The Byrds and the organ

The organ at Christ Church, Didsbury,
on which these pieces will be performed

Continuing with Clare Orrell’s programme notes for our concert on the 29th of February 2020, here we hear about the organ and organ & choir pieces which will be gracing our programme. The links take you to a number of YouTube posts. We’d like to thank their originators for sharing these wonderful videos.

At our concert the two organs, at Christ Church, West Didsbury, will be played by Richard Lead and Robert Woods. The choir performances will be conducted by Keith Orrell.

Eugène Gigout

The Grande Chœur Dialogué from Six Pieces d’Orgue by Eugène Gigout (1844-1925) may well be his best-known organ piece. Born in Nancy, he studied at the school of sacred music, the École Niedermeyer, with Saint-Saens. The piece exploits the contrasts in the various departments of the organ with an antiphonal dialogue reminiscent of the work of Gabrieli in St Mark’s, Venice. Originally for solo organ, the two organ version, to be performed at our concert, gives us a truly triumphant dialogue between two instruments.

Prelude on ‘Picardy’ Op. 55 was written by John Joubert in 1967 as a result of a commission for a volume of Simple Organ Works by Oxford University Press. The meditative opening surrounds the melody (the tune we know as ‘Let all mortal flesh’). Joubert uses the same melody in his St Mark Passion of 2015.

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Akexandre Guilmant

Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) wrote his Sonata No. 1 Op.42  in 1874 which was published in 1875  in his early years as organist at the Église de la Sainte Trinité in Paris – the church which held the funerals of Rossini, Berlioz and Bizet, whose future organist would be Olivier Messiaen. The Pastorale is the second movement of the sonata. In A major and in 12/8-time, it follows a typically pastoral style using a lot of fragmented, imitative writing, above a chorale-like melody. Originally for solo organ, tonight’s performance is an adaption for two organs.

Louis Vierne (1870-1937) wrote his Messe Solennelle op.16 in 1899 and was first performed in Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Vierne had been encouraged by César Franck to learn the organ and soon began lessons with him at the Paris Conservatoire. Franck died in a traffic accident, so Vierne continued with his successor Charles-Marie Widor.

Quickly, he became Widor’s assistant, both at the Conservatoire and Widor’s church Saint-Sulpice, having access to the impressive Cavaillé-Coll organ. Vierne became good friends with Widor, who even played at Vierne’s wedding there.

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Louis Vierne

Built on the styles of Franck and Widor, Vierne conceived the piece for choir and orchestra but Widor thought it more practical for two organs.  In the first performance in December 1901, Widor played the great organ and Vierne the choir organ. Although a Messe Solennelle, the Credo was omitted, which more accurately makes it a Messe Brève.

It was likely to have been written for liturgical performance, as the intonation at the beginning of the Gloria is missed out, ready for the priest to sing. The work is a solemn and extended setting of the mass, with creative use of the contrasting organs. Its dramatic passages and grandiose style meant that the piece did not become a regular of liturgical repertoire, even when a version for one organ was arranged. Nevertheless, the mass is a climax of French choral and organ repertoire for the church, a compositional style which was extended and developed well beyond this in the twentieth century by his students, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, and Marcel Dupré.

Vierne took up the post at Notre-Dame in 1901, and indeed it was Dupré who was at his side at the organ there when he suffered a stroke and died whilst improvising in a recital.

We hope to see you at our concert, Dona Nobis Pacem.

Tickets can be bought on the door or before the concert via Eventbright

Clare’s Programme Notes

We are always proud to present our programme notes because of the careful consideration with which they have been researched and written. For this, we can thank Clare Orrell, soprano with Byrd Singers.

We are happy to share them with you here on our blog pages. You are free to use them but please give credit to Clare in your own programmes.

On February 20th 2020 we will be performing John Joubert’s amazing Pro Pacem Motets.

John Joubert by the composer’s grandson, John E. Morris –

John Joubert (1927-2019) was born in Cape Town, South Africa and came to the Royal Academy of Music on a post graduate scholarship to study composition, studying chiefly with Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush.After twelve years at Hull University, he and his family moved to Birmingham when he was appointed Reader in Music at the University. Joubert’s music occupies the ground in the post Britten-Tippett era, where you would find Kenneth Leighton, Thea Musgrave and Malcolm Williamson, rather than the possibly more favoured ‘Manchester School’ of the time which included composers such as Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr. As with many people in the late 1950s, John was concerned with the ‘problem of peace, a pressing problem of our time.’

The Pro Pace Motets are ideally performed as a triptych, though they were written at different times. O Libera Plebem, written in 1955, is a setting of a 9th Century poem by Sedulius Scottus, an Irish priest and poet who wandered across mainland Europe, spending much time in France. Poets of that time were most taken with comets, floods and plagues like the Black Death. Here deliverance is sought from universal destruction.

The second, from 1959, O TristiaSeclaPriora, sets text from Eugenius Vulgarius, the 10th Century Italian priest and poet, lamenting the day man conceived weapons; again, a theme for the time of the ‘Cold War’.

Peter Abelard, the French philosopher and poet, wrote Solus ad Victimam, of Christ’s passion being the triumph of non-violence and to ‘win the laughter of thine Easter Day’. Joubert’s setting (1958) is the most extended of the three motets and, unlike the other two, a sense of hard-won optimism is sustained to the end.

Interestingly texts for all three are found in Helen Waddell’s ‘Medieval Latin Lyrics’. All have a drive and starkness, reflecting on modern times, lived in fear, with the sanctuary of hope in a single person’s self-sacrifice.

