Christmas Cantata - Geoffrey Bush (1902-1998)

Geoffrey Bush was born in London. At the age of eight he was exposed to the English choral tradition in the best possible way when he became a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral. While still a schoolboy he had the good fortune to become an unofficial pupil of John Ireland, with whom he remained very friendly until Ireland’s death in 1962. He went up to Oxford University, though his studies there were interrupted by the war. After graduating in 1946 Bush devoted his professional life primarily to composition and to teaching music. He had a particularly long and close association with London University.

His large portfolio of compositions eventually included no less than six operas and also two symphonies. The First Symphony was completed in 1954 and the first performance was given at the Cheltenham Festival that year. The Second followed in 1957. Unfortunately, Bush’s music, which is tonal, tuneful and accessible, fell out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, a fate he shared with many other fine British composers. In fact the few recordings that have been made demonstrate the high quality of Bush’s music. Both of the symphonies are well worth hearing, for example.

Geoffrey Bush’s output includes two Christmas cantatas. In Praise of Mary (1955) for soprano solo, chorus and orchestra, is a lovely collection of settings of medieval carols. Fittingly, for a piece so firmly rooted in the English choral tradition, it was first heard at the 1955 Three Choirs Festival at Hereford under Meredith Davies with Isobel Baillie as the soloist. A Christmas Cantata (1947) is a rather longer work, but the orchestration is restricted to strings and oboe. It was composed for the Musical Society of Balliol College, Oxford by whom it was premièred that year under the direction of its dedicatee, Ronald Gordon (individual movements are dedicated to other Oxford friends, identified only by their initials.) It is the sort of anthology work which British composers, including Vaughan Williams and Britten, tend to do so well. For his cantata Bush chose a number of well-known, mainly English traditional carols and wove them into a delightful tapestry. Several of the carols settings use traditional melodies. The treatment of all the carols, especially the well known ones, is very thoughtful. There are often unexpected and subtle harmonic touches, either in the accompaniment or within the choir. However, the carols are never overwhelmed and their simple direct spirit is retained.

The piece begins with a relatively extended orchestral prelude. The music is innocent and transparent, very firmly in the best English pastoral tradition. The light scoring ensures that the textures are airy. Eventually the solo soprano and the sopranos sing a gentle ‘Lullay’ before the male voices chant an opening prayer.

The first carol is ‘The Seven Joys of Mary.’ The melody that is sung by the choir is apparently a traditional tune but not the one often associated with the carol. The tune is robust, foursquare and quintessentially English. The movement is described as a Theme and Variations but ingeniously the variations are in the accompaniment. The strange remote string harmonies for the fifth variation (‘the sixth good joy’) are particularly notable.

After this a lovely chorale-like setting of a poem by Hilaire Belloc, ‘When Jesus Christ Was Four Years Old’, recalls the chorales of Bach - as Vaughan Williams was to do a few years later in his own Christmas cantata, Hodie. This setting is simple in style but harmonically sophisticated.

There follows a setting of the Czech carol, ‘Rocking’, which is typical of Bush’s treatment of his core material in remaining faithful to the original carols while presenting them in a new light without suffocating their direct, straightforward nature.

Having given us quite a stretch of gentle music Bush now increases the temperature significantly with ‘Make we merry both more and less.’ This is a virtuoso scherzo, which employs frequent harmonic shifts and is possessed of tremendous rhythmic vitality. It is an exciting movement with lots of rhythmic interest.

The next movement is a short and tender lento tranquillo setting of the fifteenth century English carol, ‘This Endris night’. The next carol is also English and from the fifteenth century. 'I sing of a maiden' is sung by the soprano soloist.

We remain in fifteenth century England for ‘The Coventry Carol.’ The music of the opening and closing stanzas is subdued and very sad but in the central section, where Herod confronts us, there is a fitting degree of bite and ferocity.

In the finale the joy of Christmas reasserts itself with an extrovert setting of ‘I saw three ships’, complete with pealing choral bells. However, Geoffrey Bush has a surprise in store. Instead of ending his cantata with the fairly obvious joyfulness of this carol he brings the work back full circle, reprising briefly the various strands of vocal and orchestral material that we first heard in the Prelude. The work ends quietly. It is the Peace of Christmas that has the last word.

Programme Note by John Quinn