The Phoenix and the Turtle
A commission takes shape
The Canterbury Singers performed Michael Hurd‘s Music’s Praise for their annual concert in the Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral in 1973. Chris Godfrey is a bass who has been singing in the choir for 50 years. When the Musical Director, Anthony Stutchbury, chose the piece for a concert, Chris wrote to the composer to ask him if he would like to attend. As Michael Hurd lived in Liss, a two hour drive from Canterbury, Chris’s wife, Janet, offered to provide him with a meal and a bed for the night.
On the day of the performance a green MG sports car drew up and a youngish chap dressed in smart casuals, got out. Chris was surprised. ‘I wasn’t sure what a composer would look like but I wasn’t expecting someone who looked like an ex-RAF pilot’. Michael Hurd periodically taught composition at the Royal Marine’s School in Deal so perhaps he had absorbed some of the atmosphere.
The birth of an idea
After the performance Chris, Janet and Michael got chatting over a beer at home. The conversation flowed easily. Chris was curious about the commissioning process and asked how the choir could set about it. ‘Just ask me!’ was the reply.
Chris asked how much a piece like Music’s Praise might cost. Michael Hurd mentioned a figure, which Chris and Janet can’t remember, but it seemed affordable. Sadly the Canterbury Singers had no funds. The composer felt that if the choir could raise half the cost, the Canterbury Arts Council would probably match it. Janet suggested holding a jumble sale which was a tried and tested method for raising money at the time. Michael was amused and said it was the first time he’d had a commission funded this way. Chris proposed that, if the committee agreed, they would like a piece to suit soprano soloist plus SATB voices. They would aim a concert the next year if the piece was finished in good time for rehearsals.
Michael Hurd had an idea for a piece of music already in his head which he agreed to develop for the Singers. The Phoenix and the Turtle is an allegorical poem by Shakespeare that tells of the tragically frustrated love of two birds. Scholars have spent many years speculating on the meaning of the poem. One theory is that it refers to the love between Queen Elizabeth 1st and one of her courtiers. There are many layers and this makes it a perfect playground for musical imaginations.
The choir was lucky to have an experienced soprano soloist in their ranks – Elizabeth Stutchbury, the wife of the Musical Director. Elizabeth was a little sniffy that her performance was supported by the selling of old clothes but it got the fundraising off to a great start. ‘The beauty of the soloist being a member of the choir was that she was in every rehearsal from the beginning. It was so much easier to learn the piece when we could hear the joins.’
The Canterbury Singers performed the premiere of The Phoenix and the Turtle with a piano accompaniment. The string and timpani score was written before publication by Novello in 1977.
Performances have been rare and the piece was recorded only once before the British Music Society selected it for a new CD of Michael Hurd’s works launched on the Lyrita label in April 2018. This fine recording features Hertfordshire Chorus, the London Orchestra da Camera and mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons. Chris Godfrey is looking forward to hearing the dramatic opening timpani, and the mysterious ending. ‘It was the most challenging part to sing.’
Chris Godfrey is delighted that the music he proposed 45 years ago has been revived for a new audience. He did not meet Michael Hurd again after the premiere. ‘I wish I had kept in touch with him. He was a fascinating man who could turn his musical talents to all sorts of things.’
The Canterbury Singers have a full calendar of their own concerts and as a stand-in choir at Canterbury Cathedral when the Cathedral choir is away. Their current Musical Director is Adrian Bawtree, an assistant organist at the Cathedral. The Singers regularly use their best voices as soloists. For example in their recent performance of parts of Rachmanov’s challenging All Night Vigil the contralto & tenor soloists were choir members. For more information about the choir follow the link.
* Reproduced with kind permission of Canterbury Cathedral Archives
How do you launch a recording of lovely music written by a little-known composer like Michael Hurd? By singing it in a concert of course! So we’re really pleased to launch this recording on the label Lyrita Recorded Edition at a concert in St John’s Smith Square on the 14th April 2018.
How this recording came about
This was another new experience for Hertfordshire Chorus. The British Music Society approached us about recording five works by British composer Michael Hurd. Michael Hurd died in 2006, aged 77 after 50 years composing a wide variety of music. The BMS established a charitable trust to administer a legacy from his estate, with the aim of fostering and encouraging recordings and performances of his music. He is perhaps best known for his Jonah-Man Jazz, sung by countless schoolchildren over the years.
Our task was not only to record the five compositions but also to project manage the recording! No small undertaking!
Organising the project
Music Director David Temple and Operations Director Robin Seaman set about organising the long list of things that had to be done. St Jude’s Church in Hampstead is well known for its acoustic and is often used as a recording venue. We approached the London Orchestra da Camera, a regular concert partner. Place and orchestra sorted. Next task was to find a soloist for one of the pieces and we were very pleased to discover mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons. All coming together – now we had to find a producer and recording engineer and turned to Gareth Williams, with whom we have worked a number of times. Finding the people and venue was only half the task, since we also had to find dates when all were available. No easy task when everybody’s diaries were so full. And don’t forget our own singers and their availability!
A complex thing to organise and the recording dates seemed to be upon us very quickly. So on a rainy morning on the 20th May 2017 the choir, orchestra, conductor and recording crew gathered at the church. A second full recording day was held on the 3rd June 2017 when our soloist joined us. The church needed to be set-up early in the morning on each day and then, recording finished, everything had to be cleared away, equipment packed in the van and the church returned to its primary function as a place of worship ready for the services the next day.
So what of Michael Hurd’s music did we record?
- A Choral Cantata – words from Psalm 150 and from Richard Edwards and Tate & Brady, written in 1991 commissioned by the Southport Bach Society (now Choir) and first performed on 22 June 1991.
- Music’s Praise – setting words from Alexander Pope, William Strode, William Shakespeare and Robert Herrick, commissioned by the Stroud Festival and first performed by the Festival Choir with Orchestra da Camera on 30 October 1968.
- The Phoenix and the Turtle – setting words by William Shakespeare, commissioned by the Canterbury Singers and first performed on 6 June 1974 in the Chapter House Canterbury Cathedral.
- A Song for St Cecilia – setting words by John Dryden, written for performance at the Havant and District Schools’ Music Festival in 1967.
- This Day to Man – six hymns for the Nativity, commissioned by the Chichester Singers and first performed on 14 December 1974.
They were two long and tiring days of recording. Occasional interruptions included emergency vehicle’s sirens and aeroplanes passing overhead. A couple of the minor inconveniences of non-studio recording, especially in London! But the experience was utterly rewarding. We discovered some gems, really lovely music that was a joy to sing.
Recording over, we go back to our other work, sad to leave this music behind for the time being. We do hope that Michael Hurd’s choral music will be rediscovered through this and other recordings.
So to conclude this blog the recording release date was the 6th April 2018. We also made Michael Hurd’s music the centrepiece of our concert on 14th April 2018 joined by our sister choir Crouch End Festival Chorus and the original commissioner of The Phoenix and the Turtle.
by Michael Quinn on Music Web International
by Andrew Achenbach in Gramophone