Insider review

An insightful review of the William Byrd Singers’ 2018-2019 programme written by one of the choir members Alan Tomlinson

Alan in amongst the basses at rehearsals

William Byrd Singers 2018-19 – another season to relish and a taste of what you can expect

Perform to a loyal audience

We have created a loyal and growing audience. It happily follows our eclectic mix of quality, yet often obscure, music. This is what we are about: discovering and learning music to engage and attract audiences and singers

Grapple with a challenging repertoire …

Our repertoire for the 2018-19 season showed all of these qualities. The music spanned six centuries, from early Tallis and Byrd, to contemporary composers such as Stephen Wilkinson, Roderick Williams, Bob Chilcott, and our own director, Keith Orrell. Across this wide spectrum we sang Bach, Brahms, Bruckner, Finzi, Hindemith Howells, David Grundy, Pearsall and Schumann. Members also skilfully sang solo items (and played instrumental items)  by Britten, Rebecca Clarke, Elgar, Quilter, Rutter and Vaughan Williams

… accompanied …

One of this season’s major challenges was Apparebit Repentina Dies, a rather devilish work by Paul Hindemith for which we enlisted a ten-piece brass ensemble and organist/pianist. We initially found its musical idiom hard to crack. In fact, it only made full musical sense to us in performance with the brass, but it was a highlight of the year. It brought our accompanied singing to the fore and the instrumentalists loved playing with us. It also provided chance to highlight instruments like French horns, particularly in Brahms’ Vier Gesänge Op 17, and trombones in pieces by Bruckner

And finally, how special that we took part in a commissioned piece, One Universal Shout, at the Bridgewater Hall. This marked the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. We joined the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Sunday Boys choir and community choirs to do the occasion justice.

and A cappella

In contrast, we began 2018-19 with a simple and more familiar unaccompanied Ave Verum by William Byrd, which we paired with Roderick Williams’ three-choir re-imagining of it.  We challenged ourselves by singing Byrd’s original from memory while standing around the audience, creating a palpable connection with them.


We take pride in the quality and range of our programmes, seeking the hidden depths of every piece of music. We embrace the many musical challenges which our repertoire presents, persistently studying it even when some initially feels intractable. We work as a team, supporting and encouraging each other, with a professionalism that belies our amateur status.

Contact the choir to find out how to arrange an audition


Tales of a 2nd soprano imposter by Leslie Robinson

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to join the amazing Willliam Byrd Singers, one of the North West of England’s leading chamber choirs. Although I felt very proud at the time, I now frequently find myself suffering from imposter syndrome!

I think I may be the only member of the choir who doesn’t play an instrument and/or teach music; unless you count my spell in the primary school recorder group accompanying morning hymns (I was quite adept at avoiding any hymns with more than two flats in its key signature), and my dabbling with the violin for a year aged 13 (before my dabbling turned distinctly boy-ward).

At age 40ish, I had eventually exhausted the novelty of such distractions and sat my grade 5 music theory exam, the only person in the room whose knees didn’t fit neatly under the two-foot high desks. I felt like some BIG Tom Hanksian character in a very small world. I also took singing lessons and discovered I had a passable voice once it knew what it was doing. My sight-reading though is still decidedly dodgy.

Armed with this stunning array of musical skills I audaciously applied to join the Byrds; audition (including sight-reading) compulsory. I got in! How did I do that? I think it was a fluke; a) it was the end of the rehearsal, b) Keith (MD) was tired, c) the sight-reading test piece was somewhat predictable in style, d) they heard I could bake decent cakes, e) any other flukish explanation you might want to insert.

So, Sunday afternoon rehearsals are always approached with a frisson of anxious anticipation. Will today be the day I’m rumbled? Sight-reading, performing each of the (wide range of) pieces in their appropriate genre style, being able to enunciate a range of impossible languages (the first performance pieces I had to learn were in Hungarian and Russian) and hoping beyond hope that I haven’t been picked for a solo when my musical inadequacies would surely be found out (early on I was actually chosen to be cuckoo in Banchieri’s Contrapunto bestial alla mente nevertheless since it only required articulation of two notes, of not unfamiliar interval, I think I may have got away with it).

But on the plus side, my Sundays are always a massive learning opportunity. Each week I note down joyous facts and titbits; new to me but which the others greet with sagely nods of comprehension and a masterly flourish of pencilled choral short-hand. Today’s (secret) mission was to discover the meaning of ‘cantabile’. I’ve heard the word quite often, might have even attempted to drop it into a conversation once or twice with varying degrees of success. But its true definition escaped me.

Well apparently it means ‘songlike’ or in a ‘singing’ style. As a direction for a musical instrument I can sort of get what it means but not terribly useful as a direction for singers since I’m sure we would all like to think we are singing in a, well songlike, way. So what’s it doing as a direction in a choral manuscript? After much searching on the Internet I found a credible source and fuller explanation in W.E Haslam’s (1911) Style in Singing

“ in cantabile phrases the stream of sound, notwithstanding its division into syllables by the organs of articulation—lips, tongue, etc.—should pour forth smoothly and uninterruptedly. The full value of each tone must be allotted to the vowel; the consonants which precede or end the syllables are pronounced quickly and distinctly. In declamatory singing, on the contrary, the consonants should be articulated with greater deliberation and intensity”

So there we have it. Another lesson learned which I hope will help others. Next week I shall be concentrating on those vowels. If that fails, I’ll bring in some nice cake and all will be well again.

My gooey chocolate cake