This week, we jumped across the pond to hear from our good friend and London based composer, Christopher Maxim. We asked him to share a bit more about his compositions and the inspiration behind them.
“As an organist, I regularly improvise in services. I am often inspired by the liturgy and the ‘atmosphere’ of a service, and sometimes ideas will later find their way into notated compositions. This is true of Easter Alleluias, which began life as a liturgical improvisation on Easter Day, 2019. It is subtitled ‘Fantasia on Victimae Paschali Laudes’ and fragments of that plainsong – often mutated – are found within the material of the energetic and celebratory outer sections. At the centre is a meditative setting of the plainsong in its entirety. Easter Alleluias is suitable as an Eastertide voluntary or more generally as a concert work.
I have played my Suite complete in recital; but I have found the five individual movements to be really useful as voluntaries – and hope others will, too. Intrada is bold and rhythmic, not too difficult but with plenty of spicy harmonies. Aria is wistful in mood. In the central section the melody in the right hand is imitated in canon by the pedals. The chromatic central Fugue (marked Scherzando) is probably the most technically demanding of the movements, requiring much nimbleness to realise its sprightly, dancing, and perhaps slightly menacing, quality. Scena contrasts chordal and melodic material, building to an intense fff climax before dying away. The finale, Toccata-Sortie, is exuberant and virtuosic, but not really much more difficult than (say) the Widor Toccata. Nor is it as disproportionately long as its appearance on the page might suggest, owing to its quick tempo and the fact that some bars occupy an entire system to ensure easy legibility. I recall having tremendous fun when I played it as a post-service voluntary on the mighty organ of Winchester Cathedral.
You can hear me play my Eleven Chorale Preludes complete on YouTube. It is no coincidence that the set contains as many items as Brahms’s opus 122; but mine are no more pastiches of Brahms than his were of Bach. Across there eleven preludes you will find melodies associated with the major feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, together with themes of the will of God and eternal life. Those interested in such things may have fun working out aspects of the macrostructure of the collection in terms of keys and textures. Another music homage comes in the form of my Prelude and Fugue on the name of Duruflé. If you know Duruflé’s famous Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, you should spot not only the technical, but also the structural similarities – while also noticing that my piece is considerably less difficult. I can’t say that I consciously try to make my organ music easy to play: it depends how good you are as to how challenging you will find it; but I never make impossible demands on the player. All my organ pieces may realised on a modest two-manual organ: anything more is a bonus!
Something similar is true of my choral music: I know it is singable because it is almost always composed with a particular ensemble in mind – often amateur church choirs. Such a piece is the carol All and Some, written for a ‘scratch’ choir and subsequently taken up by many others. A straightforward, homophonic refrain punctuates a series of verses that may be sung by soloists, small groups of singers or the entire choir, as most convenient. You can hear the première (complete with improvised interjections by a baby in the congregation!) here. Another Christmas piece, Hurry to Bethlehem, is a little more challenging, having been written for my chamber choir, The Giltspur Singers. But it also offers the flexibility of different modes of performance because there is, as well as the SATB scoring, another for unison voices with optional descant. Additionally, there are two versions of the accompaniment: one for organ and one for piano. Either choral scoring may be sung to either accompaniment. Jesus, to your table led, sets words adapted from a nineteenth-century hymn. Although it explores a range of textures, this tuneful Communion anthem should be within the reach of any church choir that can sing in four parts.
The pieces that I have discussed here were all published by Paraclete Press in 2020. I was so glad that they were able to release some new music during such a challenging time. I am now greatly looking forward to seeing further planned publications come to fruition. Two organ works (Prelude and Fugue, and Invocation and Paean) are due out soon, with six Christmas choral pieces (Ad Cantus Leticie, A Little Child There is Yborn, Love Came Down at Christmas, The Jolly Shepherd, The Linden Tree Carol, and The World’s Desire) to follow.”
Chris Maxim was born in Wrexham, North Wales in 1971. He showed a keen interest in music from a young age, driving his grandfather to distraction with his improvisations on his grandmother’s piano. Aged eight he joined the choir of St Margaret’s Church and it was there that his love of choral and organ music was first fostered. Chris was appointed to his first ‘proper’ Organist & Choirmaster post at the age of sixteen, and two years later took up an Organ Scholarship at the University of Bristol, where he was also a prize-winner. Shortly after graduation he was awarded a Research Studentship to Cardiff University, completing his PhD in music in 1996. Chris holds several diplomas in music, in addition to qualifications in education.
Although he specialises in composing for choirs and the organ, Chris has written for a variety of other instruments, too. His music is performed around the world and has been broadcast on the radio in the USA and the UK. It has been featured in music festivals, recorded on several CDs, and is in the catalogues of a number of eminent publishing houses. Many pieces can be heard in performances available online.
Chris lives in London and works as a musician and education consultant. He conducts the Giltspur Singers, which he founded in 2003. In January 2021, having been Organist & Director of Music at St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green for eighteen years, he accepted the post of Organist & Choirmaster at the C12th church of St Mary Magdalene’s, East Ham.
His website is www.christophermaxim.co.uk.
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