This small-scale cantata, setting words by the seventeenth-century poets Patrick Carey and Phineas Fletcher, is written for tenor solo, seven-part choir, and organ. It dates from 1961.
Kenneth Leighton, who was born and bred in Yorkshire and held the Reid Chair of Music at Edinburgh University, was active as a composer of church music for much of his career: he has contributed several liturgical pieces, as well as more extended cantatas, such as this one, on religious themes. He is a most productive composer, and his work has shown many influences over twenty years - something which he regards as both inevitable and desirable. He once said that "for me, the process one hopes to come ever closer to one’s real self."
So Leighton has explored many paths: in his Nine Variations for Piano, he adopts serial methods; while in his Quartet in One Movement he incorporates a degree of performer choice into the piece. His church music has, unsurprisingly, been less radical; but he has never been afraid to bring distinctively modern means of expression into what has traditionally been a conservative arena. This cantata combines a directness of expression, and quite fierce, uncompromising harmonic language, with a great lyrical beauty, anguished in its response to the powerful poems.
The work is dedicated to David Lumsden and the Choir of New College Oxford. The four sections are ‘Christ in the cradle’, a reverie for soloist and organ alone. Then the agony of Christ’s time of doubt is pictured in ‘Christ in the Garden’, built on strong, often homophonic writing for choir. The third section is ‘Christ in his Passion’, in which a winding chromatic line for the soloist leads an accumulation of choral sound - the response to the horror of the Passion is never over-dramatic, though, and the music subsides to a pianissimo ‘Thou didst make Him all those torments bear’, and the soloist takes over to point Carey’s moral: “If then his love / Do thy soul move Sigh out a groan / Weep down a melting tear’. The final section turns to the verse of Phineas Fletcher for a concluding Hymn, which has something of the same effect as the final chorale in a Bach cantata, summing up the response of all to the events which have just been meditated upon. This movement is marked to be sung ‘Molto adagio, molto sostenuto ma un poco liberamente’.
© Kenneth Leighton