Novello Award Winning Composer Writes Special Works for Choral Society 50th Anniversary

Novello award winning composer Cecilia McDowall, has been commissioned by Henley Choral Society to write a new composition to celebrate the Society’s 50th anniversary.  Cecilia gave a talk about the inspiration behind the new composition, The Ice is Listening to Society Members and Gold Friends recently at d:two.

The work will be world premiered at a concert on Saturday 1 April at St Mary’s Church which will also feature Vivaldi Gloria and Bach Mass in G minor.

Cecilia outlined that, with the river as a starting point, she and Kate Wakeling considered wider themes of the lives of the river, it’s history and geology. Kate Wakeling is a widely published poet whose work has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Collaborating with composers is an increasingly important part of her work, with her commission for Oxford Botanic Gardens and Oxford Lieder Festival receiving a 5-star review in The Times. Kate Wakeling told the audience: “The text for the first movement (‘Solid Waters’) is drawn from a wonderful seventeenth-century manuscript that I found in Magdalene College library in Oxford. ‘An Historical Account of the Late Great Frost’ (1684) describes in marvellous detail the Frost Fairs of 1683-4 when the Thames froze solid and all manner of ‘Roasting, Boyling, Eating, Drinking [and] Rejoicing’ took place on its surface!”

The text for the second movement, ‘The Ice is Listening’, takes as its starting point a quote from the climate scientist Josh Willis (‘When the ocean speaks, the Greenland Ice Sheet listens’.) Kate explained: “I spoke to Heather Lane, the Librarian and Keeper of Collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute and was fascinated to be told there are air bubbles trapped in the glaciers that are twenty thousand years old. As the glaciers melt, this is lost. This felt to me like an assault on nature and history, as well, of course as having implications for humankind.”   The third movement ‘Moulin’ takes its name from the waterfalls that form within the ice and are both beautiful and dangerous.

Cecilia gave the audience a fascinating insight into her own journey to become a composer, explaining that, although she came from a musical family with her father playing flute for the Royal Opera House, her composing life proper only began at the age of 47. Since then she has been short-listed eight times for the British Composer Awards and in 2014 won the Choral category for Night Flight. Her large-scale choral work, the Da Vinci Requiem, received its first performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London and in 2021 she was given the coveted annual commission by King’s College, Cambridge, to write the carol to be part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  The carol, There is no rose, was broadcast world-wide on Christmas Eve.

Talking about the inspiration for the new work, Cecilia McDowall said: “I was struck by the fact that, when a 700-year-old glacier in Iceland was officially declared ‘dead’ in 2014 when it was too thin to move, a commemorative plaque was put up with ‘a letter to the future’ on it. What a powerful idea. I feel we owe it to people who are going to come and listen to create something meaningful.”

After a series of questions from the audience, Chairman of Henley Choral Society Dr Tim Wilson said: “When we decided to ask Cecilia to compose a choral work to celebrate our 50th anniversary, drawing inspiration from Henley and the natural environment, I don’t think any of us could have imagined that we would end up supporting the creation of such a fascinating work with such a compelling and contemporary theme. It has been wonderful to have Cecilia and Kate here tonight to give us their insight and to guide us in the interpretation and we can’t wait for the performance itself.”

The concert on 1 April starts at 7.30pm and tickets are priced £20 (under 18s £5.00) to book go to  


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