Kenneth Leighton: Every Living Creature – a revelatory and truly rewarding disc by Londinium

At the opening of Kenneth Leighton’s Symphony No.3 ‘Laudes musicae’ (1984), the tenor soloist sings the composer’s own hymn of praise: “O yes, I must sing!  And so must you sing also, music.  For all music is singing.  And in music there is praise of life.”  And, for Leighton (1929-88), that meant the life of ‘every living creature’, as confirmed by this eponymous disc, recorded by the chamber choir Londinium under their director Andrew Griffiths, and released on the SOMM label. 

After studies at Wakefield Cathedral, Queen’s College, Oxford (with Bernard Rose) and in Rome (on a Mendelssohn Scholarship) with Goffredo Petrassi, Leighton held positions at Leeds and Oxford universities before becoming Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University in 1970, a position he held until his death.  During his lifetime, he published more than 100 works, and is primarily known today as a composer of organ music and more than 50 choral works of diverse scale.  As Griffiths observes in his excellent liner booklet article, ‘It is rare to find a choral singer who does not enjoy performing Leighton’s works’.

Indeed, Every Living Creature confirms Leighton’s gift for composing choral music.  But, it does more than that.  It introduces listeners to several works by Leighton which has been forgotten and even lain unpublished.  It seems remarkable, inexplicable even, that works such as the motet for soprano and chorus, Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace, first heard at Ampleforth Abbey in May 1977, and London Town, part of a five-part ‘cycle’ of paeans to the capital which was performed at the Purcell Room in 1969, have since languished.  Similarly, that, of the Three Carols (1948), ‘The seven joys of Mary’ and ‘Sleep, holy babe’ have not enjoyed the renown of Leighton’s ever-popular setting, ‘Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child’. 

Most significantly, though, Griffiths and Londinium bring an important choral song-cycle to the listener’s attention. Laudes Animantium (Praises of the Creatures) sets seven poems drawn from the 1965 Penguin Book of Animal Verse – by William Blake, Alfred Tennyson, Edward Lear, Joshua Sylvester, Humbert Wolfe and Michael Drayton — prefacing them, and so replicating George Macbeth’s edition, with an excerpt from Whitman’s Song of Myself, in which the American poet muses, ‘I think I could turn and live with animals’, for they are ‘placid and self-contain’d’, ‘do not sweat and whine about their condition’ or ‘lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins’. 

Laudes Animantium is grand in scale: scored for double choir, children’s choir, and with virtuosic solo parts, it lasts about 25 minutes.  It was premiered on 13th June 1973 by the New Elizabethan Singers and the City of London School Choir, but then not heard again until Londinium performed it in spring 2019 – singing from photocopies of the manuscript which had been give to the baritone Will Dawes (a Stile Antico colleague of Griffiths) by Leighton’s widow, when he was studying in Edinburgh. 

These ‘animal poems’ are part of a literary tradition that encompasses both the sacred and the secular, and they follow the example of Homeric epics, the Bible and texts such as Aesop’s Fables in using animals as metaphors, both for ethical purposes or for what such analogies can tell us about human life and experience.  Leighton’s original programme note explains that Laudes Animantium seeks to give musical expression to ‘the contrasting attitudes with which we approach the animal world – attitudes which may be merely neutral, emotional or philosophical and religious’.

In this regard, the ’Prelude’ musically encapsulates Whitman’s celebration of the way pre-linguistic animals live, communicate and coordinate their activities, the extended, slow and searching tenor solo set above vocalised harmonies which seem to convey an immanent meaning with immediacy, and also suggest that man shares these primordial origins – as Whitman says elsewhere in Leaves of Grass, ‘I think I could turn and live with animals’ because they ‘bring me tokens of myself’.  The recollections of Leighton’s children of their father’s great love for animals, as recounted by Griffiths – his son Robert remembering that at the time of writing Laudes Animantium Leighton enjoyed watching his pet rabbits, cat and dog play on the lawn outside his study window, and his daughter Angela noting the ‘silent companionship’ he found with dogs for much of his adult life – seem apposite here.

But, the subsequent ‘Calico Pie’, setting Edward Lear’s extravagant miniature compendium of birds, bugs and tiny beasts who fly, hop and bound but “never came back to me!”, sweeps aside such contemplations, vigorously and elatedly.  However, the textural variation – the initial taut, rhythmic homophony, with a delayed phrase creating an emotive pause as the birds and animals move away from the poet-speaker, giving way to imitative repetitions of “never came back” – and the accompanying injection of harmonic tension, together with the increasing fragmentation and diminishment, brilliantly capture the nostalgia which tinges Lear’s Tennyson-influenced poem.  It’s performed by Londinium with a precision and care that do full justice to the song’s blend of the dark and the light.

An excerpt from Joshua Sylvester’s (1563-1618) translation from the French of Du Bartas’s Divine Weeks and Works, provides the text of ‘The Nightingale’ which Leighton sets as an exquisite duet for soprano (Rebecca Lea) and tenor (Nick Pritchard), whose meandering entwinements embody the improvisatory dialogue of Sylvester’s birds, the first warbling “sweetly, cleer”, the second repeating her strains, to which “the first replyes, and descants there-upon;/ With divine warbles of Division,/ Redoubling Quavers; And so (turn by turn)/ Alternately they sing away the Morn’.  The “tender voice” of William Blake’s “meek”, “mild” lamb is conjured by two pure children’s voices (Arielle Loewinger and Madelaine Napier) which gambol sweetly above the gentle accompaniment, perfectly evoking innocence and virtue, a symbol of all God’s works.

‘The Kraken’, however, brings not innocence but apocalypse – “the fire [that] shalt heat the deep” – as Tennyson draws on biblical and dream imagery to hint at the terrible sea monster that is about to be unleashed upon the world.  Londinium relish the drama of Leighton’s setting which brilliantly captures the impenetrable and static nature of the sleeping beast, “Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea”.  Low, murky harmonies merge and mingle, capturing the sense of a darkness which the sunlight cannot penetrate and of the fleeting, baffling shadows which are glimpsed.  As a “sickly light” illuminates the strange and secret – “wondrous”, “Unnumbered”, “enormous” – Rebecca Lea’s soprano rises above the turgid mass, the vocal line bright but essentially inert, weighed down by plosive sounds and polysyllabic words, “polypi”, “slumbering”.  It is not until the final two lines of the poem that the unearthly suspension is broken, and the creature begins to rise.  The tremendous force of Tennyson’s verse is evoked by Leighton’s vibrant homophony, forcefully delivered by Londinium with a euphoric quality, combining fear and rapture, as the beast reaches the surface, only, when seen by “man and the angel”, to die – as Tennyson and Leighton present an affirmative Victorian Christianity.

Terror is evoked not through stasis, in Leighton’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, but through a tense, muscular counterpoint which builds organically and with striking directness to powerful climaxes whose dissonant twists and turns surprise and unsettle.  In contrast, ‘The Grey Squirrel’ communicates its message indirectly, through the tongue-in-cheek-ism of Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940), who as well as being a poet and playwright was Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Labour.  Leighton exploits Wolfe’s short lines and simple rhymes, the quick phrases dashing and darting with squirrel-like friskiness, as he exposes the hypocrisy of organised religion.  Londinium deliver the setting’s piquancy and poignancy with aplomb.

The finale of Laudes Animantium is rousing, complex and ecstatic.  ‘Every Living Creature’ from Noah’s Floud by Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is a poetic retelling of the biblical flood; one that feels all too relevant today – especially as the thermometer in central and southern Europe hits calamitous hights – given that Drayton’s late works express his frustration that the warnings he sounded in Poly-Olbion had been ignored and England was destined to suffer a self-inflicted eco-catastrophe of Old Testament proportions.  As the animals ‘two-by-two’ into the arc, their primordial instincts are tamed and changed, so that even the Fox, “ashamed of his former theft/ Sadly sits there, as though he did repent. And in the Arke became an innocent”.  The scale and textural-metrical complexity of Leighton’s setting reflects Drayton’s passion.  Above double-choir textures three soloists (Lea, Pritchard and mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick) float free; boys’ voices complicate the choral triple meter with compound divisions.  Somehow everything slides perfectly into place for a blazing “Alleluia” to bring the Benedicte canticle, and the cycle as a whole, to an uplifting and luminous close.

