Janet Wheeler
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Music for choir with accompaniment


Magnificat cum Angelis

Commissioned by Yellow Car Charitable Trust.
Scoring: SATB choir (with some divisions), soprano soloist, trumpet, harp, percussion (2 players), organ, strings.
Duration c 50'
Listen to excerpts from the first performance...

Magnificat Anima Mea - Excerpt
Suscepit Israel

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Magnificent Magnificat

St Mary's Church Saffron Walden hosted the première of an inspiring and significant addition to the 21st century choral repertoire last Saturday. Sung by the accomplished Granta Chorale with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble and conducted by the composer, Janet Wheeler's setting of the Magnificat cum Angelis not only provided both challenge for the singers and instrumentalists, but also a plethora of imaginative melodies and intoxicating rhythms to entice the listener. All this was contained within a highly structured musical form, influenced by the sacred Latin as well as some extra vernacular texts, by Middle Eastern dance percussion and by the structure of DNA (demonstrated by the way in which the music forms and reforms itself through the generations, according to the programme note). Wheeler has a keen ear for colour and timbre and I was able to recall similar musical elements in the Church Parables of Benjamin Britten that clearly have impacted on her work. Janet Wheeler is a talented composer – her compositions and this fine Magnificat cum Angelis in particular deserve wider recognition.

Colin Durrant
Conductor University of London Chamber Choir and Imperial College Choir


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  Notes: Magnificat cum Angelis

The work expands the standard text of the Magnificat with three additional angel texts. First comes the Angelus, a Latin prayer sequence including the Ave Maria, sung three times. The other additions are two texts from medieval mystery plays. The first looks ahead to Mary's own death, where six angels come to lead her to heaven, and the second is Gabriel's farewell as he departs after the annunciation. Janet Wheeler's music for these has touches of medieval mysticism, helped by the use of handbells, organ and harp. The first and last movements of the Magnificat proper have the flavour of Jewish dance music.

JW: I pictured Mary after receiving Gabriel's news. Despite the complications of her situation, I thought she'd be unable to stop herself from dancing for joy as she realises what is happening to her. I've added hand drums, tambourine and finger cymbals to the 7/8 dance music!

The Ecce Enim and Sicut locutus sections have a more scientific inspiration. "Where the text refers to succeeding generations, I’ve composed music influenced by the structure of DNA, with its double helix represented in spiralling lines for harp and organ and subtly shifting combinations of harmonies for voices and strings.”

Magnificat cum Angelis was commissioned by Yellow Car Charitable Trust

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On the breath of the sky

words by Nick Warburton
Duration: c 15’

An albatross year: 1) Prelude: 2) Chick Song: 3) Westerly: 4) Winter and Postlude

Westerly (part 1)
Westerly (part 2)

Commissioned on behalf of SWCS
First performance March 17th 2007
solo soprano Bethany Halliday

for SATB choir, children’s choir, soprano solo, keyboard, percussion and alto saxophone

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  Notes: On the Breath of the Sky

Nick Warburton and Janet Wheeler have collaborated on a number of projects, initially for BBC School Radio, but also including Train in the Rain written for Saffron Walden Choral Society’s Singing on Track concerts in 2005. Nick is a highly successful writer for television, for radio and for publication. This piece was specially commissioned for a joint project between RSPB and SWCS, called WIngbeats. The piece highlights the RSPB’s Save the Albatross campaign. Many dangers face albatrosses, with nineteen out of the twenty species being endangered. One of the leading threats comes from long-line fishing, where the birds are attracted to the bait visible near the surface and can be caught on the lines and drowned. The third song, Winter, alludes to this and to the albatrosses’ possible extinction. With education, small changes in the fishing methods can make it safer for the birds.

On the breath of the sky is a cantata for SATB choir, children’s choir, soprano solo, keyboard, sax and drumkit and narrator.

Chick Song comprises an opening prelude and a song Waiting around. The prelude is improvised from albatross sounds on voices and percussion, portraying the albatross colony waking up. After a silence comes the opening somewhat jazzy song Waiting around sung by the children’s choir.

In Westerly the albatross takes flight in a recitative-like solo for the soprano. Then to a pounding beat, the SATB choir sings about the fishermen. At the end of the movement the music of the fishermen combines with that of the albatross.

