from your hand,
We need no more than birds: they sing at dawn
We need no more than flowers: they flourish
As I fly from our wedding I look back over my shoulder:
When I hear the song of a lark I shall think of you.
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
A woman is swimming over London,
there are blackbirds in the sleeping streets,
it’s the dream she always has,
The night is a tide she is pulled by
and a robin is a fish who sings
it’s the dream she always has,
Aerials point like signposts
and fields give way to a beach
it’s the dream she always has,
where she sings to the stars like a mermaid
|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.|
|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
If I follow a white cloud,
Or maybe the cactus wren
If I sip the burning air
At night the brilliant stars
In the bed of a dried-up river
Today I’ll repair its hull
Tonight I’ll make an oar
Tomorrow I’ll drift on a lake
The desert opens its mouth
Once, a lake was here:
Go down deep enough,
Under our feet is a sea,
I went to the desert
I came to the desert
I stayed in the desert
I became the desert
Under these rocks
The soft voice of water
O water rush to touch me,
O water speak to me now
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.
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.
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
‘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.
Stars that spill on a melting stem
We find an orphan of ashes,
On days of silver light
You who’ve been told
|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.|
Chorus: We are sparrows, sparrows in the snow
One: A sparrow flew up, to heaven on high
Chorus: We are sparrows…
Two: The sparrow who flew from Bethl’em afar
Chorus: We are sparrows…
Three: A sparrow sang loud when the Christ was born
Chorus: We are sparrows, sparrows in the snow
|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.|