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- Operas: Morvoren (1963); The Man from Venus (1967); Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde (1973).
- Orchestral works: Symphony (1973).
- Vocal and chamber music such as: Songs to Delight for women’s choir; songs (some in French); 2 string quartets (1944-1964); piano trio (1973).
- Piano works: 2 Rhapsodies (1943); Galop parisien for 2 piano’s (1950); L’enfant s’amuse, op. 6: 5 pieces (1954); Sonatina champetre op. 17 (1959); Sonata for 2 piano’s (1960), Jazz and Blues (1970).
- Concertino for piano and strings (1951).
English composer of English-French descent.
Studied composition with Imogen Holst in Dartington (1946-1947) and with Gordon
Jacob at the Royal College of Music in London (1948-1951) where, in 1960, he
became a professor in composition.
The Sacred Choral Music of Philip Cannon
By Ronald Thomas
One of the more memorable moments of my life is sitting alone with Philip Cannon in the ill-kept gallery of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, for the Australian première of his Son of God, late winter 1958. Cannon, unassuming, requested that isolation on arrival.
Son of God, three unaccompanied motets for double chorus, concerns the Nativity, based on Henry Vaughan’s “Awake, glad heart get up and sing”; the Crucifixion using the words “Christ comes to Calvary. Dark grows the angry sky”; and the Ascension based on William Drummond’s words, “Bright portals of the sky, embossed with sparkling stars”.
The outer movements reveal Cannon’s love of the dance, the final movement resembling a triumphant pavane. The second movement opens and closes with dark, multi-voiced canons. On either side of the darkness of Calvary the movements are linked by trumpet-like fanfares – the whole work ending in a clashing peal of bells as Christ enters heaven.
The Sydney performance, as evidenced by the applause and the Sydney Morning Herald review, was stunning. Immediately, Sydney’s musical world recognized that Cannon, a composer making a strong creative contribution to choral tradition, was a suitable replacement for the former conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, Sir Eugene Goossens, a composer remembered for his 1951 work, Apocalypse.
Of that Sydney performance the Australian Music Journal states: ‘…a glorious profusion of intense sacred musicality and deep poetical understanding [from Philip Cannon]…considerable brilliance…the events are vivid, the mystical contents sincere’.
Roderic Dunnett in Church Times (Aug. 1992) describes Son of God as a ‘fine setting, with its triumphant opening carol set in medieval vein and its gentle, central section suggestive of German chorales of Bach’s precursors Scheidt and Walther’.
Following Son of God’s 1956 première in Southwark Cathedral, Musical Opinion critic said: ‘I have long regarded Cannon as one of the few oases in the desert…. Most of this work, while undoubtedly modern, could be sung at sight by a good choir.’
Sadly, Cannon fled Sydney after a brief stay of only eight months. Those who encountered him, in one musical way or another, were stunned and bereft. While Cannon continued to compose wonderful instrumental, and choral and vocal secular music, his brilliant Carillion for organ is worthy of note, he did not return to sacred composition until The Temple (1974) a Triptych based on the poetry of George Herbert (1583–1648). The work, commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival with funding from the Arts Council, was first performed in Gloucester Cathedral, confirming Cannon’s reputation as one of the more accomplished of choral composers.
In The Temple, an unaccompanied Triptych for chorus, Cannon demonstrates a real understanding of choral composition resulting in moments of rare beauty and sensitivity to Herbert’s poetry, using a combination of strong counterpoint ‘with moments of stillness and exquisite chording…. “Throw away Thy Rod” exploits the sounds and moods of anger resolving into pleading, with some beautiful effects on “Though I fail, I weep…” and on the word Creep with its sliding chromaticism. After this, there is a great joyful crescendo for “Love will do the deed”, which again resolves into quiet awe for “Thou art God” and finally makes “Throw away Thy Rod” into a pianissimo whispered prayer.
The second chorus, “Sweet day, so calm so bright”, is set as a gentle undulating dance, but with some very original thought lines and a curious, serene climax on the words “Then chiefly lives”.
The final chorus “O who will show me those delights on high?…I” makes clever but never obvious echo effects, mirroring Herbert’s echoing play on words with chordal repetition and imitation.
