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The choir repertoire

The choir repertoire

We have an extensive repertoire.  This section explains the background to some of our songs

Songs of longing, defiance and consolation

The two most recent revivals in our repertoire, Speed your journey and the Finlandia hymn, both became powerful anthems for nationalist causes in their home countries.   Speed your journey is also a lament for the exiled and dispossessed, while the Finlandia hymn represents a call to defy oppressors in the shape of both pre-revolutionary Russia and the USSR.   Both evoke sentiments of longing and defiance, crafted by two master composers. 

Speed your journey is a song for the chorus in the opera Nabucco, composed in 1842 by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) – picture  below.  The title is taken from the first three words of the customary English translation.  It is also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves or as Va, pensiero – the opening words of the original Italian version.

The song is based on Psalm 137, which opens (in the King James version) with the line: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

The psalm concerns the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia after the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 597 BC.  The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates.  Their song is one of longing for their homeland and can be read as a lament for all displaced people.

This was the story which Verdi took up for his opera, Nabucco – the name is a shortened Italian version of Nebuchadnezzar.  The deportation of the Jews is used as a background for a romantic and political plot.  The opera, composed to a libretto by Temistocle Solera, cemented Verdi’s reputation as a composer. It came at a traumatic time in his personal life, as both his two daughters and his wife had recently died.

The opening Italian line of the song, Va’, pensiero, sull’ali dorate, translates literally as:  Go, thoughts, on golden wings.   This differs from the opening words of our English translation, “Speed your journey.”  Their meaning is best understood from the context of the opera, where the song is sung to small group of exiles who are returning to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the city after it was wrecked by the Babylonian army.  The singers are those who are not returning and they are exhorting the construction party to hurry on their way.  “The down-fallen temples of Zion” refers to the great temple of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians. In the Bible, the book of Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding.

Another of our verses appears obscure:

Golden harps of the prophets oh tell me

Why so silently you hang on the willow?

Psalm 137 offers clarity:

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

 The exiles, who have hung their harps on willow trees, have been ordered by their captors to sing, but the exiles refuse.

The song has been interpreted as Verdi’s call to Italian patriots to rise against foreign control, but there is disagreement over how far this was intended at a political message  In 1842, when Nabucco received its premier at La Scala in Milan, Milan was part of the Habsburg empire and under Austrian control.  There is little evidence at that time of overt revolutionary sentiments or action on Verdi’s part, either in Nabucco or subsequent operas.  However, some academics believe there is a clear political sub-text to the song. 

Either way, Va, pensiero was adopted as an anthem as the struggle for Italian liberty and unity grew in the shape of the Risorgimento (the resurgence) which finally achieved its aim under Garibaldi in 1870.  Verdi had himself become involved in politics as a provincial councillor and then a member of parliament in the 1860s.  And when the new Italian state was finally formed, he was appointed a life senator in recognition of his artistic and political achievements. When he died in Milan in 1901, the vast crowds thronging the streets for his funeral united in singing Va, pensiero.

There are numerous versions and variants of Psalm 137 on which Va, pensiero was based. One of the most memorable is the reggae version, By the rivers of Babylon, first heard in the movie The Harder they Come in 1972.  


Our other revised song, with its affecting melody and stirring climax, has a fascinating provenance.

The tune is known as the Finlandia Hymn, and is part of the patriotic symphonic poem Finlandia, written in 1899 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1967) - below. Finlandia is an assertion of Finnish defiance against Russian rule at a time when Finland was part of the Russian Empire (Finland finally won its independence in 1917).

The piece is at first rousing and patriotic but then subsides to the calm of the Finlandia Hymn, which Sibelius composed himself – it was not a traditional folk melody, as some have claimed.  Sibelius later reworked the hymn into a stand-alone piece.  The Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi wrote words for the hymn in 1941, when Finland was fighting the USSR, and it became the country’s most popular anthem.

The words in our version differ from this Finnish version, and come from two sources.    The first verse, starting “Be still my soul”, originates from a German hymn written in 1752 and translated into English in 1855.  It was a favourite hymn of Eric Liddell, the British athlete who won a gold medal in the 400 metres in Paris in 1924 despite refusing to run on a Sunday, and whose achievement was commemorated in the film Chariots of Fire. 

Liddell became a missionary in China and in 1942, following the Japanese invasion, he was incarcerated in an internment camp. In 1945 he fell ill and while in the camp infirmary asked the camp’s Salvation Army band to play the Finlandia Hymn. Liddell died a few weeks later, not long before the end of the war.  The Christian message of the verse can thus be read as an invocation of hope and consolation in the face of oppression and misfortune.  There are at least five other hymns which use the Finlandia Hymn tune.

 The second verse in our version, starting “May peace abound”, is taken from This is my Song, a hymn written in 1934 by the US poet Lloyd Stone.   “May peace abound” is the fourth verse of This is my Song and was added by Georgia Harkness, a US Methodist theologian who was important in the movement to achieve ordination for women in American Methodism.  It complements the Christian message of the first verse with its plea for peace and justice and an end to wars, sentiments echoed by the post-war peace movement in Europe and the US.