Every Living Creature is worth buying for this superb and revelatory rendition of Laudes Animantium alone.  But, Londinium offer further treasures.  Griffiths crafts lovely textures in ‘Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child’, from the Three Carols Op.25 (1948), the bass providing firm support while the three upper voices shift and slide in parallel motion and Helena Whitfield’s soprano solo gleams above.  There’s a striking change of mood, with the metrical robustness and variety of the central section, as slicing sforzandi seconds depict Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  The richer harmonies feel emotively charged but are assuaged by the return of the soprano solo, now more lament than lullaby.  The carol is beautifully conceived and articulated by Londinium.  But, how lovely also to have, for the first time, the gentle strophic ‘The seven joys of Mary’, which flows with relaxed modal inflections and blossoms with comforting warmth; and, the resonant expansiveness of ‘Sleep, Holy Babe’, with its sometimes surprising harmonic ‘corners’, which Londinium negotiate impeccably.

John Masefield’s text is crisply set by Leighton in the aforementioned London Town and it is delivered with sprightly precision here, the contrasting choral and solo episodes characterising the essential spirit of town and country, respectively.  Griffiths makes much of both the textual variety and unexpected cadential kinks and curves.

Leighton said of himself, ‘I like to think that I’m religious, though I don’t go to church much.  I read lots of philosophy of religion.  I find in religious/ mystical/ visionary ideas the most exciting stimulus for composition’.  Such is evident in the composer’s choice of texts, with the metaphysical poets receiving frequent musical treatment.  In Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace which sets a devotional prayer by Richard Crashaw (c.1613-49), as the solo soprano (Rebecca Lea) soars in dreamy ecstasy – above harmonies which seem the musical definition of “love’s delicious Fire” in which Crashaw’s poet-speaker ‘dies’, with the emotive sensuality of the madrigalists – Leighton masterfully captures what might be termed the ‘affective devotion’ expressed by the lyrics, combining as they do contemplative fervour and secular sensuality.  The peace and gratification achieved through the sweet embracing harmonies of the close, “Dead to my selfe, I live in thee”, evoke both the otherworldly consummation of St Teresa of Ávila and the intense immediacy of the erotic present. 

The philosophical probing and paradoxes of John Donne’s Nativity ode are no less lucidly communicated, through Leighton’s characteristic subtle dissonances and imitative motifs.  The octet is addressed to Mary, the sestet to Donne’s own soul; the overall mood is one of quietude, even as the meter shifts and the musical ideas become concentrated, reflecting the immensity of God taking on human form, and becoming “weak enough, now into our world to come”.  In An Evening Hymn Thomas Browne (1605-82), entrusts himself to sleep, though aware of its dangers – not least the menace of sin that darkness brings.  Londinium’s performance of Leighton’s equally unsettling setting sent shivers up my spine.  A rousing setting of Hymn to the Trinity (anon.) concludes the disc, increasingly acquiring rhythmic vigour and vocal lustre through its three and a half brief minutes. 

Through their superb, committed and compelling performances on Every Living Creature, Andrew Griffiths and Londinium confirm Leighton as one of the finest British choral composers of the 20th century.  Rooted in the traditions of Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten and others, his music shows us how we can connect to the past while generating the new.

Claire Seymour

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88): Every Living Creature 

Laudes Animantium Op.61 (1971); An evening hymn (1979); London Town (1968); Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace (1977); Three Carols (1948); Nativitie (1956); A Hymn to the Trinity (1974)

Rebecca Lea, Nina Bennet (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Finchley Children’s Music Group, Londinium, Andrew Griffiths (director)

SOMMCD 0667 [73:21]