The Choir premieres new cycle of works by Michael Finnissy

Posted on: 12 June 2019

The Choir of St John’s continues its commitment to new music by premiering a new cycle of works by Composer In Residence Michael Finnissy.

In 2017, British composer Michael Finnissy was approached to become the Composer In Residence of St John’s College, Cambridge. Finnissy is a composer renowned for exploring the relationship between different musical styles and mathematical structures.

‘It’s a privilege and honour to write for the Choir of St John’s,’ says Michael. ‘I have always liked the Choir’s sound – strong, direct, passionate and communicative. They’ve risen to the challenges I have set them in my new compositions.’

The cycle – titled Pious Anthems and Voluntaries (for the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge) – consists of nine works for choir, organ and instruments such as the flute and violin.

‘It’s a privilege and honour to write for the Choir of St John’s. I have always liked the Choir’s sound – strong, direct, passionate and communicative.'

Michael Finnissy, Composer In Residence

Collaborating with the Choir of St John's

Michael’s journey with the Choir began through conversations with Andrew Nethsingha, Director of Music at St John’s College.

‘Andrew and I reviewed the Choir’s repertoire to find existing pieces that I could respond to in my own writing,’ explains Michael. ‘Andrew selected motets by Taverner and Tallis, whilst I suggested responding to a Bach cantata and ‘Plebs Angelica’ by Tippett, a composer whose music I’ve always loved.’

The cycle also responds to a range of Christian texts beyond that of the Anglican tradition. ‘There are very different views of Christianity at play in the cycle, including Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jungian humanistic’, explains Michael.

Over time, Michael’s commission developed from writing individual pieces to presenting a fully-fledged cycle of inter-related works. There are choral anthems featuring flute and violin, organ voluntaries and even commentaries on works by J.S. Bach.

From individual works to a full cycle

Each piece upon completion was rehearsed individually by the Choir, before receiving an individual premiere at an Evensong Service in St John’s College Chapel. The cycle will receive its first full performance on Friday 28 June, giving the congregation of St John’s College Chapel the opportunity to experience the full effect of the cycle’s construction.

‘Working at St John’s College over the last few years, I’ve found the Choir of St John’s to be friendly, hugely responsive and extraordinarily capable. Whilst I try not to examine my creative process too hastily, I know that I’ll keep thinking about what I’ve learnt from my experience here as long as I am alive and able to think.’

Pious Anthems and Voluntaries (for the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge) receives its premiere in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge on Friday 28 June 2019, 6:30pm

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Recorded on
15 March 2022
  • Responses and Preces: Radcliffe
  • Psalm 18 vv. 1-6 (tone i)
  • Readings: Ezekiel 36.22-27, Acts 19.1-10
  • Howells (Collegium Regale)
  • Elgar: Give unto the Lord
  • Voluntary: Bach  Prelude in C minor
Nethsingha is his own man and absolutely his own musician, which is why his choir continues to evolve and lead

Andrew Mellor, Gramophone