The arrangement we sing was by Welsh Male Voice conductor and arranger Hadyn James.   It was brought to our attention by our tenor Ernest Williams (now retired) after it had been sung (in Welsh)  at a mass Albert Hall concert. It was Hadyn James who combined the two verses in our English version, and he originally did so for a pre-Olympics mass choir concert, starring Bryn Terfel, that he conducted at the Festival Hall.    

Our choir sang the Hadyn James version at the wedding in Westminster of Julia Weatherill, grand-daughter of the late Commons speaker Lord Weatherill, in 2015. Lord Weatherill was a big fan of CMVC and Julia’s husband was Finnish – and there were visible tears from the Finnish wedding contingent during our rendition of the piece. (See photo below)




Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah -  sex, despair and ambiguity  

Leonard Cohen habitually sang of love and hate, sex and spirituality, ecstasy and despair. Hallelujah, which he first recorded in 1984, typifies all of that, as well as serving as a memento of the artist’s struggle to express himself truthfully and to achieve commercial success. Cohen wrote it at a low-point in his career, when he was still searching for recognition. It went on to become his most successful composition and has been widely recorded, by more than 200 artists.  Its meaning has been extensively debated with adherents to differing interpretations, in part because of its own ambiguities, with an enthralling mix of religious and sexual references and the poetry of lost love.

Cohen, who was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Canada in 1934, spent two years writing Hallelujah, producing some 80 verses in all, which he eventually honed down to four for his first recording of the piece.  Our version is an intriguing mix, consisting of the first two verses of Cohen's original recording, and two verses from subsequent versions sung and/or recorded by Cohen and other singers.  Its ending is one of unremitting despair, whereas other versions end with a measure of consolation and self-assertion.

Leonard Cohen in 1988

The David in our first verse refers to David, king of Israel – the slayer of Goliath who was also a gifted musician, as related in the book of Samuel; David composed many of the psalms.  After invoking David, Cohen sardonically addresses his former lover by saying that she never really liked music, anyway. He then describes the precise form of the song: the fourth, the fifth, the minor chord, the major lift – and makes the further point that David, for all his gifts, did not understand the technical processes involved in creating art, which at some level will always be mysterious.  Then comes the first of the repeated Hallelujahs, which can be taken as celebration, or as ironic evocation of the shared past of Cohen and his lover.

The second verse references two biblical tales.  The first is of David and Bathsheba: David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof a house and is tempted by her. The second is that of Samson and Delilah: “she broke your throne and cut your hair”.  The phrase “she tied you to a kitchen chair” is Cohen’s addition, and can be taken as a reference to domestic servitude, or to sado-masochistic bondage.   Both biblical tales refer to the allure of forbidden love, and are followed by imagery of sexual release: “and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”.

Verse three of our version is more direct and bleak than the previous two. Yes, Cohen says, I have been here before and I know this territory.  With the flag on the marble arch and the victory march, Cohen deploys martial imagery, contrasting it with “cold and broken” love.

The same sentiments permeate our fourth and final verse.  Perhaps there is a god of love – but all Cohen learned was how to outwit or outgun his lover. The next  line – the cry at night, seeing the light – brings a mix of sexual and religious imagery before reverting once more to bitterness and negativity, this time expressed in "a cold and broken" Hallelujah, repeated fourteen times.  The ending is thus one of irredeemable despair.

The original four-verse Cohen version has a different ending that is less bleak and finds consolation in creativity and perhaps religion.  The same is true of a six-verse version sung by Cohen which can be found in this wonderful YouTube recording:

In this recording, Cohen sings our four verses, but with verses three and four reversed.  Then come two more verses. Verse five is directly sexual, with references to "what's really going on below".  Verse six,  as well as finding redemption in creativity, can also be taken as a valedictory:  “I did my best…I’ve told the truth…I'll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”.  This ending thus offers a more resolved narrative than ours, replacing pure despair with a degree of consolation and redemption.      

The challenge of all versions, including ours, is to reflect the duality of the text and in particular the Hallelujahs – conventionally a cry of celebration but used ironically by Cohen to express regret and anguish as well, along with sexual notes.  Beyond the religious context, the song can also be taken as a summation of the human condition and the fight against loneliness and despair.

Musically, Cohen’s composition evokes both early rock n roll and gospel music. Written in C major, the chords progress as prescribed in the opening verse: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift (C, F,G, A minor, F) which reflects the structure of most blues and pop songs. 

Cohen wrote the song at a nadir in his career: two LPs had been commercial failures, and when he included Hallelujah in his proposed third, Various Positions, his record label Columbia turned it down.  The LP was picked up by a smaller label and Hallelujah was eventually taken up by Bob Dylan, John Cale and Jeff Buckley, whose 1994 recording made the breakthrough, and it has subsequently been recorded by singers from Bono to k.d. lang.  Cale’s version featured in the movie Shrek (2001); Rufus Wainwright recorded it for a Shrek soundtrack version released in 2007.  

Some singers have emphasised the religious element; others have prettified the content.  Some, such as k.d. lang, remained true to the original spirit, and Cohen praised hers as one of his favourite versions.  Hallelujah was played even more widely following Cohen’s death in November 2016

A history and selection of recordings are available via this link:



Two folk songs of love and loss

Our two recent folk songs, Scarborough Fair and The Water is Wide, share themes of love, longing, loss and betrayal. Both are also enigmatic in some ways, and open to different interpretations.

