On Kenneth Leighton’s ‘Second Service’…

November 3rd, 2016

www.phillipcooke.comA question I often get asked at pre-concert talks or in passing (I say often, occasionally would probably be more correct) is: ‘is there a piece that you wish you had written?’ To which the sarcastic answer would be ‘yes, anything that makes me lots of money’, or ‘yes, most things’. Certainly there are thousands of pieces I wish I had written – anything by Palestrina or Tallis, the majority of pieces by Britten or Elgar, Wozzeck, Ringed by the Flat Horizon – and so on, and so on. It is hard to put my finger on one piece particularly that I wish I had composed over all others, and it is a folly to try. However, there are many pieces that I would have been extremely happy to have composed and one of them (and I’ll admit, it’s probably not in the Tallis or Berg league) is Kenneth Leighton’s Second Service of 1971.

Now, outside of the church music world most people (even classical music lovers) will probably have never heard of Kenneth Leighton (1929 – 88), never mind his second setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. There is no shame in that, although he wrote in all genres and for some leading performers, it is his choral and organ music that provides his legacy. Although perhaps not a lingua franca for Anglican music like his predecessors Stanford and Howells, his music is widely performed across the cathedrals and churches of the UK, most often his two settings of the Evening Service, his Preces and Responses and several motets and anthems including Drop, drop slow tears and Let all the world. It is his Second Service that stands out for me, not only a perfect example of Leighton’s style and aesthetic, but a truly original setting of the music for evening worship and a great contribution to cathedral music.

I’ve not always been a fan of Leighton’s music, and I’m not a fan of all his pieces – I’m probably writing this today because I was exposed to Drop, drop slow tears and his organ Paean for three consecutive nights in concerts last week – but I do greatly admire the Second Service. The problem, as I see it, is that the majority of pieces by Leighton (certainly in the church music sphere) are instantly recognisable as by him. ‘Why is this a problem’ I hear you say? On the one hand it is very useful for a composer’s works to be recognisable, to have all the fingerprints of its creator easily audible; but on the other hand you become quickly aware of mannerisms and gestures, you can almost guess where the music is about to go before it actually does. I find this with Leighton: the jaunty syncopations (off-beats), the devilish cross-rhythms, the cadences to un-related chords are played out across his oeuvre at large – and sometimes it grates a little. But if you take the Second Service on its merits alone, I think he did a very fine job.

The Magnificat (the first of the two pieces that make up an Evening Service) begins with a soft organ figure which slowly builds as the different voices enter with loose-limbed contrapuntal exchanges. As the text becomes more animated (‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’ etc) Leighton brings in his characteristic syncopated rhythmic figures, which he marks ‘dancing’, which goes some way to describe the composer’s aesthetic in these passages. This syncopation continues for most of this piece until the opening material returns for the ‘Gloria’ (‘Glory be to the Father’ etc). Leighton reserves his most auspicious material for the very end – on the line ‘world without end’ (which many composers set in a tub-thumping, grandiose fashion) where he quietens the choir for slithering, descending, chromatic phrases, repeating and searching for finality. It is both unexpected and unique.

The Nunc Dimittis (the second of the two pieces) is more sombre in tone and has less of the rhythmic vitality of its partner piece. That being said, the homophonic (all voices together) ‘Gloria’ and much more ‘secure’ setting of ‘world without end’ are equally unexpected, as are the contrary chromaticism of the first ‘Amen’ and the final cadence on the second ‘Amen’ with an F major chord seemingly conjured out of thin air. It is inspired music and something I truly wish I had written.



Magnificat of Kenneth Leighton’s Second Service

To buy this recording, Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, click here.

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