New album ‘The Tree’ features music dedicated to the Musicians’ Company

The Choir of St John’s College Cambridge and Director of Music Andrew Nethsingha are to release The Tree, an album featuring current and past Directors of Music and generations of former choir members. The release includes Herbert Howells’ A Hymn for St Cecilia (1961) composed for and premiered by members of the Musicians’ Company.  The choir celebrates its rich heritage through the new album, featuring live recordings from St John’s College Chapel, due for release by Signum Records on 19 November 2021.

The album plays with the idea of growth, inspired by the tree described in the Book of Job. Starting with the single treble line of Hildegard of Bingen’s O pastor animarum, organ, lower voices, a second choir, then 150 additional singers are gradually added before combining nearly 500 voices together. The image of a tree sprouting new branches can be seen as a metaphor for revival in the wake of the pandemic, the textural growth of the music from monophony to polyphony and the heritage of the choir itself.

Nethsingha says of the project, ‘Several pieces on the album are directed by my predecessors, Christopher Robinson and David Hill. The album is released as a tribute to them, celebrating their 85th and 65th birthdays respectively. Some of my most moving and inspiring experiences in Cambridge have been watching them return to conduct the present choir’.

Herbert Howells was himself Acting Director of Music at St John’s College from 1941-5 during Robin Orr’s absence on active service during the Second World War. Fifteen years later, he composed A Hymn for St Cecilia whilst he was Master of the Musicians’ Companyin 1959; he invited Ursula Vaughan Williams, widow of Ralph, to write the text in honour of Music’s patron saint. The work was premiered in St Paul’s Cathedral by members of the Company, led by the composer. In his booklet notes for the album (which can be read online at Nethsingha describes the work as ‘a joyous stream of melody, imbued from the start with freshness and momentum – a perfect marriage of words and music’. Howells’ manuscript can be viewed on the Musicians’ Company website –—a-hymn-for-st-cecilia

All tracks on the album are taken from live services in the St John’s College Chapel, including an Evensong where the choir performed with Yale Schola Cantorum; and tracks from a special alumni service in 2019 where generations of former choir members came together to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the College Chapel. The album concludes with Love Divine, all loves excelling, sung by nearly 500 people including the choir, former choir members and the congregation.

‘My hope is that listeners might feel the ‘liveness’ of these archive recordings compensates for the lack of studio conditions’ Nethsingha remarks. ‘As

I write, pandemic restrictions only allow us to sing services in an empty Chapel; we should never take for granted the joy of having a real (if occasionally noisy!) congregation with whom to share our music-making’.



By: ANDREW NETHSINGHA, Director of Music St John’s College Cambridge

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