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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.

Ah, repetitious robin

Author:   Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Author: Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Even though I am a composer, most of my day-to-day work is spent in the capacity of conductor. I’ve spent the past week finalising the programme for a choral workshop I will be running for the York Early Music Festival in July. The programme is based around Thomas Tallis and the variety of style throughout his life caused by the regular change of monarchy, which with it brought differing ideologies over religious practice in the Church. Because of this I’ve been doing some reading about Tallis, and consequently about the monarchs he served, the first of which being the infamous Henry VIII.

Now, apart from reminding me that Henry VIII owned a lot of recorders (by a lot, I mean a lot – around 76 of them… who needs that many recorders), it also reminded me of some wonderful music I encountered a few years ago from a book referred to as Henry VIII’s Book.

The manuscript is a collection of songs and musical pieces that were likely performed at the court of the King, and it contains music for single voices, multiple voices, and unspecified instruments. Composers in the book range from those that are well-known today, like Heinrich Isaac and Robert Fayrfax, to lesser known English composers, like Robert Cooper and Thomas Farthing. There are also a considerable amount of compositions attributed to the King himself, including the famous Pastime with good company, and a handful of instrumental 'Consort’s, most likely written for viol consort, or a mixture of viols and recorders (you’d hope he’d be putting them to use somewhere…).

A lot of the music in Henry VIII’s Book utilises repetition and cyclical voices, there are a lot of pieces containing canons, and there are many rounds (my favourite of which is a piece called Departure is my chief pain which is ostensibly written by Henry VIII). My favourite piece in the whole collection, though, is a short and sweet piece by the composer William Cornysh (Jr.) called Ah, robin.


Ah, robin is for three voices and sets the following words:


Ah, Robin, gentle, Robin,

Tell me how thy leman doth

and thou shalt know of mine.

My lady is unkind I wis,

Alack why is she so?

She lov'th another better than me,

and yet she will say no.

Ah, Robin, gentle, Robin,

Tell me how thy leman doth

and thou shalt know of mine.

I cannot think such doubleness

for I find women true,

In faith my lady lov'th me well

she will change for no new.

Ah, Robin, gentle, Robin,

Tell me how thy leman doth

and thou shalt know of mine.


What strikes me about this piece, other than its gentle beauty, is its simple construction. The piece is made up of three voices of a similar range, cycling round the same four-bar phrase with slightly different layering each time. 

We start with the first voice, introducing what we imagine is the tune. This voice then moves to becomes the accompanying bass line and another voice enters with the initial tune, somewhat cementing its primacy. Suddenly, though, we are introduced to a third voice, above the other two, which incorporates a much different part of the voice, along with a beautiful rising fourth. At this point all three voices work together with a subtle equality that is, in my opinion, just sublime – I could probably listen to this four-bar phrase for the rest of eternity and never tire of it. Now that the refrain is set we are given two verses sung by a different part each time. This weaving of the tune, both in terms of who is given the verse but also in the way the parts generally wind around each other pitch-wise, serves to amplify this sense of connection between the voices, leaving a sound that is unified in musical intent and emotion.

An important lesson to take from this piece is that of patience with ideas. This four-bar phrase is beautiful, but it would be very easy, were we composing the piece anew, to feel the need to move on and develop the idea as we moved from verse to refrain and so on. The strength of this piece comes from its confidence to set forth the idea it wants to present and to let us hear it – and I mean truly hear it, not just experience it once in passing.

At many points within your compositional life you will write things that you like that you feel are worth repeating, and pieces like this show us a way of dealing with that in a fashion which keeps the music fresh and alive. By staggering the opening of the piece, only introducing one layer at a time, we not only get to experience the building of the texture, but we are gradually brought into the music so that when the texture arrives in its fullest glory it is much more impactful than had we begun the piece with all three voices together. This both prolongs the idea but also makes the idea itself more powerful and satisfying.

I recently wrote a piece that utilised a similar process. While writing a setting of the Agnus Dei text for a mass setting this Holy Week, I ended up with a choral-like harmony which was very satisfying within the texture I had laid it. Whilst writing I was trying to figure out how to take the music and either develop it or somehow prolong it, when I suddenly realised that what I had written was, in fact, the essence of what I wanted to express – much like the full four-bar phrase in the Cornysh. At that point I decided that, instead of taking what I had and building on it, I would deconstruct the chorale and build towards it using the constituent parts of what I had already written. The final product was this:

 The gradual build of the texture makes the arrive at the third and final Agnus Dei section much stronger, both with the fullness of the texture finally appearing, but also the solidity of the chord’s harmony making the moment feel like the build-up was always leading to that.

Having the courage to let an idea sit and be experienced will often go against your initial instinct, but it is always worth considering if you feel like the music is too satisfying to just let pass by.

What I’ve been listening to this week:

Judaskuss – Paul Hindemith

Hilf, Herr from Elias – Felix Mendelssohn

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – Edward Elgar

Salve intemerata – Thomas Tallis

Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers