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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

The most beautiful love song in the world...

Since the ORA Singers releases today their new album ‘Desires – A Song of Songs Collection’, I thought I’d talk a bit about what the latter part of that title is referencing so you have a bit more insight ahead of listening to it – live next Saturday, or in the comfort of your own home in recording…

The Song of Songs (Canticum Canticorum in Latin) is a book in the Bible, but is less of a ‘book’ than most of the others in the religious tome as it doesn’t have any proper narrative structure. Also called the Song of Solomon, after its purported author King Solomon, the writing is actually a collection of love poems between two lovers, often allegorised as Israel (or the Jews) and God, and can be read as an inspired template of ideal love. For clarity about the title, The Song of Songs does not imply that it is the song about songs but is merely the Hebrew way of saying that it is the best song of all. In Hebrew, when you want to say something is the best you call it the X of X, for that reason Jesus or God is the ‘Lord of Lords’ or the ‘Light of Lights’; he is the most senior of all the Lords, and the brightest of all the lights. So, in this context the Song of Songs is the pinnacle of all songs ever written and all that ever will be written – even though it’s not explicitly a ‘song’… maybe it should be the Poem of Poems instead? Poema Poematis…?

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The text has inspired many people over the ages from novelists and filmmakers to composers and artists and has a special place in Judeo-Christian culture. Selections from the poems are also read at weddings, and many popular wedding pieces which you may already know are settings of texts from the Song of Songs: Set me as a seal – Walton, Greater Love – Ireland, and I sat down under his shadow – Bairstow, just to name a few from the Anglican tradition.

My favourite section of the poem comes near the beginning in Chapter 2, and is a setting of text that is also regularly used at weddings as set by Healy Willan:


Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past.
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth.
The time of the singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens her green figs.
The vines are in blossom.
They give out their fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.


Lots of composers turn to this set of texts to set to music, and I think one of the main reasons for this, aside from the inherent beauty of the text and evocative subject matter, is that the text fits into the more freeing of the categories we talked about in one of my previous blog posts. The poems are not wholly narrative, leaving a lot of the music’s structure up to the composer; they are highly descriptive and have some wonderfully imaginative imagery – often leaning on the more sensual side…; and they are functional, meaning that the pieces have a liturgical purpose giving the composer an overarching atmosphere of religious devotion to achieve, which, for many, is an enabling factor in the compositional process.  

Some of my favourite settings of the text come from Palestrina who wrote two whole books of motets to the words, and are some of his most beautiful and at times odd works: check out Introduxit me rex and Nigra sum sed formosa.

The ORA Singers’ new album takes lots of different pieces written by many different composers throughout western musical history, from plainchant, passing through a pick of renaissance classics including some Palestrina and four Spanish composers, and then emerging in the modern day with music by Dove and Jackson. The concert also includes two new commissions, Sicut lilium by John Barber and Amica Mea by Donna McKevitt, the former also appearing on the CD and the latter having its world premiere a week tomorrow. I’ve listened to the whole album through a few times now (I had been privileged with exclusive access 😉) and can attest to its quality. At the moment my picks of the album are the Dove, the Gombert, the Barber, and the Vivanco so…


What I have been listening to this week:

Vadam et circuibo civitatem – Jonathan Dove

Quam pulchra es – Nicholas Gombert

Sicut Lilium – John Barber

Veni, dilecte mi – Sebastian de Vivanco

Or listen to the full album below:


Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers