“I like to write music every choir can sing”
Ahead of the release of her debut disc of choral music, I spoke to British composer, singer, and choir director Joanna Forbes L’Estrange about her influences and inspirations
Your new album is called ‘Heaven to Earth.’ Why this title, and how does the music on the album reflect the title?
Anyone who’s ever sat in a beautiful church or cathedral and witnessed the evening sunlight streaming in through a stained glass window will know the sensation of a hint of Heaven coming to Earth. When my sons were choristers in the Choir of St John’s College in Cambridge, I would go to evensong as many times a week as I could just to experience that extraordinary, other-worldly atmosphere. It was like a wonderful reset, and I would emerge less than an hour later, feeling completely different from how I felt walking in. By listening to or singing church choral music, we can sometimes get that feeling of recreating the songs of the angelic hosts in Heaven down here on Earth.
The title for this album came to me during one such service. I remember reciting The Lord’s Prayer along with the rest of the congregation and, during the line ‘Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven’, being struck by the notion of praying for things on Earth to be as they are in Heaven. In our busy lives, we can easily be caught up in the endless day-to-day tasks and minutiae of life and the constant news of conflicts, famine, and natural disasters. Evensong services allow us to respite from this busyness and to be at one with God, whatever we each perceive God to be, with each other and with ourselves; when the music moves you, it can feel as if Heaven has come to Earth. We’re so fortunate that, wherever in the country you find yourself, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be a choral evensong happening not too far away.
Almost every piece on this album mentions or alludes to Heaven and Earth. There are those which create strong visual imagery, such as in Let My Prayer Rise Up (track 1), where our Earthly prayers rise like incense to Heaven, and High As The Heavens (track 13) which likens the greatness of God’s love to the expanse between Heaven and Earth. Then there are the pieces which remind us that God’s glory can be found on Earth and not just in Heaven, such as For The Beauty Of The Earth (track 10) – ‘For each perfect gift of Thine, to our Earth so freely given, Graces human and divine, Flowers of Earth and buds of Heaven’ – and in my setting of Jane Austen’s prayer Give Us Grace (track 8) in which she writes ‘thou art everywhere present’. Similarly, the words of Holy, Holy, Holy (track 16) include the line ‘Heaven and Earth are full of your glory’. Elsewhere on the album, there are reminders that Jesus came from Heaven to Earth, such as in the Magnificat (track 3), Mary’s response to the news that she will be the mother of God, and in Drop, Drop, Slow Tears (track 12) which speaks of Mary Magdalene’s tears bathing the ‘beauteous feet which brought from Heaven the news and Prince of Peace’. In Words From The Cross (track 7) we see Jesus communing from the cross on Earth to his Father in Heaven. Finally, there are the pieces such as The Lord’s Prayer (track 18), The Chorister’s Prayer (tracks 5 and 11), and the Preces and Responses (track 6) which long for Heaven’s blessings to be bestowed on us here on Earth, for example, this line from one of the Collects in track 6: ‘mercifully grant that, as thy Holy angels alway do thee service in Heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us here on Earth’.
Drop, Drop, Slow Tears – a setting for SATB unaccompanied choir by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange
You have dedicated the album to your foster father, Rev. Richard Abbott. Tell us more about his influence on your musical life and career.
It’s impossible to overstate Richard’s influence on my musical life and my career. Interviewers sometimes assume that, since I’m the daughter and the granddaughter of professional composers and arrangers, this must have been the reason I became a composer myself. In actual fact, it was my foster father, who brought me up from the age of 4 to 11, who encouraged me to start writing music. He and my sister and I had sung together in our local parish church choir; a humble little choir with just one rehearsal and one service a week, but it got me hooked on church choral music. When Richard became ordained in 2007, he asked me to write a piece for the choir to sing as his ordination. I’d been a professional singer for over ten years by that point and, although I’d written a handful of arrangements in my capacity as Musical Director of The Swingle Singers, I hadn’t composed anything original since my GCSE Music coursework! I remember saying to Richard “but I’m not a composer” and him replying “well, I think you might be.” It was a turning point for me; I wrote a setting of Go Forth In Peace (track 21) which the Royal School of Church Music published. Choirs started singing it and sending me nice messages via my website. Not long after that, I was commissioned to write a congregational setting of the mass (The St Helen’s Service tracks 14-17) which again the RSCM published and which many choirs have since adopted as their weekly setting. I find that my experiences as a chorister, as a choir director and as a life-long church-goer all influence me as a composer. I definitely write music from the perspective of a singer more than of a composer, if that makes sense. It’s got to feel nice to sing.