Versions of Scarborough Fair date back to at least the seventeenth century, and possibly earlier.  Some researchers believe it is based on a Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight, where an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform a series of impossible tasks.  She responds by setting him his own series of tasks, which are equally impossible, and so she escapes.

In Scarborough Fair, a woman is likewise set a series of impossible tasks by her former lover.  It is not possible to make a cambric shirt without seams or needlework, because cambric is a cotton fabric that was used specifically for making lace and needlework. It is just as impossible to wash the shirt in a dry well. It is possible to dry it on a thorn, but by now the bleak imagery is conveying some powerful impressions.

By one interpretation, the man is mocking his former lover by setting her a series of tasks which she is bound to fail.  The austere imagery, which would not be out of place in a Thomas Hardy novel, suggests an anger or bitterness that perhaps he has been jilted or betrayed.   Alternatively, the mockery could be more ironic than angry.  Either way, this is clearly a story of loss and longing.

The siting of the ballad in Scarborough most likely occurred in the nineteenth century, even though the fair itself dates back to medieval times. The meaning of the refrain has been much debated.  The four herbs are said to represent medieval virtues or the values of courtly love: parsley is comfort, sage is strength, rosemary is love and thyme is courage. If so, they can be seen as an ironic counterpoint to the bitter tale of the verses.

Ewan MacColl - early British recording of Scarborough Fair

Among earliest British recordings of the song, it appeared on A.L.Lloyd’s 1955 album The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and Ewan MacColl’s 1957 Matching Songs for the British Isles and America. According to Alan Lomax, MacColl’s source was probably Cecil Sharp’s One Hundred English Folk Songs, published in 1916.  The British folk singer Martin Carthy heard MacColl’s version and added it to his own repertoire, giving it the same thematic emphases as MacColl.

Paul Simon first heard it when Martin Carthy sang it to him in 1965. It was the lead track on the third album by Simon and Art Garfunkel, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, released in 1966, and featured on the sound track to the movie The Graduate in 1968. Carthy was aggrieved that S&D did not credit the song’s traditional sources, or indeed his own arrangement, which Simon later acknowledged.  Bob Dylan also drew on Carthy’s arrangement for his Girl from the North Country, which includes the line: “Remember me to one who lives there, for once she was a true love of mine.”

Link to Ewan MacColl version here:

Martin Carthy version here:

Contrasting Simon and Garfunkel version here:


The Water is Wide has an intriguingly similar provenance to Scarborough Fair, as it too was a Scottish folk song with lyrics from the seventeenth century.  It is believed to relate to the failed marriage between a Scottish nobleman, James Douglas, and Lady Barbara Erskine in the 1670s. The song has an alternative title of O Waly, Waly, the Scots for Wail, Wail. It was published in several versions in the 1720s and 1730s and became immensely popular.  John Gay, author of The Beggar’s Opera, used it in another of his operas, and it was published in numerous collections of Scottish songs.

1733 version of Waly, Waly - precursor of The Water is Wide

A new version, combining elements of the Scottish song with verses taken from an old broadside ballad, The Unfortunate Swain, was collected in Somerset by Cecil Sharp, who transcribed it from several field recordings and first published it in 1906.  By then it was known and sung in various versions in the US too.    George Butterworth, composer of Is My Team Ploughing, recorded another version in Sussex around 1910.  Benjamin Britten set the song to music under the title Waly, Waly, in 1948.  Pete Seeger helped to popularise it during the 1950s folk song revival with a recording in 1958.  There have been numerous recordings since and it has frequently been used in movie soundtracks.

On one interpretatiion, the song has a clear narrative arc, beginning with the happiness and innocence of first love. In our version, the narrator becomes disillusioned in the third verse, with the reveal in the pivotal line: “And so did my false love to me.” It culminates in a lament for the transience of love, which fades away like the dew.  Longer versions of the song have a verse where the narrator plunges his hand into a bush, thinking the sweetest flower to find.  But his hand is pricked to the bone, and he leaves that flower behind.  With its implicit sexual imagery, and assuming this concerns a heterosexual couple, the verse is evidently as if by a male narrator.  The parallel verse in our version is as if from a woman, who leans her back up against an oak, thinking he was a trusty tree.

A later Pete Seeger version endeavours to give the story a more positive ending, perhaps because he was happily married for more than sixty years, for he added this final verse:

The seagulls wheel, they turn and dive,
The mountain stands beside the sea.
This world we know turns round and round,
And all for them - and you and me.

Either way, taken with Scarborough Fair, the two songs testify to the narrative power of British folk song and its portrayal of powerful emotional issues.

Here are links to two widely contrasting versions:

Benjamin Britten/Peter Pears:

Bob Dylan/Joan Baez:


It Ain't Necessarily So

It Ain’t Necessarily So is a song from Act Two of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, first staged in Boston in 1935.  It is sung by the character Sporting Life, an alcohol and drug dealer, who uses it to disparage the religious beliefs of Catfish Row, a supposed African American community in Charleston, South Carolina. He sings it during a communal picnic on Kittiwah Island – and another character, Serena, responds by telling the picnickers to repent with the song, Shame on All You Sinners.

Porgy and Bess is based on a play and novel, Porgy, by the author DuBose Hayward, who wrote most of the lyrics for Gershwin’s tunes.  Gershwin called it a folk opera, explaining that it is based on spirituals and folksongs sung in Deep South communities.  It tells the story of a disabled beggar named Porgy and his struggle to rescue Bess, the main female character, from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sporting Life, who provides Bess with drugs (“magic dust”). From the optimistic romanticism of Bess’s opening song, Summertime, the narrative plunges into violence, murder, jealousy, and despair.   All Porgy’s efforts are in vain and the story ends with Bess running off to New York with Sporting Life.

George Gershwin in 1937

Gershwin was praised for celebrating African-American culture and also for insisting that all parts were played by black performers, rather than blacked-up white performers.  The music reflects a mix of idioms, including jazz, European opera and Russian-Jewish music as well as African-American music.  It was also criticised for patronising and stereotyping African Americans and several celebrated figures refused to appear in it, including Harry Belafonte, who was asked to take part in the 1950s film version (his role was taken by Sidney Poitier).   Yet jazz giant Miles Davis used the tunes to record one of his most memorable albums.

The current view is that Porgy and Bess was both radical for its time and reflected some unreformed racial attitudes.  The version we are singing, arranged by Richard, dispenses with the original’s attempts to represent African American speech, as in lines such as “The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble”, and replaces them with plain English, in keeping with versions by singers such as Jamie Cullum.

As to whether It Ain’t Necessarily So can be considered sacrilegious, Gershwin gave the song to one of the story’s villains, making its sentiments easier to discount by those so inclined.  The nonsense line starting “Wa-doo, Zim bam boddle-do” is Sporting Life’s representation of scat singing, a form of vocal improvisation first used by US jazz singers in the 1920s (in most versions of the line, “Catty wah” is sung as “Scatty wah”).  This represents another radical move by Gershwin, as scat singing was not considered respectable in some circles, and the BBC refused to broadcast it during the 1930s.  Its finest practitioners include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.



The White Seal 

The White Seal  is a poem by Rudyard Kipling that precedes his story of the same name.  He wrote it in 1893 and it appeared The Jungle Book in 1894.  The story tells of an albino seal born in the Bering Sea.  He witnesses many seals being clubbed to death and skinned, and resolves to look for a place where seals can be safe.  After scouring the oceans he finds a safe place and persuades thousands of his fellow seals to follow him and take refuge there. The poem, cast as a lullaby, celebrates the safety which the seals have found.   The word “combers”, although pronounced as in beachcomber, refers to long, gently breaking waves.

Eric Whitacre first set the lullaby to music for a film studio who planned to make an animated version of the Kipling story.  Whitacre sent the studio a draft but the film was shelved.  Several years later Whitacre completed the piece for a California choir, the Towne Singers, who sang it for the first time in 2008.

The piece begins with soothing harmonies but later there are notes of syncopation to give a sense of wavelets breaking onshore.  The ending is unconventional with unsettling harmonies to suggest notes of uncertainty, even though the seals have supposedly found their haven. Whitacre commented that the ending was “a tip of the hat” to one of his all-time favourite film scores, Edward Scissorhands.

Whitacre, who was born in Nevada in 1970, is a Grammy-winning conductor and composer, renowned for his Virtual Choir projects which create global online choirs. He trained at the Juilliard School in New York and won his first Grammy in 2012 for his album Light and Gold. I saw him at Cadogan Hall in the same year, when he conducted and also sang in his own group,  the Eric Whitacre Singers.  He performed in London again on July 7 this year, conducting the BBC Singers as they performed several of his works, together with a series of world premieres by contemporary choral composers (see photo).

You can find out how to pronounce Whitacre here:

You can see him conduct a performance of the Seal Lullaby here:


Ain't Gonna Study War No More

The newest addition to our repertoire, Ain’t Gonna Study War No More, originated as a nineteenth century African-American spiritual. It gained a new life and significance in the 1960s when it was adopted as an anthem by the anti-nuclear movement. It was sung on Aldermaston marches in which at least two CMVC members took part.

The song is also known as Down by the Riverside. The riverside is a potent image  in spirituals and refers to crossing the River Jordan to the promised land – itself a metaphor for ascending the heaven after death. It also invokes the Southern Baptist ritual of baptism by total immersion. The biblical imagery has a further layer of meaning–an allusion to escaping slavery by crossing the Ohio River, the border between slave and non-slave states before the Civil War.

The refrain of ‘Ain’t gonna study war no more’ derives from the Old Testament verse: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It invokes the anti-warfare sentiment of swords to ploughshares.

The song was first published in Plantation Melodies in 1918 and was recorded by a college quartet in 1920. Some of the great blues singers recorded it, including Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly, as did Pete Seeger.

The song came into prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s and was often to be heard at anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam protests. It was included in a booklet of songs produced by Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament for marchers on the Aldermaston marches. The first of these, in 1958, went from London to the nuclear research establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire; subsequent marches, from 1959 to the mid-1960s, went from Aldermaston to London, ending in Trafalgar Square.


