Programme: Celestial Fire

Friday 13 October 2023

Vivamus presents music from the sixteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries in a church built in a fourteenth-century idiom and consecrated in 1850. A musical framing device is provided by the great Mass for Four Voices (1592/3) of William Byrd, studded with references to matters celestial – look out for the imitative setting of the phrase, ‘Et ascendit in coelum’ / ‘And He ascended into heaven’ in the Credo (Creed). A virtuosic range of textures is put at the service of questions such as, ‘Who can find out the height of heav’n?’ in Philip Moore’s All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord. James MacMillan leads us on a rhapsodic acclamatory journey based on a seven-word Latin text in Christus Vincit, while Vivamus is joined once again by Charles Andrews as he performs Star Fantasy on Alleluia: Vidimus Stellam by contemporary composer Kristina Arakelyan. The choral programme continues with Patrick Gowers’ by turns hypnotic and rousing anthem Viri Galilæi, with its depiction of how ‘the portals high are opened / to receive their heav’nly King,’ tonight featuring both Charles and BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist Joshua Gearing. The programme ends with Cecilia McDowell’s Celestial Fire, a 2013 commission by Oakham School.


All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord, Philip Moore (b. 1943)

Philip John Moore is an English composer and organist, whose many musical leadership achievements include introducing girl choristers into the choir at York Minster in 1997. All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord is an anthem for choir and organ that sets vivid texts from Ecclesiasticus and Psalm 19 in a wide range of styles; unison voices in syncopated rhythms suggest the teeming sameness of the ‘sands of the sea’ while loud block chords speak of the hope of a ‘long life’. Perhaps most memorable are the two slower sections in which the root of wisdom is described in feminine terms and in which text familiar from Vivamus’ recent performance of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil – ‘Teach me O Lord the way of thy statutes’ – is set to gently contrapuntal music rich in suspensions that falls away with a final restatement of the eponymous text.

Mass for Four Voices, William Byrd (c. 1540–1623)

The Mass for Four Voices (MFV) is a choral Mass setting by the English composer William Byrd noted as an example of music from the Tudor period. It was written in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and is one of three settings of the Mass Ordinary that Byrd published in London in the early 1590s. Following the religious conflict of the English Reformation, settings of the Catholic Mass might well result in the arrest of anyone caught with them; this is probably why Byrd chose not to publish the Masses as a set but individually, making them easier to hide.

Among many other highlights, the final prayer for peace in the Agnus Dei at the end of the MFV is one of the most admired passages in the whole of Byrd’s output. Its cornerstone is a suspension figure that generates a sequence of overlapping entries reaching a climax before resolving in a final major chord. In the phrase ‘dona nobis pacem’ / ‘grant us peace’ Byrd almost certainly identified ‘us’ as the persecuted Tudor Catholic community.

Despite its origins as a form of music suppressed by Protestant reformers, the MFV is commonly heard today in Anglican places of worship. In 2023, the Gloria was sung as part of the liturgy for the coronation of Charles III and Camilla.

Christus vincit, James MacMillan (b. 1959)

Sir James Loy MacMillan, CBE is a Scottish composer and conductor. First performed for St Cecilia’s Day in 1994, Christus vincit is a setting of the liturgical text Laudes Regiae, or Royal Acclamations, found in a medieval manuscript in Worcester. MacMillan omits the descriptions of earthly nobles and sets only the introductory words — ‘Christ conquers, Christ is King, Christ is Lord of all’ — with a gentle Gaelic tinge. The refrain is expanded both horizontally and vertically to become a massive statement of Christ’s glory and kingship before ending with a demanding passage marked for solo soprano perhaps evocative of a bird plunging and swooping.

Star Fantasy on Alleluia: Vidimus Stellam, Kristina Arakelyan (b. 1994)

Kristin Arakelyan is a composer, pianist and educator whose interest in music started as a young child in her native Armenia. Four of her compositions were featured in two BBC Proms performances in 2023, including Star Fantasy, in a recital of organ music by Anna Lapwood, the commissioner of the work. Star Fantasy is based on a Gregorian Epiphany chant on words from Matthew 2 (‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star, and are come to worship him’).

Viri Galilæi, Patrick Gowers (1936–2014)

William Patrick Gowers was an English composer with a wide-ranging CV including choral, concert, film and TV music. He was commissioned to compose Viri Galilæi, with its dramatic core but beautifully mystical opening and closing, for the consecration of Richard Harries as bishop of Oxford in 1987. The text is based on the words of the Proper of the Mass on Ascension Day and a hymn text by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth. Notionally an Ascensiontide anthem for double choir and two organ parts, the piece depicts Christ’s Ascension into Heaven using an unusual mixture of musical ingredients, including an organ part ‘conceived as a glittering, bell-like effect’ that ‘does not necessarily have to be played on an organ at all’ and provides a musical representation of Ascension within the space of one distinctive arpeggiated chord at the end of the work.

Celestial Fire, Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951)

Cecilia McDowall is a British composer particularly known for her choral compositions and noted, among other things, for composing a piece inspired by the shipping forecast. Celestial Fire is a setting of text by Priscilla Denise (‘Denise’) Levertov (1923–1997), a British-born naturalised American poet, and John Cosin (1594–1672), sometime Bishop of Durham and contributor to the Book of Common Prayer. Paradoxically, perhaps, the text oscillates between a prayer for the grace of the Holy Spirit (the source of the eponymous celestial fire) and an acknowledgement that, in the opinion of Levertov, ‘no effort earns / that all surrounding grace.’



Vivamus is a small, London-based chamber choir whose members are predominantly postgraduate students and young professionals. We enjoy singing a diverse and challenging range of repertoire from well-known classics to new works by living composers. Find out more about Vivamus and more about our musical director, Rufus Frowde.

Charles Andrews, organ

Charles Andrews is Liturgical Organist of the Temple Church, London and Professor of Organ and Organ Co-ordinator at the Royal College of Music (RCM). Charles studied at the RCM with David Graham, Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, John Barstow and John Blakely with the aid of a Douglas & Kyra Downie Award.

Before joining the Temple Church, Charles was Associate Director of Music at All Saints, Margaret Street in the West End of London, 2011–16.

Recently, four live performances with the Temple Church Choir have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, including the first performance of Carmina tempore viri by Kenneth Hesketh last year. Plans for 2023 include recording works associated with Henry Walford Davies and George Thalben-Ball, former Organists of the Temple Church.

Joshua Gearing, synthesiser

Joshua began learning the piano at five years old, followed by the cello. He moved to percussion aged seven, after watching a local youth orchestra play and being captivated by the range of sounds coming from the back of the room. He takes every opportunity to play, whether it be a small jazz combo in a club or accompanying a choir. He is particularly fascinated with the world of classical music and has a broad range of interests including composing and researching the lives of composers, as well as engaging with his A-level studies. Joshua has played in many orchestras, both in an amateur and semi-professional capacity and is currently enjoying his role as a percussionist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which allows him to combine his two passions of music and travel. He recently featured on BBC Young Musician of the Year 2022, reaching the percussion final. See our interview with Joshua about his amazing career so far.

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