The Eternal Feminine

Graeme Stewart attends a National Chamber Choir of Ireland choral celebration

The Harty Room at Queen’s has beautiful acoustics for choral singing, allowing enough room for sound to breathe but not to linger.

Fortunately the National Chamber Choir of Ireland use the room to full effect in A Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Elizabeth Maconchy, a programme which demands technical expertise from the singers as well as interpretational flair from their musical director. Neither disappoint.

This year the choir’s summer season, The Eternal Feminine, is focusing on the influence of female composers in contemporary music, with the group performing in Belfast and Dublin under the direction of conductor Brian Mackay, who has previously been at the helm of various ensembles including the National Symphony Orchestra.

Elizabeth Maconchy was a composer ahead of her time. Like many of her contemporaries, in particular Benjamin Britten, Maconchy believed that music should be accessible to all, not just professionally trained ensembles. As a result, her early works were often performed by amateur musicians.

Born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, Maconchy spent her childhood there, displaying an interest in piano and composition at the age of six. She moved to Ireland with her family after the First World War and later studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the great British composers of modern times.

Maconchy’s own musical language, however, was less influenced by the pastoral meanderings of Vaughan Williams. She described her work as 'resembling a dialogue or discussion', and it was perhaps this belief that allowed her music to become so dramatically fused - leading to her eclectic work in opera, choral, and religious music.

In the opening piece of the evening the audience are treated to a performance of Maconchy’s 'Siren’s Song', which takes its inspiration from William Browne’s poem of the same name, found in his masque 'Ulysses and Circe'. It tells the story of the sirens and their attempts to entice the mariners to shore with their beauty and promise of 'love’s undiscovered mines’.

For this setting Maconchy divided the singers into two groups, mirroring the drama implied in the text - the sopranos and altos become the sirens, the tenors and basses the mariners.

In keeping with the general character of the English masque, conductor MacKay displays sensitivity to the material, evoking a strong ethereal sound through the close-harmony textures, and dissonant sonorities in the lower voices to provide a blanket of warm and sustained lines.

Next up is a work from Irish composer Marian Ingoldsby, the first recipient of the Elizabeth Maconchy Composition Fellowship at the University of York. 'Mar a Fuarthas Spreagadh' (or 'Response to Munch’s Scream') is a work of homophonic strength and clarity, with the choir again providing the same close harmony singing displayed in the previous work. The words, written by the poet Eithne Strong, create a sense of the search for a deeper understanding within the protagonist.

Here, the music provides a sense of beauty, but also of isolation through precise solitary solo lines. The harmonies show similarities with the music of American composer Morten Lauridsen, whose music displays a deep resonance through sustained vocal lines.

Maconchy’s influence on contemporary choral music has been vast, inspiring generations of future composers. Her daughter, Nicola LeFanu, is a successful and widely performed composer, having studied at the Royal College of Music and Harvard University. In line with the dramatic leanings of her mother, LeFanu’s output has included a wide range of dramatic chamber works.

The Silver Strand was written in 1989 for the Collegium Musicum of London. LeFanu uses the phonetic character of words as a doorway into the composition, creating a soundscape with a wide dynamic range. With this work, LeFanu has created a work which ponders childhood, heralding the memories of a simpler time. Her fusion of contemporary harmony and child-like melody take the listener on a journey of discovery in the hope that, at its conclusion, 'resting [we] wander afar, sleeping [we] go everywhere'. The choir’s assured understanding of the complex harmonies are a highlight of the evening.

Gráinne Mulvey, a former student of Queen's university, was also present and witnessed her powerful 'Stabat Mater' performed with gusto and passion. Characterised predominantly by the use of quarter-tones, the work pays homage to Gregorian plainchant.

Perhaps the most technically demanding piece in the programme, 'Stabat Mater' constructs a ferocious wall of sound in the opening bars which dilutes into gentle passages, displaying techniques of broken verse, reminiscient of LeFanu. This work stands as a sonically literal testament to the nature of the meditation on the suffering of Christ’s mother throughout his crucifixion.

Other works included in the repertoire were Maconchy’s 'Nocturnal', written in 1966 and based on verses from three different poets. The music is very much in the spirit of a madrigal, becoming beautifully dark and dissonant with hints of Debussy and Schoenburg, with a deep harmonic resonance in the lower voices.

The evenings' finale, however, was a complete shift in mood. 'Creatures' is a work which displays Maconchy’s great dramatic instinct as well as her gift for creating fanciful and inventive musical characters. The work is in four movements, 'The Hen and the Carp', 'The Snail', 'The Dove and the Wren', and 'Cat!'. The composition contains an unashamedly literal stage show for the animals in question, the singers conjuring up the very essence of the characters, a choral carnival of animals.

It is not often that a concert exclusively comprised of contemporary choral music is performed in Northern Ireland, and so it is a joy on such a rare occasion to find a performance such as this. The National Chamber Choir remains as one of the most technically capable vocal ensembles in contemporary choral music, and one would hope that they continue to perform with the same vigour and technical skill in years to come.