‘However, the music never drops into the obvious clichés of repetition, but always reflects the spiritual meaning and content of Herbert’s soul-searching words.’ (Musical Opinion, Nov. 1974) Certainly, Cannon set Herbert’s poetry with apt subtlety, combining the simplicity of the language with evocative, musical imagery.
Subsequently, the Bach Choir, under the direction of Sir David Willcocks (a name well-known to Australian choirs), gave performances of The Temple in England and France under the auspices of the British Council.
Then a BBC commission, for a symphony of international significance to coincide with Britain’s entry into the Common Market, resulted in Son of Man, a powerful choral symphony first performed in Liverpool Cathedral under the direction of Sir Charles Groves, another well-known name in Australasia. The text, drawing graphic images from Isaiah, uses four languages and is scored for tenor and baritone soloists and SATB.
Cannon’s standing as a world figure, as a masterly composer, resulted in HM The Queen directly commissioning a setting of the Te Deum (“We praise Thee, O God: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord…”) for the 500th Anniversary of St George’s Chapel, Windsor (1975). This added considerable weight to Cannon’s reputation placing him as the only composer in the history of English music to have been personally commissioned by a reigning Monarch. Cannon writes: “On my original score (which now rests in the Royal Library at Windsor between the original manuscripts of Purcell and Gibbons) I have written on the vellum: Commissioned by and dedicated to Her Majesty The Queen.”
Originally scored for The State Trumpeters and organ, as befitted the occasion, the Te Deum was later scored for chorus and orchestra. As the première of this work occurred within the frame work of a thanksgiving service, musical critiques are hard to find. However, Yehudi Menuhin’s, ‘It is a beautiful work!’ sums up, neatly, the character of the Te Deum. It is a splendid, jubilant setting, one worthy of placement in a choir’s repertoire for those grand occasions that mark the Christian year.
Lord of Light – A Gloucester Requiem premièred at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral (Aug. 1980). Scored for soprano, tenor, baritone, boys’ choir, SATB chorus, organ and orchestra, the work was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and funded by the Arts Council. This is, indeed, as Cannon himself describes it, ‘a visionary, multilingual work’ of 40 minutes duration.
Music critic, Barry Still, writing in The Guardian (Aug.22) comments: ‘We are so conditioned by settings of the Mass for the Dead which, at the words “Dona eis requiem”, subside into quietness and peace that Cannon’s Gloucester Requiem may have come as startlingly new, even something of a shock. For there is a high decibel count, not only at the blazing concord accompanying the prayer for rest.’
Many composers have treated the Mass operatically, nay theatrically. However, Cannon’s approach is new, successfully telescoping the liturgical text into a forty-minute work.
Soprano and tenor soloists represent two voices in the human mind; the baritone, a prophetic figure; while the Greek-drama-like chorus makes objective and subjective comments.
Critic Still further comments: ‘The extremely demanding choral writing, predominately homophonic, featuring Cannon’s favourite cluster technique can, nonetheless, justify the claim to be within the long English tradition – certainly the Angus Dei for treble voices organ and baritone, provides a few deeply affecting moments of recollection.
The strength and rhythmic vigour of the work recalls the 1974 Gloucester commission, The Temple. However, Lord of Light, with its harsh light (it was mellowed by the Cathedral’s warm glow at the première) goes much further than that: Cannon has updated English music heritage adding an unusual element – a tape recording of a full peel of Gloucester’s bells in the final fantasia, Christe Redemptor Omnium.’
This work is an occasional piece – grand, multilingual, deeply spiritual, complex and exciting. It stands with the Te Deum as a work of immense impact for a suitable, sacred occasion or concert performance. The exultant Hosannas and terror in the face of judgment are vivid, dramatic moments. In all, as the Sunday Times wrote, ‘a vast, wild musical fresco… passionate, tough, dramatic… a composer with a strong imagination.’
For as long as mankind has recognized spirituality as part of the “human form divine”, the dance has featured in the ritual of worship. In the Old Testament there is much dancing: Miriam and her maidens (Exodus, xv.20); the dancing of Jephtha’s daughter to welcome her father home; David, on the return of the Ark, danced before the Lord with all his might; we are told by the Preacher there is a time to mourn and a time to dance; and by the Psalmist David who cries, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dance”.