After I left the foster home, Richard and I remained in touch. Once I’d started composing, he would begin every phone conversation in the following way: “Hello darling, how are you and what are you writing at the moment?” He commissioned Saint Richard’s Prayer (track 19) too and cried when I showed him the dedication at the top of the published music. We all need someone like him in our lives to believe in us and to encourage us to believe in ourselves. I was so lucky that Social Services happened to place my sister and me with Richard and his wife Gillian. Perhaps it wasn’t luck at all but part of a bigger plan. In any case, he was my guardian angel just when I needed one most. When Richard died of cancer in October 2022, I knew I wanted to record an album in his memory. I only wish he could have heard the wonderful London Voices singing my music; he’d have been over the moon.
What do you hope listeners will take from the music on your album?
More than anything, it is my hope that people who hear my album will want to sing the pieces themselves. I’m excited about choir directors listening to a track and thinking, “Ooh, that would work well with my choir. I’m going to get hold of the sheet music!” The tracks comprise a mix of introits, anthems, Preces and Responses, Canticles, prayer settings, a Mass setting – some are for SATB choir, with or without organ, some have a unison lower line, some are for upper voices – but what all the pieces have in common is that they are singable. Can you tell how hard I’m trying not to use the word accessible?! I find it can have negative and possibly even patronising overtones. What I mean is that I want people to listen to these tracks and have confidence that, however little experience or musical training they may have, they will be able to sing my music. What’s more, they will hopefully find it enjoyable and pleasurable to sing. My husband and I record all of our compositions: I sing the soprano and alto lines and Alexander sings the tenor and bass. There are two reasons for doing this. It’s by recording every line of a piece that you find out how it feels to sing, whether you’ve got the breath markings, note-lengths, dynamics correct and so on. I always make adjustments as a result of this process. The other advantage is that we can create part-learning tracks which we then make available to choirs who find it beneficial to hear their vocal line sung before they learn it.
When I’m composing music intended for use in church services, my overriding motivation is to set the words in such a way that those who hear them are drawn closer to them. Church choral music doesn’t need to be challenging or ground-breaking, in my opinion. There is such beauty to be found in simplicity, something I learned by singing the music of the Taizé community in France; through musical repetition and familiarity, the words come to the fore and the whole experience becomes almost meditative. The same is true of the familiar Gregorian chants of the Medieval music. I like to write music which every choir can sing, not just the professionals. When I found out that over 600 choirs across the world had sung my coronation anthem The Mountains Shall Bring Peace (track 20) it made me so happy.
Singing in a choir is so completely life-affirming. We are so fortunate to have such a rich heritage of church buildings and church music but, sadly, not all churches and their choirs are thriving. The Royal School of Church Music and other organisations such as the Friends of Cathedral Music are doing wonderful work to keep this heritage alive and I want to do my bit to help. People are sometimes put off joining a choir because they think they’re not good enough or don’t have the right background or musical training but my belief is that if everyone sang in a choir, the world would be a better place. And if I can encourage people to do this by composing tuneful pieces which everyone can enjoy singing, I will.
‘Heaven to Earth’, a collection of singable, accessible, sacred choral music by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, is released on the Signum Classics label on 12 January 2024.
This is simply beautiful choral writing by someone who knows, from a singer’s perspective, how to compose music which every choir will want to sing. – John Rutter CBE
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