Croydon CND en route from Aldermaston to London: Ain't Gonna Study War No More was a favourite

Other songs sung on the marches included Don’t You Hear the H-Bombs Thunder, If I had a Hammer and The Family of Man. The protest movement attracted folk-singers such as Karl Dallas and Ewan MacColl as well as trad-jazz bands like Ken Colyer’s.

Croydon played an important part in the protest movement. The Croydon branch of CND was formed in 1959 and its banner was prominent on marches and demonstrations well into the 1960s. It staged a sit-in at Croydon Town Hall to protest against what it saw as the farce of civil defence and the supposition that there could be any protection against a nuclear attack. Members also protested at US air bases in England and at the nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch in southern Scotland.

Croydon CND contingent - precursor to CMVC - approaches Trafalgar Square

Choir chair Kim Ormond took part in the CND march into London in 1960, when he walked with the Bromley contingent in a family group led by his mother. Kim especially remembers singing the campfire melody:  "You'll never get to heaven in an old Ford car - because an old Ford car won't get that far."

Choir bass Peter Gillman and his future wife Leni – founder members of Croydon CND – took part in a number of Aldermaston marches from 1959 on, as well as other protests and demonstrations.

Peter says: “I am thrilled that Richard is invoking Croydon’s proud radical past with this wonderful new choice and arrangement. I remember singing the song countless times on the way from Aldermaston to London and that's how I got into singing, leading directly to joining CMVC ten years ago.

"I am sure that many choir members will share the song's anti-war sentiments and will be delighted to be associated with the sixties protest movement in this way.”

Leni Gillman (to be) under Croydon banner at Trafalgar Square

Do YOU have memories of the 1960s protest movement? If so, contact website editor Peter Gillman





The Soldiers' Chorus, from Faust

This wonderfully rousing and moving song is taken from the opera Faust, composed by Charles Gounod and first performed in Paris in 1859.

The opera tells a story of a character from German mythology, the student Faust who sells his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of earthly delights. When the 24 years are up, he will suffer the endless torments of hell. The most celebrated renditions of the myth include the play Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, first performed in 1594; and Goethe’s Faust, a theatrical poem first published in 1808. Gounod’s opera drew heavily on the Goethe version.

Charles Gounod: wrote the Soldiers' Chorus

The Soldiers’ Chorus is sung in Act Four of the opera. It is sung by a company of soldiers returning from some unspecified war, together with the villagers who welcome them home. The soldiers include the character Valentin, brother of Marguerite, the leading female character. Marguerite has been seduced and made pregnant by Faust. After she gives birth, Faust abandons her.

On his return, Valentin takes on Faust in a sword fight. Faust is assisted by Mephistopheles, the devil, and Valentin is killed. He condemns Marguerite to hell with his dying breath.

The song has three sections. It begins with the great martial rallying cry, Glory and love to the men of old. It is followed by the more sedate but equally evocative chorus of pleasure at returning home. Finally comes a repeat of the first call to arms, dignified, determined and powerful.

The song gains depth and significance from its setting and context in the opera. It is preceded by a song, Deposons nos armes–Put down our arms, which has a more pacific feel, and balances the two martial verses of the chorus itself.

The verses of the chorus echo key themes of the opera. The French title is Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux – the immortal glory of our forefathers. The first line of the song in French is Gloire immortelle. Glory is a key notion in the opera. When Valentin goes off to war in Act Two he anticipates the glory that awaits him. More often glory is an ironic concept: Mephistopheles offers Faust glory in Act One, and alcohol is described as a source of glory in Act Two.

The concept of immortality is central to the whole work – it is part of the bargain that Faust strikes with Mephistopheles.

Gounod wrote twelve operas, of which this is the most famous, as well as two symphonies and a range of choral pieces. He was born in Paris in 1818 and died of a stroke at the age of 65. He lived in Morden Road, Blackheath, from 1870 to 1874 and became the first conductor of the Royal Choral Society.

Faust was rejected by the Paris Opera and when it was first performed in 1859 it was not a hit.  It proved more successful when it was revived in 1862, and it was first staged in London in 1864. The English translation is by Henry Chorley, an art and music critic, who also wrote novels and journalism. His translation is impressively accurate and authentic, and contrasts with other more convoluted translations of operatic works (Take for example, “Golden harps of the prophets oh tell me, why so silent ye hang from the willows?”).

Charles Gillman: sang Soldiers' Chorus on Western Front

The song has an intriguing link with our World War One medley. It was sung as a marching song during World War One by the men of the Civil Service Rifles, a regiment which was at Ypres in 1915, the Somme in 1916, Jerusalem in 1917 and the Western Front again in 1918. I know this because my father was a member of the regiment from 1914 to 1918.

By Peter Gillman




Schubert's Serenade

Our new repertoire piece, Serenade, was written in 1826 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), often considered the greatest song-writer of all time. It was contained in a batch of thirteen songs published after his death under the title Schwanengesang – Swan Song. It is an exquisite setting of the poem Ständchen–Serenade–by the German poet Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860).

Franz Schubert

This is one of seven poems which Rellstab is said to have given to Beethoven, in the hope that he would set them to music, but Beethoven passed them on to Schubert.Rellstab is perhaps best-known for giving Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 14 the title Moonlight Sonata.