In the New Testament, to cite but briefly, the prodigal son is welcomed with feasting and dancing, Christ mentioning dancing without rebuke. Christ dances (lives) and becomes, in the well-known Sydney Carter hymn, The Lord of the dance.
The early Christian church found ritual uses for the dance with congregations dancing to the singing of hymns, or, as occurred in northern France, a funeral dance in the church to honour a deceased friend – a ritual I experienced about a decade ago when ribbons were affixed to the casket and a modern dance was performed for a deceased teacher of ballet: a beautifully executed tribute.
It is not surprising, then, to see composers writing sacred music based on dance rhythms and rituals as in Cannon’s Missa Chorea — a Dance Mass (1984). Cannon’s Mass adds to an earlier 20th Century work, Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, composed using ideas from the Apocryphal Acts of St John concerning the mystical use of dancing forming a part of some Gnostic rituals in the second and third centuries.
In addition to his vast output of secular music, Holst is remembered for several hymn tunes of which the lovely Cranham (“In the bleak mid-winter”) and the sterling Thaxted (“I vow to thee my country”) remain popular. Generally speaking, the influence of Gustav and Imogen Holst on Cannon’s formative years cannot be passed off lightly.
Cannon’s Missa Chorea (Dance Mass), scored for eight-part chorus, eight-part semi-chorus and eight soloists, premièred by the BBC Singers under Brian Wright, draws inspiration from an old French abbey, built, in Cannon’s words, ‘like a fortress with walls six-foot thick’. Contrasting this centuries-old stability, stunning and convincing manipulation of traditional vocal techniques are welded into demanding harmonic and rhythmic freshness ‘full of grand polychoral gestures’. These opposing elements – the solid, static abbey walls contrasting the joyous movement of the dance – give the music its strength.
The Listener (April 1984) makes this summation: ‘Ideas ricochet between choir, semi-chorus and soloists; yet the concerto grosso framework, aided by the unison melodies Cannon frequently embeds in his complex textures, act as the six-foot walls of the music; structuring and containing it just as the Mass text structures and contains the Christian philosophy.’
The final work to be considered, A Ralegh Triptych, is another Three Choirs Festival commission, supported financially by the Arts Council, and premièred in Gloucester Cathedral by combined cathedral choirs under Donald Hunt (Aug. 1992).
In setting three poems by Sir Walter Ralegh (ca. 1552–1618), Cannon has created a work ‘binding not just music and poetry but also the basic instincts of hope and despair’, for the subject is death.
Strangely, Ralegh and Cannon were affected by different aspects of death at the centuries-removed time of composition. Ralegh is imprisoned in the Tower, at the whim of James I, awaiting his execution, on two separate occasions. During the first imprisonment (1603), and awaiting execution, he penned The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, a poem opening with the well known “Give me my Scallop shell of quiet”.
However, Cannon’s Triptych opens with Ralegh’s What is our Life? followed by Even Such is Time – his autobiographical epitaph.
At the time of composition, Cannon was immersed in grief, for his first wife had recently died after a lengthy and protracted illness; in like manner, Ralegh must have suffered turmoil not knowing, on two separate occasions, if he would he alive the next day. Further, there appears to be two similar intelligences at work: the complementary broad outlook on life, the dedication to creativity, and an abiding faith, all coming together in poetry and music creating a vast awe-inspiring sound to express an intense personal statement.
Therefore, in many ways, this is Cannon’s most interesting choral work, and scored for unaccompanied SATB. And it is here that we find Cannon speaking about the structure of the work: ‘It is designed as one great arc from the bitter nihilism of What is our Life? through the despairing acceptance – with a slight ray of hope – of Even Such is Time to the determination of Give me my Scallop shell of quiet. I have cut out bar lines altogether; instead I have commas and pauses in between each violent outburst of Ralegh’s magnificent sorties. The sounds and the silence are both integral to the overall structure. I ascribe the idea of unmetered silence and pause to Sir David Willcocks who, when conducting The Temple, suggested these, rather then metered rests, as being a more effective way of maintaining shape and emotional intensity. His casual suggestion of unmetering the silences is a good one when one takes into consideration the dramatic effects of different acoustics in different venues. For instances, The Temple’s performances were in widely varying acoustics from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, to La Chapelle Royale, Versailles. The only possible snag to unmetered pauses, of course, is that the performances have to be under the direction of a very experienced, dynamitic and sensitive conductor. Not just a "metered, stick waver"!’
The triumph in this work is the effect of the silences that bring together the wide dynamic range and convey the vacillation between religious conviction and fear. Such timing is most powerful in the dramatic pause in the final line of Even Such is Time: “And from with Earth and Grave and Dust the Lord shall raise me up…I trust”. At this point Cannon’s pause is spine-chilling.
I finish on a note of conjecture. Cannon delighted in Australia, particularly the warmth of the weather and the blazing sun, and the friendliness of Australians, particularly his eager students. He arrived recommended by the late Sir Arthur Bliss – he departed rejected by the jealousy of the Sydney University department of music. What might Cannon have written with the influence of the brilliant sun, Aboriginal music and the dance rhythms of corroboree? Had he visited New Zealand, what spell may Maori music have cast on him, as it did on Alfred Hill? This is all conjecture, questions that have tumbled through my mind over our 47 years of friendship.
Biographical Note: Philip Cannon, born Paris 1929 of Anglo–French parents, was raised in Cornwall. At 14 he attracted the attention of Igomen Holst who immediately invited him to a Dartington Summer School. On arrival, Cannon presented her with a score of a one-movement string quartet. This brought the comment, “Good heavens, you even write your notes with the stems back-to-front – just like my Father!” She was immensely impressed with a 14-year-old boy writing such a mature piece, now known as the Dartington Quartet. After studying with Imogen Holst, Cannon moved on to the Royal College of Music where he studied with Gordon Jacob. Other teachers included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Paul Hindemith. In 1960 he was appointed as a Professor of Composition at the RCM where he stayed for over 30 years. In addition to the sacred choral music, discussed above, Cannon’s output includes opera (3); numerous orchestral works; songs; ensemble works, including the celebrated String Quartet 1964; and solo works for a variety of instruments including harp and organ. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians contains a detailed listing. He lives in active retirement in Buckinghamshire with his second wife, Jane, Baroness Buijs van Schouwenburg, and a vibrant, mixed chorus of Felix domestica.
For details of all Cannon music, recordings and literature, please contact: Kronos Press, Elmdale, Marsh, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP17 8SP, UK. Telephone: +4401296 613157.
Son of God, recently recorded, is available on CD: Farewell to all that, Chapel Choir of Royal Holloway, Directed by Lionel Pike: Ref: DDD RR1075 www.chapelchoir.co.uk
Secular Choral Works
Songs to Delight (poetry of Ben Jonson), SSA, strings, also arranged for piano, 1950; Fleeting Fancies (various texts), five part-songs for unaccompanied SATB, 1953; To Music (R Herrick) SSSA, piano, 1960; Idea (Laidlaw), SATB, 1964, En hiver (V Cannon), SSSA, 1968; A Birthday Fourish for RT, SSATBr, 1968.
Selected Instrument Works
Carillion, hp, 1955; Carillion, org, 1955; Sonata, 2 pf, 1960; the Grand Prix Paris and Prix de la Critique awarded String Quartet, 1964; Jazz and Blues, pf, 1970; Pf Trio, 1974; Clarinet Quintet, 1977; String Sextet, 1985; Septain (in memory of John Ogden) pf, 1993; Piano Quintet (for John Lill and the Medici String Quartet), 1994; carillon Joyous Noel, hp, 1994.
Selected Orchestral Works
Spring, sym study, 1949; the widely performed Concertino, pf str 1951; Oraison funèbre de l’âme humaine, 24 str, 1970; Symphony (for BBC Philharmonic), 1996; Symphony, 1999.
Ronald Thomas, b. Sydney, 1938, has lived in New Zealand for 35 years as a teacher of English. He studied piano and organ for some years before becoming a church organist and choirmaster. At Sydney University he studied with Philip Cannon. In recent years Ron has written widely including numerous articles on piano music, from Brahms to the present, for various journals.