Winter is a slow jazzy lament for all the voices, ending with a reprise of the albatross solo. The final notes are left hanging in the air suggesting a mixture of doubt and hope for the future.
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Train in the rain
words by Nick Warburton
Duration: c 20’

Commissioned on behalf of SWCS for SATB choir, children’s choir, keyboards and narrator

Dusk falls

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A place in the choir

song by Bill Staines

Arranged for SATB choir with piano accompaniment


This piece is published by Hal Leonard/ de Haske Music, price £1.95 --- Buy now >

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Sea tongue

A choral and orchestral setting of a text by Kevin Crossley-Holland retelling an old East Anglian tale
Commissioned by Saffron Walden Choral Society
Duration: c 40’

For SATB choir 2-4 soloists (soprano and baritone with large ranges or soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass) orchestra: double woodwind, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 perc (including tubular bells, a variety of suspended cymbals, pair of cymbals, tam-tam, toms, side drum, tenor drum, vibraslap, various shakers/maracas, guiro etc) tp (3 timps) piano, hp, strings

First performed March 2004 in St Mary’s Saffron Walden
Repeated in Kings College Cambridge Autumn 2005

I am the Bell
I am the sea God
I am the Cliff
I am the Bell 2 (ending)

Janet Wheeler’s SEA TONGUE is a child of the crossing-place where earth and ocean meet and argue.  Heaving and leaping and caressing, it’s a thrilling and often moving secular oratorio –  always attentive to the words it sets, colourfully orchestrated, and within reach of amateur choirs and choral societies.’
Kevin Crossley-Holland – Poet and Writer

"I was very excited when Janet asked me to be the baritone soloist in the first performance of Sea Tongue - I was intrigued by the story and delighted to be asked to play a Sea-God! The drama of the text is echoed in Janet's setting and the solo part offered terrific opportunity for characterisation and colour, something I am always pleased to be able to do. I hope it is a piece that will become part of choral society repertoire."
Edward Price - Baritone Soloist

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  Notes: Sea Tongue

In Medieval times Dunwich was a great city but, over the years the sea has eaten away at the land and most of the original city is now lost. The most recent of the many churches to crumble into the sea was All Saints, whose abandoned shell, perched high on the crumbling cliff, was painted by Turner. The legend of bells sounding under the sea is commonly found in many areas where the land is retreating, and Dunwich is no exception. This idea forms the basis for Kevin Crossley-Holland's Sea tongue.

The story is structured in fourteen sections, each told in the first person, from the shifting standpoints of humans (the bellwoman, the fisherman, the living, the dead) abstract and supernatural characters (the sea-god, the night-storm, the morning) and concrete entities (the church, the cliff, the boat and crucially the bell).

It was this structure which immediately suggested a vocal setting to me. The language is poetic, yet concise and I wanted the music to illuminate the story without holding up the action unduly on the one hand, or becoming an unmelodic stream of recitative on the other.

Beyond the obvious 14-part structure dictated by the text there is also a kind of 'patchwork' structure to the piece, also prompted to a large extent by the text. A prose text tends to provide fewer opportunities than verse for musical repetition but there are in Sea Tongue various strands of ideas and images echoed across different sections. I have taken them up musically to provide points of repetition and unity over a larger scale, rather like leitmotifs. Some of these are obviously pictorial, others represent a musical character.

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The Lord’s my shepherd
An arrangement of Crimond by Jessie Seymour Irvine for three-part choir (SA plus men) with organ or piano
Duration: 3'


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Hinei ma tov
With Hebrew words from Psalm 133, this arrangement sequences two traditional Jewish tunes and elaborates them. It begins with a haunting round in up to four parts, leading to a more dance-like section for three voice parts. A song about living together in peace for mixed voices with piano and optional tambourine.
Duration: c. 3'30"

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Carol of the poor children
(words by Richard Middleton)
SATB + piano
Duration 2'30"


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A cantata commissioned by Yellow Car Charitable Trust for MazeMusic.
Combined choirs, solo baritone solo soprano, narrator and orchestra: flute (picc) oboe (cor anglais) clarinet (bass clarinet) bassoon, trumpet, horn, timps, marimba and other perc, strings
Duration: 45'

There are mazes all around - a song from the cantata MAZE. Sung here at the first performance by  the Saffron Walden Youth Choir - SignuptoSing, with Saffron Walden Choral Society and Granta Chorale, accompanied by Britten Sinfonia.

Programme notes >

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  Notes: MAZE

A cantata with words by Nick Warburton and music by Janet Wheeler

The words maze and labyrinth are often used interchangeably, but in a technical sense they can indicate two different types of what we commonly call mazes. Unlike a maze or puzzle maze (like the hedge maze in the Bridge End Garden in Saffron Walden) a labyrinth has one path all the way through with no junctions or choices (like Saffron Walden's turf maze). You follow it to the centre and out again.
MAZE presents the journey through both these types in a series of stages. The choir, narrator and baritone soloist lead us through this journey in a mixture of narration and almost recitative-like singing, interspersed with songs and semi-dramatic episodes.

