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CLASSICAL  January 2009

CLASSICAL January 2009

Subject:

Burgon Choral Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 28 Jan 2009 16:39:34 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (96 lines)

Geoffrey Burgon

*  At the round earth's imagined corners
*  The Assumption
*  Short Mass
*  Of flowers and emeralds sheen
*  Magnificat
*  Nunc dimittis
*  As the angels stood
*  Apple Blossom
*  The Corpus Christi Carol
*  The song of the creatures
*  Death be not proud
*  Come let us pity not the dead
*  Te Deum
*  Nunc dimittis

David Bednall, organ
Alan Thomas, trumpet
The Choir of Wells Cathedral/Matthew Owens
Hyperion CDA67567 Total Time: 72.35

Summary for the Busy Executive: Little Britten.

Born in 1941, 14-year-old Geoffrey Burgon suddenly found he had the
desire to become a jazz trumpeter.  He learned to read music, began
to compose on the side, and applied to the Guildhall School of Music.
Guildhall declined to accept him as a trumpeter, but took him in as
a composer.  Burgon studied first with Peter Wishart and later with
Lennox Berkeley.  However, he also pursued his jazz trumpet career
while continuing to compose.  Not until he reached his thirties did
he decide to turn to composing full-time - a gutsy move, considering
he had a family to support.

Necessarily, Burgon turned to commercial work, mainly music for film
and television, with his best-known scores (if not the best-known fact
that he wrote them) Brideshead Revisited and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,
Spy.  However, he also continued to compose and, more importantly, get
commissioned for concert music, a large amount of which was choral music
for the church.  Occasionally, the commercial and the "artistic" have
overlapped, as in the case of the 1979 Nunc dimittis, originally conceived
for the soundtrack to Tinker, Tailor and which quickly took on an
independent liturgical life.  Burgon, by the way, belongs to no church.
So the answer to whether a non-believer can compose good sacred music
is, "Yes, if the price is right." If nothing else, commercial work will
not indulge fuzziness of thought in its guise of profundity.  The best
practitioners, the most professional, know how to get to the point and
to say what they mean.  This habit crosses over into Burgon's concert
work.

The chief characteristic of Burgon's music is elegance, in the
sense that he doesn't waste notes.  For those who care, it's tonal. 
More importantly, it can get inside a listener.  His church music,
consciously imitated or not, sounds a lot like Britten's, particularly
in its fondness for the Lydian mode (F to F' on the white keys of the
piano).  The raised fourth degree of the scale, usually set against
the tonic for the "forbidden interval," gives the music an archaic,
not-quite-human quality which can depict equally well the singing of
angels in heaven or of mermaids in the sea.  However, one notes many
differences as well.  Burgon's writing isn't as contrapuntal as Britten's,
and it doesn't require a virtuoso chorus.  However, it does retain its
interest for an amateur choir of musically-intelligent adults, one good
reason for its popularity, seen most clearly in a work like the 1965
Short Mass - notable not only for its expressive punch, but for its lack
of padding and its suitability to liturgical use.

I also praise Burgon's choice of texts.  The first-rate attracts him.
In this collection, one finds settings of St.  Francis, John Donne,
and Louis MacNeice, among others.  You occasionally hear the bromide
that great poetry doesn't "need" music and indeed works against musical
setting.  This generally indicates that the person advancing this
proposition hasn't heard all that many settings and restricts all proper
musicalization to something like hymns.  Poulenc, Faure, Finzi, Vaughan
Williams, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Britten demolish this prejudice
pretty handily.  You can never tell a priori what a composer will find
a tune for.  My favorite tracks on this CD include two famous Donne
sonnets ("At the round world's imagined corners" and "Death be not
proud"), St.  John of the Cross's sensuous "Of flowers and emeralds
sheen," MacNeice's "Apple Blossom," and Drummond Allison's heartbreaking
"Come let us not pity the dead."

Matthew Owens's Wells Cathedral Choir (which apparently uses girl trebles)
has that nice woody English sound.  Intonation is dead-on, and textures
are clear.  I prefer this recording to the Burgon collection on the old
EMI CDM 5665272 (nla) with countertenors James Bowman and Charles Brett
led by Richard Hickox, both for repertoire and performance, which seemed
bland.  Here, choir and soloists understand the intensity behind Burgon's
scarcity of notes.

Steve Schwartz

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