A Song for Oriana

Grayston Burgess and I go back a long way together.  I was a chorister at Westminster Abbey when he joined the choir and staggered us all with the quality and versatility of his singing.  Later, when I was an aspiring young composer fresh out of Cambridge, it was he who gave me some of my first “breaks” – performing my music with his wonderful Purcell Consort of Voices and then commissioning three substantial pieces from me within 5 years (Elegy, Lauds and The Snows of Winter).  This encouragement at such an early stage in my career was a great privilege, so I was enormously pleased when he came to me for a new work to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.


“A Song for Oriana” is basically an exuberant setting of part of a celebratory poem by the 16th century poet George Peele in praise of the first Queen Elizabeth.  Peele’s writing is typical of the flowery language and imagery of the period, and offers plenty of scope for some extrovert musical gestures, but also chances for more gentle and reflective moments.  I was asked to include in the work something for children to sing, and for this I turned to “The Triumphs of Oriana”.  This great collection of 25 madrigals was probably commissioned for performance on May Day 1601 to honour Queen Elizabeth, and all the pieces are linked by a common refrain: “Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: Long live fair Oriana”.  I have used the text of Michael Cavendish’s madrigal “Come, gentle swains” for the children’s song that appears in the centre of the piece, and its refrain is picked up by the full choir to conclude the whole work.  In this middle section faint echoes of the most famous madrigal from this collection, Benet’s “All creatures now”, can also be heard in the trumpets.

Scored for 2 trumpets, percussion and organ, “A Song for Oriana” is constructed in one continuous movement.  After a short declamatory introduction for the men the full choir launch into an extended Allegro in which the poet asks all corners of “this earthly ball” to sing Oriana’s praises.  The altos lead off a more relaxed and lyrical middle section, but this soon gives way (after a brief appearance of the children’s choir) to a spritely dance for the tenors and basses.  In its turn the dance gives way to a charming song for the children, and the whole section ends with a quiet hymn-like passage for unaccompanied choir asking for lasting peace in our land.  The final part of the work recapitulates music from the first section and ends with fanfares and overlapping cries of “Long live fair Oriana for all the performers.

“A Song for Oriana” was commissioned by Choir 2000 and first performed in Histon, Cambridge, in June 2002, under the direction of Grayston Burgess.


© Christopher Brown 2002