Memories of Peter Tranchell

Singing in the Brecon Cathedral Choir is bringing back a kaleidoscope of memories of singing in the Caius College Choir under composer/precentor Peter Tranchell ("PAT"), a frighteningly long time ago. In parallel, I've found myself in touch with John Gwinnell, who is researching and writing PAT's biography as described here, and has also sung in Brecon a few times.

Intrigued, I quickly found that published details about PAT are sketchy, and there's almost nothing in the way of recordings of his music. I remember singing some of his work at Caius, and that it was entrancing but difficult. YouTube provides this King's College version of "If ye would hear the angels sing", from their 2010 Festival of Nine Thingies:

Mmmm, lovely, but where's the rest? Then I spotted the "Commemoration CD" on which promised to include numbers called "Seven Bullocks Escaped" & "The Dog That Sat". That alone was sufficient to persuade me to fork out the £15.

The CD arrived a couple of days ago, and I've played it about 12 times already. It's a bizarre and wonderful mix, being recorded live at first a concert and then a mattins, plus the organ sonata. It's straight in at the upper reaches of my "to be played after much beer" chart.

The concert material is secular (very), including the Thackeray Ditties (complex barbershop expertly performed by the Caius Choir), a moving slab of the Mayor of Casterbridge opera featuring Alan Opie, parts of a cheeky May Week revue (no pyjamas? no toothbrush?), plus the aforementioned bullock titles/dog titles, which turn out to be newspaper cuttings set to psalm or song (and with a nicely sacrilegious "Gloria".. "Story be from the Guardian: And from the Sun, and from the Morning Post" etc). These are performed by "Chorus Caianorum" - presumably ex-choir - not bad apart from one yelping tenor who leaps in slightly early on most entries.

The mattins content, again recorded live, this time featuring a reasonable (though perhaps hung-over?) choir, pianos, violins, and the shocking wheezebox that Caius pass for an organ, consists of a truly surprising setting of Psalm 126 (Lois says it sounds like a rugby song, which is not a criticism when you live in Wales), then the Te Deum in E which could have produced the theme music for Star Wars. Both had me a little baffled on first listen, and subsequently hooked. I'm no liturgical music expert, but to me they just sound engaging, original and moving, and without the irritating or suicidal tendencies that characterize much modern classical stuff.

The CD finishes with the organ sonata, which is apparently a tonal plus Morse code rendition of the letters of the name of Peter Le Huray, organist and presumably buddy of PAT; this kind of thing always raises suspicions that the result may be a victory of clever over good, and I'm not sure whether it isn't. But best not forget this was written about 50 years before the "Endeavour" business. The first movement and third movements at least are growing on me by stealth, especially the demented fairground themes in the third. If only that Caius organ wasn't so peeky - I knew there was a reason I'd bailed out of Cambridge early.

This short note does the composer and the CD no justice, so at the bottom of this post you can play one of the Thackeray Ditties, "A Credo" - easy listening and beautifully made, and with a strapping top C for the sops at the end - if you like it, fork out for the CD and spread the word.

The lyrics:


For the sole edification

Of this decent congregation,

Goodly people, by your grant

I will sing a holy chant -

I will sing a holy chant.

If the ditty sound but oddly,

'Twas a father wise and godly,

Sang it so long ago -

Then sing as Martin Luther sang,

As Doctor Martin Luther sang:

"Who loves not wine, woman and song,

He is a fool his whole life long!"


He, by custom patriarchal,

Loved to see the beaker sparkle;

And he thought the wine improved,

Tasted by the lips he loved -

By the kindly lips he loved.

Friends, I wish this custom pious

Duly were observed by us,

To combine love, song, wine,

And sing as Martin Luther sang,

As Doctor Martin Luther sang:

"Who loves not wine, woman and song,

He is a fool his whole life long!"


Who refuses this our Credo,

And who will not sing as we do,

Were he holy as John Knox,

I'd pronounce him heterodox!

I'd pronounce him heterodox,

And from out this congregation,

With a solemn commination,

Banish quick the heretic,

Who will not sing as Luther sang,

As Doctor Martin Luther sang:

"Who loves not wine, woman and song,

He is a fool his whole life long!"