Written on Water, Bath Abbey

LAST night’s performance of Written on Water was the third premiere I have attended of works by Jools Scott (music) and Sue Curtis (words).

The Cool Web, their deeply moving tribute to the soldiers who died in the First World War, was premiered in the Abbey in November 2014, while And There Was Light received its first performance just before Christmas last year.  Both were inspiring occasions and consequently I was awaiting this, their latest collaboration, with considerable eagerness.

Under the baton of their charismatic conductor Greg Hallam, assistant music director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, Written on Water was performed by a massed choir of around 350 pupils drawn from various primary schools in Bath, and accompanied by members of the Bristol Ensemble with the excellent Jon Monie as narrator.

The work itself is a song cycle inspired by the history of Bath Abbey, beginning with the sacred spring, through Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Bath to the present day. Its mysterious and rather haunting title is taken from the poet John Keats whose own epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” could hardly have proved more wrong, for his name most certainly has endured. The people who have, from ancient times, lived hereabouts must also have thought that their lives would leave no mark on time, but, of course, they did.

Everything that has happened in Bath and everyone who has lived there, has played a part in determining its future.  And, of course, the history of Bath is literally written on water; the hot springs and the river flow through the story from beginning to end.

But first things first.  Last night’s performance opened with five songs from English composer Jonathan Dove’s delightful cycle Seasons and Charms. Expertly accompanied on piano by Gary Desmond, I was immediately impressed by the various choirs’ enunciation of the words, attention to dynamics and sense of articulation.  All the songs were sung with confidence and infectious youthful enthusiasm – Greg Hallam had not only instilled in his singers a sense of musical discipline but also had them eating out of his hands. Three cheers then for the shining faces of Kingswood Prep, King Edward’s Junior School, Farrington Gurney, Weston All Saints and Widcombe, who together with Winsley Primary School, started our evening off with such exuberance.

Written on Water itself was commissioned by the Bath Abbey Music Society in celebration of the Abbey’s exciting Footprint Project – a programme of both ambitious capital work and state-of-the-art interpretation.

Its ten movements explored a range of musical genres that possibly in less capable hands might have become somewhat piecemeal. But with Sue Curtis’s facility with language and Jools Scott’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to create approachable music of real quality we have a creative partnership that have a remarkable talent for style.

Consequently, the work was wholly unified and an absolute joy from start to finish. From the driving rhythms of the second movement, Mother!, reminiscent of the best of Karl Jenkins, to the heartfelt purity of the third, Successa Petronia (43 AD), from the jazzy black humour of the Curses Song (No. 4) to the rumbustiousness of the Monk’s Song (No. 7), we had music that caught the spirit of the words completely and clearly fired the imagination of the performers.

Particular credit must go to the several unnamed soloists and small ensembles taken from within the choir. The young girl who took the solo line in Successa Petronia (43 AD), which took for its text the words of the parents of a little girl who tried to keep her memory alive by inscribing a tombstone to her, was particularly moving, while the soloists and different groups, both small and large, that played such an important part in St. Peter’s Fair (No. 8) did so much to bring the liveliness and vitality of the fair to life.

A special word of congratulation should also go to the small ensemble who sang the short refrain in The Lantern of the West (No. 9).  From where we were sitting the concentration and vigour this little group put into their singing was a joy to behold!

Scott’s ear for orchestral colour was also evident throughout. From the opening bars, the brass quintet, three percussionists, piano and organ all contributed to give the performance some truly spine tingling moments. There was some particularly beautiful orchestral writing in the third movement, Successa Petronia (43 AD), perhaps the most poignant movement of all.

If the ensemble was occasionally a little on the loud side for the young singers, particularly towards the end of the evening when some of them were getting a bit tired, such is the nature of a live performance and it certainly did not detract from our overall enjoyment.

Although the song cycle was written for Bath, it is a work that really deserves to be taken up by youth choirs everywhere.  Children need to have the opportunity of singing decent modern pieces and in Written on Water we have a piece that is just that.


Footnote: The Cool Web will  be performed as part of the Wimbledon Festival, on 11th November in the church of the Sacred Heart

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