An army of voices
Cheryl Frances-Hoad
20th October 2014
An army of voices

It was such an honour to be asked to write the anthem for this years Festival of Saint Cecilia, and I’m so looking forward to the service on the 19th November at Westminster Cathedral in which it will premiered: I’ve never written for such a large choir! (the combined choirs of Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral).

The theme of this year’s festival is It’ll All be over by Christmas (a reference to the general view of people in the UK at the start of World War I). The challenge for me was to write a new work which related to this theme, but at the same time would fit into a religious service (and ideally have a performance life in the future in both religious and non-religious contexts). Coming from an international music school which largely ignored any form of religious education (and having never sung in a choir like many of my friends at university) I have to say my lack of knowledge about matters liturgical slightly terrified me at the beginning of this commission! But Martin Baker and Father Alexander (at Westminster Cathedral) were incredibly helpful, suggesting that as a starting point I look to the Psalms for inspiration.

Festival of Saint CeciliaPsalm 6 struck me immediately, and to me it seemed as if some of the passages could have been uttered by men in the trenches as the hope of being home by Christmas rapidly disolved into the mud:

“LORD, rebuke me not in thine indignation : neither chasten me in thy displeasure.
Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak : O Lord, heal me, for my bones are vexed.
My soul also is sore troubled : but, Lord, how long wilt thou punish me?
Turn thee, O Lord, and deliver my soul : O save me for thy mercy's sake.”

Despite my lack of religious background, I have actually written quite a lot of church music, as it is (in many cases) the direct addressing of God in the texts that seems so incredibly emotive to me, so full of love, despair, hope - all the emotions that can so powerfully be expressed in vocal music, and are universal, whether sacred or secular in context.

My new anthem was also directly inspired by attending a service at Westminster Cathedral - hearing Father Alexander and the choir perform the Responsorial Psalms was the main influence for the opening of my work (which, in the mindset of beginning the anthem conjured up many ideas about the individual and the masses in times of war - how the voice of one ‘soldier’ could gradually be added to until an entire ‘army’ (in my mind’s eye) were pleading to God for mercy). Thus in my new work, the opening is for a solo tenor, with individual voices being added until the words “how long” where the whole choir joins in and repeats and repeats these words in a supplication which could just as easily apply to the conflicts of today as to a war which went way beyond the Christmas of 1914.

Find out more about Cheryl Frances-Hoad.

Come and join us for the the premier of Cheryl's anthem at the Festival of Saint Cecilia on Wednesday 19 November at 11am, Wesminster Cathedral.