In the song, the narrator is attempting to woo his lover: no-one is looking, I will care for you, let us haste. The English translation–arranged by our musical director, Richard Hoyle–is by the playwright and librettist Edward Fitzball (1792-1873), who was the in-house writer and play-reader at Covent Garden and then Drury Lane.

Schubert is said to have written the tune in a moment of inspiration while strolling with friends through a crowded public park in Vienna in the summer of 1826. They stopped for refreshments and one of the friends opened a book of poems. Schubert looked at a poem and exclaimed: “Such a delicious melody has come into my head – if only I had a sheet of paper.” A friend jotted the tune for him on the back of the menu.

Schubert wrote the song during one of the most prolific periods of his life, with works that included the Great C major Symphony and the Winterreise song-cycle. He died two years later, at the age of 31.  The song can be conventionally read as a courtship piece, but it can also be interpreted as one of loss, longing and regret.

That is evident in the stunning rendition by the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  Link here:

There are also wonderful recordings by the Swedish tenor Jussie Bjorling and by Bryn Terfel, who has a CD of the whole Schwanengesang.



Our Christmas Medley - the four songs

The Christmas medley, which we are currently rehearsing for inclusion in our forthcoming Christmas CD, consists of extracts from four songs. Three are by US composers and writers, one by a British team. Ironically at least two were written during very hot spells in the summer.

Let It Snow was written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne in Hollywood in July 1945.  They wrote it during one of the hottest days on record.  It was first recorded by Vaughn Monroe and went to no 1 in the US charts.  Singers who have covered it since include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rod Stewart and Kylie Minogue. Stewart included it in a Christmas album and it has become a popular Christmas number.

Sammy Cahn - wrote winter song in hottest summer

Sleigh Ride, from which the second medley item is taken, is another piece written in the summer.  Leroy Anderson wrote it during a heat wave at his home in Woodbury, Connecticut in July 1946. His aim was to convey the spirit of winters past through the imagery of a sleigh ride.  He wrote it as an orchestral piece and it was first performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra.  Lyricist Mitchell Parish added the words in 1950. Parish’s other works include Sophisticated Lady, the English version of Volare, Stardust and Moonlight Serenade.  He also claimed to have written the lyrics for Mood Indigo, although someone else got the credit.

The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot was written in 1937 and is usually credited to three writers: Michael Carr, a British light music composer from Leeds; Tommie Connor, from London, writer of the hit I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus; and one Jimmy Leach.  Artists who have recorded it include Nat King Cole, Billy Cotton and – most notably – Vera Lynn, whose version was included in the opening sequences of the film Pink Floyd – The Wall.  An audio link to the Vera Lynn version is here (cut and paste if necessary):


The last piece, Winter Wonderland, was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (music) and Richard B Smith (lyrics).  Smith was supposedly inspired by seeing snow covering the park at his home town of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and wrote the lyrics while being treated for TB (then known as consumption) in a sanatorium in Scranton (as in The Rhythm of Life).  The composer, Felix Bernard, was a pianist and bandleader who wrote pieces for Al Jolson, Eddie Canton and Sophie Tucker.  The line “Then pretend that he is Parson Brown” refers to parsons (or ministers) who travelled among rural towns to perform wedding ceremonies for couples who did not have a minister of their own faith. A remarkable number of artists have recorded the song, among them Annie Lennox, Barry Manilow, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee and Ray Charles.

Dave Brubeck - recorded Winter Wonderland


Who was the girl from Ipanema?

The girl from Ipanema - the title of our latest song -  was Heloisa Eneida Menezes Pais Pinto, who lived  in Montenegro Street in the fashionable Ipanema district of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In the early 1960s, when she was 17, she would visit the Veloso bar/café, a hang-out of two Brazilian song-writers:  composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and writer Vinicius de Moraes.

They were writing a musical comedy entitled Dirigivel and were inspired by the lissom young woman they saw coming into the bar.  Moraes later wrote that she was “mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace”.

The song was first recorded in Portuguese in 1962.  The English version, which had been translated by US lyricist Norman Gimbel, was recorded in a New York studio in 1964.  The composer, Antonio Jobin, was working with Joao Gilberto, a Brazilian singer and guitarist, and Stan Getz, the US jazz saxophonist, who had previously played in the celebrated big bands of Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.

They decided to record the English version and enlisted Gilberto’s wife Astrud, the only member of the group who could speak English well enough.   As an untrained singer, her unaffected voice, devoid of mannerisms, was the perfect fit for the song. She was supported by the playing of Gilberto and Getz, who delivered a sublime saxophone solo.

The song, which featured in an album called Getz/Gilberto, became a singles hit, reaching no 5 in the US and 29 in the UK.  It has been frequently recorded since.

Meanwhile the story of the original girl from Ipanema is intriguing.     Helo, as she was known, was the daughter of a Brazilian army general who was divorced from her mother when Helo was four. Helo walked past the Veloso bar on her way to school and the beach, and also bought cigarettes in the bar for her mother.  At 17, when she was first spotted by Jobim and de Moraes, she was shy and self-conscious, contributing to an air of vulnerability that added to her appeal.

