Among those teachers to whom I owe gratitude is the late Ken Naylor. His teaching career was largely at the Leys, Cambridge, where he taught for 27 years, but the autumn of his career was spent at Christ's Hospital where he was manager of the Arts Centre. This was a terrific boon to the Music Department: Ken was a superb additional organist to the community, but he was also a wonderful arranger. I understand that he provided the fledgling King's Singers with some of their early arrangements; it was the elaborate, many-voiced arrangement of 'Lullaby of Broadway' which became a favourite with our close harmony Male Voice Choir (a curiously named ensemble in - as it was then - an all boys school!). I was very fortunate to have Ken teaching me the History of Music when I was in Year 12 (or the 'Deputy Grecians' as we were known in C.H. lingo). It was only when life had moved on and I was into my career that I first came across Ken's wonderful tune 'Coe Fen' which he wrote to John Mason's hymn 'How shall I sing that majesty?'. Choosing Eb major and triple time is always a good start for a hymn tune, but Ken was on top form the day he wrote this tune: the way the highest note of each phrase creeps ever higher until the top Eb at the start of line 7 (after an exquisitely prolonged last note of line 6) is masterly, and there aren't many hymn tunes that start their second half on a half diminished 7th! The finest hymn singing I have ever heard was by Downside School at the memorial service for their Christ Hospital educated Director of Music, Chris Tambling: Coe Fen in truly monumental guise, and a wonderful tribute to a special man. Now that composing has become my own career, I was asked to work on a hymn for communal singing during a local church event. With this occasion and Coe Fen in mind, it seemed to me that the one thing that Ken Naylor's great hymn tune lacked was a thrilling descant. So I set to work. http://www.coefen.org/ It was only on completing my attempt and sharing it with other Coe Fen admirers that I discovered that Ken had written a descant to his tune. Had I known this, I would not have trodden upon such hallowed ground: it seems like disrespect, even at this distance down the years. I requested that the master's own descant be scanned and sent to me. At least there was some affirmation: like my descant, Ken had started his in bar 2, imitating the congregational tune one bar later at a higher pitch; but then, shock! I realised that Ken had committed one of those grave sins of good part-writing: on beats 2 and 3 he had his descant moving in parallel octaves with the bass line! Perplexed, and - if I'm being honest - a little smug, I shared this discovery with a musical colleague. A day later he returned to the topic and gently pointed out that in my descant beats 2 and 3 moved in parallel 5ths with the congregational tune. Time for a quick revision and a portion of humble pie… Download score here - How shall I sing that majesty
Tag, Male voice choir
I was playing at a school Chapel this morning; sadly, St. David’s Day was unmentioned, but I didn’t let it pass: Vaughan Williams’s Prelude on Rhosymedre before, and an improvisation on Men of Harlech as afters.
I sometimes ponder how much of my musical instinct comes from my Welsh genes: my maternal grandfather’s father came from Montgomeryshire and my mother has often told me how they both would ‘naturally sing in harmony’. I feel harmony is probably my strongest musical instinct too; I often improvise on rising and falling chromatic scale.
[caption id="attachment_936" align="alignnone" width="261"] My Great Grandfather: Albert Joseph Owen
b.30th July 1884, Rock House, Trelystan; d.1965[/caption] Of all hymn tunes, Cwm Rhondda is just about the best known and most lustily sung. I recall with some profound echo within the singing of this hymn at my Great Aunt Dorothy’s funeral a few years ago. Not only were my siblings and I giving it our lustiest 4-part harmony, but there was everyone else too: for years Great Aunt Dorothy played the piano for a Male Voice choir, and they had turned out in force. At the end, the Priest gently rested her hand on the coffin and said with a sense of joy: ‘Oh Dorothy! Can you hear us? The singing’s amazing!’ The fulcrum of Cwm Rhondda is, of course that dominant 7th, the one that all Welsh men linger over, stretching out that inevitable need for fulfilment until everyone has felt the pull and can then savour the arrival in the promised land of the tonic. What a glorious, thrilling sound to grow up with; what an inspiring example to have the men around you creating this for you with nothing more than their combined voices. How this tradition should be sustained and valued. Hapus dydd Dewi Sant!