LEIGHTON: Easter Sequence

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Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)

Sacred Choral Works

Kenneth Leighton was born in the northern English city ofWakefield and started composing at the age of eight. He gained many formativemusical experiences while a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral, before he went upto Queen's College, Oxford, where he read Classics, and then the BMus. AtOxford his composition teacher was Bernard Rose, and after being awarded theMendelssohn Scholarship, he studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. During hiscareer he held several university appointments at Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford,and in 1970 returned to Edinburgh as Reid Professor of Music until his untimelydeath.

Leighton's compositions include three symphonies. The firstof these (1964), a purely orchestral essay, was followed by two includingvoices (1974, 1984). He was drawn to writing for virtuosi which resulted inseveral concertos. There are three of these for piano (1951, 1960, 1969), and,amongst others, concertos for violin (1952), cello (1956) and organ (1970). Hischoral music includes the large-scale The Light Invisible (1958), and thewell-known carol Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child (1948). He wrote anopera, Columba (1978), as well as vocal and chamber music, and a fine body ofpiano works that reflect his skills as a pianist. Characteristics of his musicare its lyricism, rhythmic energy, virtuoso writing, and a penchant forinstrumental colour.

The legacy of Leighton's experience at Wakefield Cathedral wasprofound, and accounts for the reason why he was drawn to compose for thechurch throughout his career. As he commented: 'Any natural composer is aproduct of his background, experience and training ... With my upbringing and myboyhood as a cathedral chorister this is perhaps why I respond emotionally toChristian subjects and texts ... church music is undoubtedly a channel ofcommunication for me ... early experiences are of immense and fundamentalimportance in musical as in all other kinds of development and I thereforespeak as one who comes from inside the church'.

Leighton's first setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittisis subtitled Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense being composed for the choir ofMagdalen College in 1959 and dedicated to its choirmaster Bernard Rose. In bothcanticles the organ part is elaborate, providing a buoyant texture thatunderpins the words. The Magnificat is bright and joyous with its sectionsbound together by the two-bar organ call to attention at the opening. ItsGloria ends fervently with the words 'world without end' as an exultantdescending phrase punched out by the voices. In the Nunc dimittis the organpart becomes more and more elaborate until it reaches its full glory in thetriumphant Gloria.

Give Me the Wings of Faith was composed in 1962 to acommission from the church of St John the Baptist, Leytonstone, for itsPatronal Festival. It is written for soloists, choir and organ and within itsshort span Leighton achieves a variety of sonorities and moods, which culminatein a sonorous unison melody.

An Easter Sequence was commissioned by the Berkshire BoyChoristers of the United States for their service in St Severin, Paris, on LowSunday 1969. For his texts Leighton used the Propers for the Sundays afterEaster, the Antiphon at First Vespers on Ascension Day and Psalm 23. It isscored for two-part boys' or female voices, organ and trumpet. The music of theIntroit is vigorous, built around fanfare-like figures for trumpet and voicesas if heralding the risen Lord. Gently rocking voices begin the Gradual overwhich a solo treble intones Christ's prophecy. His words 'Peace be to you' arecast as a benign descending spread chord, which is followed by joyfulAlleluias. The organ takes over the rocking figure in the Offertory, as theAngel greets the women in the garden, and a paean of dancing praise bursts outwith trumpet and voices echoing each other suggesting the perpetually ecstaticvoices of the heavenly host. For At the Communion, an organ solo marked byflorid writing forms a prelude to a serene setting of Psalm 23, whilst thelinked Communion is built around an exquisite oscillating melodic fragment.Another organ solo with chord clusters leads to a final allegro in which thetrumpet returns and the voices unite for a flowing melody of affirmativestrength.

In the last decade of his life Leighton was striving tocompose music that spoke more directly to the listener, music that was, hesuggested, 'more static, but perhaps more varied and relaxed, with greater emphasison colour and harmony'. An example of this tendency is the motet What Love isThis of Thine? composed in 1985 for Dennis Townhill to mark his 25 years asorganist and master of the choristers at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh. It iswritten for unaccompanied chorus with soloists and exemplifies Leighton'ssuperb skill at word-setting in the context of melody and harmony that coloursand heightens the text, as, for instance, the mellifluous blossoming of thechoral textures at the words 'O matchless love'.

During his thirties and forties much of Leighton's music wasaustere in mood, using a highly chromatic harmonic language. Such darkastringency is apparent in the cantata Crucifixus pro nobis, a masterpiece inminiature, composed in 1961 for David Lumsden and the Choir of New College,Oxford. Its four movements are, in effect, a concentrated, intense Passion,scored for tenor, choir and organ. The metaphysical seventeenth-century texts,three by Patrick Carey and the last by Phineas Fletcher, are redolent withvivid imagery to which the composer was manifestly drawn. A stark, chill organmotif heard at the opening recurs as a unifying element within the cantata, andthe raw melody of the tenor evokes the wintry images of Christ in the Cradle.In Christ in the Garden the chorus portrays the emotion of the Lord in thegarden of Gethsemane in impassioned music that reflects words in the text suchas 'flame' and 'fire'. For Christ in his Passion the tenor and chorus arecombined, and its central six-part section rises to an anguished, dissonantclimax as it dwells on the agony of the crucifixion. The almost unbearablebuild up of tension of the successive movements is typical of Leighton's musicat this time; its musical and emotional catharsis is reserved for Fletcher'sHymn with its soothing harmonies and affecting vocal line.

Throughout his life Leighton found inspiration in hymns,chorales and plainsong chants which were quarried as musical material forpieces. An example is Veni creator spiritus for organ composed for theDunfermline Abbey Festival in 1987. The ancient melody is used in the manner ofa Bachian chorale prelude, as is the hymn tune Rockingham, composed in 1975 toa commission by Oxford University Press for inclusion in their collectionChorale Preludes on English Hymns. The tune is set to the familiar words When Isurvey the wondrous Cross, which is heard against a haunting, lilting rhythmthat creates a mood of hushed awe.

Leighton's second setting of the evening canticles, TheSecond Service, dates from 1971 and was commissioned by the Cathedral OrganistsAssociation. It was dedicated to the memory of Brian Runnett, the outstanding,organist and choirmaster of Norwich Cathedral, who died tragically at the ageof 35 in a car accident. Cushioned by gentle note clusters, the lyrical,melismatic melody of the trebles floats above them, and is extended to theother voices. A dance-like accompaniment for organ is established, recallingthat Leighton used to insist that in performance his music should be made todance, and over its syncopated rhythms the voices have long-limbed melodiesthat are often
Disc: 1
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (The Second Service),
1 Magnificat
2 Nunc Dimittis
3 Give me the wings of faith
4 Introit (for the First Sundy after Easter)
5 Gradual (for the First Sunday after Easter)
6 Offertory (for the First Sunday after Easter)
7 Communion (for the First Sunday after Easter)
8 Sortie (Antiphon at First Vespers of Ascension Day
9 Veni creator spiritus
10 What love is this of thine?
11 Christ in the Cradle
12 Christ in the Garden
13 Christ in his Passion
14 Hymn
15 Rockingham: Chorale Prelude on 'When I survey the
16 Magnificat
17 Nunc Dimittis
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