The songs

To make a labyrinth describes the way in which a labyrinth shape can be drawn or plotted, starting with a cross. 

Three Ways to Proceed explores three ways in which people moved through a labyrinth. For this the singers are divided. The youth choir races through, the women dance through and the men pray through it. Labyrinths have historically been associated with all three activities.  The colourful names of some ancient labyrinths hint at some of these activities - The Shepherd's Race was a turf labyrinth near Sneinton, Nottinghamshire (and of course Saffron Walden children can often be seen racing through our labyrinth). Labyrinth designs are commonly found in Greek and Roman remains and there is a link between the labyrinth and the Greek chorus.  The chorus was a body of dancers who performed in the orchestra  - a levelled sand-strewn area on which the patterns of a dance could be marked out like a labyrinth.
In Christian times labyrinths came to be associated with Jerusalem and the fact that they can be found marked out in the black and white floor tiles in some churches and cathedrals (Chartres, Amiens, Ely etc.) reinforces this link. There is a theory that following the tortuous path was a substitute for taking the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and that 'pilgrims' would actually crawl round the labyrinth on their knees, praying. The three groups of singers are eventually combined in one journey, running, dancing and praying simultaneously.

There are mazes all around looks at some of the many structures, places and patterns in our lives that are mazes in everything but name.

The Minotaur features two mazes, the one inhabited by the monster but also the figurative moral maze facing Ariadne as she decides whether to help Theseus  destroy her brother the Minotaur or not.

Hampton Court Maze is the setting for an episode from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat in which all involved get spectacularly lost.

After revisiting all the previous stages of the maze, the final stage is reached - 'Standing in stillness apart, with home and peace in your heart'.

Janet Wheeler and Nick Warburton have collaborated previously on Orpheus, a musical for BBC School Radio and on two cantatas: Train in the Rain for SWCS's project Singing on Track (2004) and On the Breath of the Sky for Wingbeats (2007) a joint project between SWCS and RSPB. In composing MAZE Janet Wheeler was very much aware of the challenge of writing for a mixture of amateur choirs and professional orchestra. The marimba was featured in the composing project with SWCHS and Janet decided also to include a marimba part in MAZE, where it has proved very useful for sustaining harmonies under some of the narration. 

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Welcome yole

A Christmas Processional
Duration: 1' 20"

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Homage to Albright
An atmospheric setting of the word Alleluia for spatially separated choir (SATB, all voices singing independently)
with organ

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  Notes: Homage to Albright
Duration variable, typically 4’ or 5’

The American composer William Albright wrote ‘An Alleluia Super Round’ in which twenty-three musical fragments are sung freely and independently by all the singers in a choir, building in range and dynamic and then gradually subsiding. This homage uses a similar technique but with a generally more modal tone-set and the addition of a through-composed organ part. It also divides the SATB choir spatially with sopranos and tenors singing one set of fragments and altos and basses singing another from a separate space. All singers sing independently at their own speed. The tenors and sopranos start their series of fragments on just two notes, gradually introducing more notes. When they have spanned an octave and risen to forte, they begin to sing through the phrases in reverse order, while the altos and basses join in loudly on their music and then all parts gradually subside. The organ underlines the mode by providing a backwash of various pedal harmonies, interspersed with more arabesques- like phrases.

Reviewing the premiere in Saffron Walden in June 2011, David Parry-Smith says: Homage to Albright was especially successful, mixing choral improvisation based on written-out fragments with spatial separation of sections of the choir - a real surround-sound performance!
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The spirit of Christmas

(words by Martin Angel and Janet Wheeler)
SATB with optional children’s choir and piano
Duration 4'

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A la media noche (At the hour of Midnight)

Arrangement of Puerto Rican carol of SATB + trebles choir + piano duet. Additional English words by the composer
Duration: 4½ minutes

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Listen to the angels
(A jazzy carol which combines an original tune with the traditional carol Of the Father's Heart Begotten)
SATB choir plus trebles and piano

Duration 3'

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I ask

A setting of words by Inazo Nitobe (adapted)
For treble voices in 2-parts with piano accompaniment
Commissioned by Martin Wilson for a performance by the Joint Quaker Junior Schools in 2006

Duration 3'

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Light will shine
For treble voices in 3 parts with piano accompaniment
Commissioned by Martin Wilson for a performance by the Joint Quaker Junior Schools in 2006

Duration 2'30"

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To God the Giver of Grace
Composed back in 1987 for the choir of St Albans High School, this setting of an Egyptian Doxology from the third century is for upper voices and organ.
Duration: c. 2’30”

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Te Deum
This lively and melodic setting composed in 1986 is for SSA and organ.
Duration: c. 5'

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Unaccompanied Choir
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