Sunday, May 16, 2010

Don’t you love it when you hear a song that somehow moves you and you look to see who the artist is and that leads you to a great CD?

I heard one called, appropriately enough, A New Song, and I liked it so much I had to hear it more so I tracked it down (it wasn’t hard to do) and found out that it’s on the 2008 CD My Beloved Spake by the Winchester College Chapel Choir, or Winchester College Quiristers.

Selection number 8, A New Song, was composed by James MacMillan in 1997 and it’s a unique piece with these wonderful vocal flourishes that I won‘t even try to describe. It starts with the trebles and builds in intensity until it ends with a powerful bit of organ work.

Other pieces (I’m not supposed to call them songs) that I recognize and like are A Grateful Heart by Mary Plumstead, the German version of Brahms’ How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings, William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus and They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships by Herbert Sumsion (…and stagger like a drunken, stagger like a drunken, stagger like a drunken man...).
The title piece, My Beloved Spake, by Hadley takes its verses from The Song of Solomon and it’s very pretty.
There are 15 cuts on this CD and they are kind enough to give us the lyrics and a short paragraph about each piece.

One thing I really like about this album is that, unlike too many other choral CD’s such as the ones from Downside Abby, the trebles are given the spotlight with the other voices playing a supporting role.
Just like the violins are the heart of the orchestra, so I believe that the treble voices are the heart of the choir. The altos and basses are there to bring fullness and drama to the overall sound but it’s the trebles that give us goose bumps.

There is a fun video on their web site that features the choristers going about their daily prep school lives and practicing their singing.
Here’s a link:

Also, I lifted this from BCSD:
“Founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and twice Chancellor of England, Winchester College is one of the oldest and best-known schools in Great Britain. Wykeham's original foundation included 70 scholars, and although the school has now grown tenfold in size, the same number of scholars continues to live in medieval chambers next to the College Hall and Chapel. Wykeham also made provision for 16 singing-boys called Quiristers, whose duty was to sing at Chapel services.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Do you remember an old movie called The Bishop’s Wife? Not the more modern version with Denzel Washington but the black and white version with Cary Grant and Loretta Young. It’s been years since I’ve seen it but I still remember the boys choir and how they showed up for practice and sounded great. They were just regular guys, street tough and sassy, but when they sang they seemed transformed.

Anyway, that was the Mitchell Boys Choir. They were a famous group that began in 1934 and were in lots of films, sometimes appearing as a choir and other times just on the soundtrack. Another famous film was Angels with Dirty Faces and they can be heard in White Christmas, Going My Way, Yankee Doodle Dandy and a lot more.
Someone turned me on to one of their songs so I ordered the CD The Mitchell Boys Choir Sings. This is an oldie that has been remastered from the original but it sounds pretty good, just a little fuzzy. It’s too bad that this reproduction doesn’t say anything about the date of the original recording because I would really like to know. By the haircuts I would guess it to be from the early ‘60s.

The songs are pretty corny, the sort of thing that Aunt Bea would have liked back in Mayberry. It opens with an Italian song Come Back to Sorrento and goes on to The Happy Wanderer (Val-deri,Val-dera), Oh, What a Beautiful Morning and That’s an Irish Lullaby.
Appropriately for Mother’s Day there is That Wonderful Mother of Mine.
The song I like best is When You Wish Upon a Star, from Disney’s Pinocchio. They sing it with that old fashion warbling falsetto that you hear in other Disney music like the songs from Snow White. I smile whenever I hear it.

“Bob Mitchell was a musical prodigy who got his start as a 12-year-old in 1924 playing the organ at the Strand Theater in Pasadena for silent movies… Mitchell and the choir were featured in a special short documentary film, Forty Boys and a Song (1941), which described the choir and showed the students rehearsing at their school desks as Mitchell provided instruction. The film was nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Short Subject, One-reel).”

His boy’s choir also recorded with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and he received several illustrious honors including a Silver Medal from Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco, a Medal from the Pope and the Boy Scouts of America.
The group was also known by other names such as the St. Brendan's Boy's Choir, St. Brendan's Church Choir and the Mitchell Choirboys.

Robert Mitchell died on July 4, 2009.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Downside Abbey

I don’t know if anyone is still interested in this blog since I seemed to have abandoned it. I hope you are. I usually try to not talk about me except as it relates to my experience with this music but I do want to quickly say that I have lost 5 pounds and my garden is growing nicely. I think I have averted the looming need to buy larger trousers so I don’t feel guilty about sitting down again to write a bit.

It’s been a couple of years since I stumbled into this ancient and mysterious world of boy choir music and began an exploration that has been both satisfying and fun. When I started blogging about it I was pretty ignorant. I still am, but maybe a little less so than before. Some very nice people helped me learn a lot with their comments and explanations of things with which I had no experience. Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface and that is why I laugh when I look back at some earlier posts and see how opinionated and downright cheeky I sounded at times. I have decided to revisit some of the albums that I was critical of to see if they look better now.

I had a pretty tepid response to the 1997 CD Gregorian Moods by the Monks and Choirboys of Downside Abbey so I listened again and… I love it. In fact, I like it so much that I ordered their previous 1996 CD The Abbey. What I failed to notice before is the smooth and cohesive singing from this choir. It puts me in mind of a pipe organ, each voice like a pipe, each unique but made of the same metal, all one unit.

I really like the cathedral echo in every piece that makes me feel as if I have traveled back in time, taking refuge inside the walls of cool stone to let the magic voices lift my spirit. There really is something magical about it all.

Most of the pieces are plainchant, such as Ave Maris Stella, Viderunt Omnes and Sub Tuum Praesidium. They are alternated with pieces by Byrd, Charles Wood, Gabrieli and others. Most are sung by men’s voices but the best ones include the boys. I stand by my original statement that there should be fewer monks and more choirboys, but the men do sound magnificent.

It seems odd that there are only these two recordings from the Monks and Choirboys of Downside Abbey. I’ve been to their web shop and there are no others except for a couple of CD’s of organ music and another choir of some sort. They do have the section called Ask A Monk so maybe I’ll ask them to do something new.