Although the song was written in 1962, Helo did not learn that she was its inspiration until 1964, when Jobim finally plucked up the courage to speak to her. De Moraes revealed the full story in a press conference in 1965, paying her the following compliment:

“She is a golden girl, a mixture of flowers and mermaids, full of light and full of grace, but whose character is also sad with the feeling that youth passes and that beauty isn’t ours to keep. She is the gift of life with its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.”

Helo was offered modelling contracts and movie roles but turned them down.  She married a businessman named Fernando Pinheiro and became a mother and housewife.  In late 1970s her husband’s businesses hit hard times and Helo gave birth to a handicapped son.  She decided it was time to cash in on her role as the girl from Ipanema.  She became a model, gossip columnist and tv host and endorsed a wide range of products.

Helo is now 67 and has her own website, which markets bikinis among other products under the name Garota de Ipanema.  Garota is a colloquial Portuguese word for girl.

Link here:


The Finlandia Hymn

Our new song Finlandia, with its affecting melody and stirring climax, has a fascinating and complex provenance.

The tune is known as the Finlandia Hymn, and is part of the patriotic symphonic poem Finlandia, written in 1899 by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.  Finlandia is an assertion of Finnish defiance against Russian rule at a time when Finland was part of the Russian Empire (Finland finally won its independence in 1917).


The piece is at first rousing and patriotic but then subsides to the calm of the Finlandia Hymn, which Sibelius composed himself – it was not a traditional folk melody, as some have claimed.  Sibelius later reworked the hymn into a stand-alone piece.  The Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi wrote words for the hymn in 1941, when Finland was fighting the USSR, and it became the country’s most popular anthem.

The words in our version come from two different sources.  The first verse, starting “Be still my soul”, originates from a German hymn written in 1752 and translated into English in 1855.  It was a favourite hymn of Eric Liddell, the British athlete who won a gold medal in the 400 metres in Paris in 1924 despite refusing to run on a Sunday, and whose achievement was commemorated in the film Chariots of Fire.

Liddell became a missionary in China and in 1942, following the Japanese invasion, he was incarcerated in an internment camp. In 1945 he fell ill and while in the camp infirmary asked the camp’s Salvation Army band to play the Finlandia Hymn. Liddell died a few weeks later, not long before the end of the war.  The Christian message of the verse can thus be read as an invocation of hope and consolation in the face of oppression and misfortune.  There are at least five other hymns which use the Finlandia Hymn tune. The second verse in our version, starting “May peace abound”, is taken from This is my Song, a hymn written in 1934 by the US poet Lloyd Stone.   “May peace abound” is actually the fourth verse of This is my Song and was most likely added by Georgia Harkness, a US Methodist theologian who was important in the movement to achieve ordination for women in American Methodism.  It complements the Christian message of the first verse with its plea for peace and justice and an end to wars, sentiments echoed by the post-war peace movement in Europe and the US.

The moving version that we sing was arranged by the well-known Welsh Male Voice Choir conductor and arranger Haydn James.   It was brought to the attention of our musical director Richard Hoyle  by our member Ernest Williams after it had been sung - in Welsh - at a massed Albert Hall concert. It was Haydn who combined the two verses in our English version, and he did so for a pre-Olympics mass choir concert, starring Bryn Terfel, that he will be conducting at the Festival Hall in July.

Richard wrote to Haydn asking for permission to perform it, which he readily granted. Haydn also secured permission on our behalf from the Sibelius estate, as the piece is still in copyright.  Richard has sent Haydn a standing invitation to attend one of our performances of the piece.  Dr James says: "I certainly look forward to coming along to hear you sing."

Indeed, he would have attended the mass choir concert at Fairfield Hall on June 2, as he is president of the Rushmoor Odd Fellows, one of the participating choirs.  However he was already committed to conducting a 1050-voice choir at the Millennium Stadium where the all-conquering Wales rugby team was playing the Barbarians.   Haydn is known to some choir members as the conductor of the British and Irish Lions Male Voice Choir, with whom they have sung on rugby tours abroad - Ernest Williams among them.   He has conducted the pre-match singing at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium for Wales's last 50 or so rugby internationals.


The Hill  -  the truth

Following numerous enquiries by choir members, musical director Richard Hoyle has revealed the story behind the poignant lyrics of his composition The Hill, which was recently added to the choir repertoire.

The hill in question is Castle Hill in Huddersfield, the most prominent landmark in the district.  Consisting largely of sandstone, it is the site of one of Yorkshire's most important iron age hill forts and was first settled 4000 years ago.  A monument to Queen Victoria, a huge castle turret folly, was constructed on the summit in 1899, taking its height to more than 1000 feet.

Richard, who grew up in Huddersfield, recalls seeing the hill from his childhood home.  "I loved being taken there to climb the hill with my parents," he says.  From the top he could look out over the town and as far as the Pennine border with Lancashire.

Richard climbed Castle Hill again when he was 19 and about to leave home for university.  "I sat there for ages looking at the whole of the place where I had spent my life to date.  I realised, as all youngsters of that age do, that I was 'moving on' and that I would not really belong to that place again and that I was facing a new life in London."  Richard adds that we all have "significant and memorable" moments in our lives - "well, that was one of mine."

