Voicing The Spirit: A DUCS PROFILE

Consisting of around 80 singers, Durham University Choral Society, affectionately known as DUCS, is one of Durham University’s largest and oldest musical groups, having performed continuously at a high standard for nearly seventy years.  The Choral Society provides an environment in which choristers can relish in the accessibility and experience of singing choral music drawn from a wide range repertoire of classical choral music. Every academic year, our members have the experience of singing in some of Durham’s most prestigious and glorious music venues, and professional soloists are often employed to sing alongside the chorus.  The choir performs two concerts per year, and is often accompanied by orchestral Music Durham groups. The quality of the performance and enthusiasm of singers attract audiences locally and nationally.


The Michaelmas Concert, ‘Voicing the Spirit’, on the 10th of December promises to be a night of exuberant music in which the choir will perform an engaging selection of music that express suppression and protest, and the act of unifying and freeing the voices of the vulnerable and oppressed through song.  The concert will include such major works as Alexander L’Estrange’s ‘Zimbe! Come, Sing the Songs of Africa’ and Will Todd’s ‘Mass in Blue’.


The concert will open with Will Todd’s ‘Mass in Blue’.  Todd was born in County Durham, attended Durham School and joined the choir of St Oswald’s Church, Durham as a child.  He is an accomplished jazz pianist and regularly performs with his trio, who played a large role in creating the ‘Mass in Blue’, one of his most famous works.  This mass reflects his very ‘double-life’ as a musician, which was steeped in classical music and the demanding discipline of musical accuracy, which highly contrasted with his regular jazz improvisation during his spare time.  The suggestion of writing a setting of the Mass in a jazz idiom came from David Temple, conductor of the Hertfordshire chorus, who had previously commissioned one of Todd’s oratorios, but also knew of his other life as a jazz musician.


The secret of the success and innovation of the ‘Mass in Blue’ lies in its fidelity to two very different music traditions: the sung mass, one of the oldest forms of European music, whose evolution indeed co-incides with the development of classical music as we know it: and that of the blues, a distinct form of African American music that came into prominence in the nineteenth centurynd paved the way for the development of jazz.  The piece is indeed in keeping to the text and to the now traditional six-section division of the sung catholic mass.  The only significant departure from tradition is at the very end, with the words ‘dona nobis pacem’, “grant us peace”.  This invites a quiet conclusion, with more of a feel of resignation than triumph.  The altos recall the Credo which reaffirm the belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, bringing the mass to an exuberant conclusion.  The combination of two very different and distinct musical genres signifies implicitly the ability to find spiritual fulfilment and liberation in any form of music; the universal language that unites cultures in the quest for freedom.  The recurring motifs, based around the five note pentatonic scale of blues enhance this effect by also musically unifying the piece as a whole Mass rather than a series of singular movements.


The second half will be a performance of Alexander L’Estrange’s ‘Zimbe! Come sing the songs of Africa’; a vibrant sequence of twelve African and gospel songs charting a day in the life of an African village.  Alexander L’Estrange is an English composer of choral music, television music, and an arranger for world-class vocal ensembles.  His compositional voice is characterised by the distinctive combination of the British choral tradition and jazz.

Zimbe Mass in Blue

The piece captures songs of the school playground from Ghana and Zimbabwe, a Xhosa lullaby for mothers of the victims of Apartheid, a rousing drinking song, and spiritual music sung for religious occasions.   L’Estrange, in his ‘Zimbe!’ has infused these unique arrangements with references to jazz, classical and world music; a joyful and engaging depiction of the various ways the oppressed have turned to music to escape from the oppression of reality.   However, the piece simultaneously signifies the joy of newfound freedom through the percussive rhythms and the relaxed and carefree tunes. The music is raw and touchingly infectious in its connection with tradition and culture.  ‘Zimbe!’ manages also to combine accessibility with challenge as the vibrant and innate pulse that crosses all cultures fills the movements with vitality and sense of inhibited spontaneity.  L’Estrange notes in his introduction to the piece notes this: ‘Zimbe is Swahili for “sing them”: just as others have shared these wonderful songs with me, I wish to pass them on…the settings reflect my own musical make-up: within the piece we find references to jazz, classical music and of course, ‘world music’.

African songs are easy to learn and impossible to forget; that is the very nature of the communal song tradition.  The songs I have included are fun and infectiously joyously tuneful – and through them we find ourselves in a wonderfully simple realm where music imitates life, and life inspires and imitates music.’


Voicing the Spirit is taking place at 7:30pm on Saturday 10th December 2016, in Elvet Methodist Church. Tickets cost £10, £6 and £5 for adults, concessions and Music Durham members respectively, and this term we are delighted to be able to offer free tickets to any child, under 16, who is accompanied by an adult. Further details about this concert, along with ticket purchases, are available at the link below:



We look forward to seeing you there!


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