Richard, inspired by a photo of the hill above his computer at his home in Croydon, began to write the words to The Hill a few years ago.  "They were never meant to be a song, just rambling thoughts prompted by the fact that I hadn't been to my hill for a number of years."

Richard returned to Huddersfield in March and climbed the hill for the first time in a decade.  It was shrouded in mist and he took the photo below as "out of breath and with tired and ageing legs, I reached the top - I could not have asked for a more atmospheric scene."

As he had done when 19,  Richard paused for a time at the top. "I communed there for a while, as it were," Richard says.  "Although I couldn't see the views, I felt the same sense of belonging and deep nostalgia for a time long since gone."

Richard composed the music for The Hill after completing the poem.  It will be added to the choir's concert repertoire later this year.


Nearing the top of Castle Hill in mist - photo by Richard Hoyle


The Blue Tail Fly

Who is Jimmy and why does he crack corn?

By one account, this was originally a blackface minstrel song, first performed in the 1840s.   The narrative is, on the surface, a black slave’s lament over his master’s death.  It can also be read more subversively, as a slave rejoicing over the master’s death.

There are numerous interpretations of the phrase Jimmy crack corn.  The most favoured is that it refers to cracking open a bottle of cheap whiskey.  Another is that Jimmy is slang for a crow and the phrase refers to crows being allowed to feed in the cornfields, rather than being chased away by the slaves.  The blue-tail fly in question is probably a species of horse-fly found in the US South which feeds on the blood of horses and cattle.

On the surface, there could be is problem about singing a blackface minstrel song, since the entire genre has been discredited as racist.  However this one has been sung by such right-on figures as Pete Seeger and the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy.   Some believe that the song is a genuine African American piece rather than a minstrel pastiche.  Seeger and others are also inclined to the subversive interpretations of the song.

Seeger: favours radical interpretation


The Peacemakers

The Peacemakers  is a setting of a poem by Waldo Williams (1904-1971), a Welsh writer who was also author of Recollection/Cofio, one of the pieces we sang at the Truro choir competition in 2009.

Williams was a renowned Welsh-language poet, born in Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales.  He was a teacher, like his father, and developed radical political and cultural views.  His poem Cofio, written in the 1930s, is both a celebration and a lament for the Welsh culture and language, which he saw as under threat.  Williams was also religious, first a Welsh Baptist and then a Quaker.  He became a pacifist and was a conscientious objector in World War Two.  During the Korean War he was imprisoned for withholding taxes on the grounds that they would be used to finance the war.

Williams wrote Y tangnefeddwyr, translated as The Peacemakers, in 1941, after witnessing the bombing of Swansea which was targeted by the German Luftwaffe on three successive nights in February that year.  Like Cofio, its immediate meaning – particularly in the English translation – is not always clear.   Our second tenor, Ernest Williams (no relation) admires Waldo Williams and his work.   He has provided comments which illuminate The Peacemakers through an understanding of Williams’ biography and beliefs.  Ernest also points out that in several places, the English translation of the poem understates or subtly misrepresents Williams’ intentions.   The translation we sing was made by Eric Jones, who also set our arrangement

Ernest Williams (no relation)

As Ernest tell us, Williams opens by describing seeing Swansea ablaze.  (“Abertawe”, the Welsh name for Swansea, is rendered in our version as “the city”.)  Williams invokes memories of his parents, who had died before the war, and who are the peacemakers of the title.   The Jones translation runs:  “Blest are they in glad release, God’s own children….”  As translated by Ernest, the original version makes more sense:  “Blessed are they because they are beyond the pain of warfare, they who were children of God…”

In the next two verses, comments Ernest, Williams describes his parents and their influence on each other. “Slander was not for them, they looked for good in everyone. In caring for the poor, his mother showed his father that the Christian way was to seek the truth and to love their neighbour.”

Williams then evokes a mix of Christian and pacifist beliefs to condemn the view that nations are divided into good and evil:  this, he says, is an illusion (translated by Eric Jones as “a lie”.)   Ernest believes that the curious phrase “what of their estate this night?”  means “what would they be feeling this night?”

Williams praises his parents further by saying that they believed in truth and foregiveness.   He concludes with the pacifist assertion that the world will be blessed when war is no more and men can live as brothers.

Ernest suggests that in writing his poem, Williams may have been influenced by the great Welsh hymn Rhagluniaeth fawr y Nef.   Ernest says that this piece “poses the difficulty we have in understanding destruction alongside building, warfare with peace, seemingly good nations with bad, beauty with ugliness – can we have one without the other?”

In that case, Williams appears to answer the question by asserting that war is unequivocally bad and that pacifism is the only true creed.   In my view, his poem also extends themes explored in Cofio, which can be read as profoundly nostalgic, laden with regrets for transience and the passage of time.   The Peacemakers, beside its ideology, is an insistent lament for Waldo Williams’ parents and the values they represented.

Ernest ends his commentary with a personal note.   The author of Rhagluniaeth fawr y Nef, David Charles (1762-1834), wrote his hymn after seeing the Carmarthen rope factory on fire.   “I was told by my uncle that my mother’s great grandfather worked in the factory,” Ernest says.   “After the fire he and his young son walked the 80 miles to Pwllheli in north Wales in order to find work in the ship-building yard there.”

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