Fantasia & Fugue in C minor: Deal? No deal!

Many say that Elgar’s Cello Concerto was his last notable work.  After the premiere of the Cello Concerto in late 1919 and his wife Alice’s death in 1920, it seemed like he has lost the willingness to compose.  His wife has always been a source of inspiration and support to Elgar.  Her death and the lack of public demand of music from him (his work went out of fashion) led to the refocus of his attention to other hobbies.

Instead of any new major works, Elgar turned his attention to orchestrating the works of the old masters.  He was no newcomer to transcribing – before he committed to pursuing a career as a composer he used to transcribe such works for the various performance groups he was associated with.

No deal!

When Elgar met with his long-time friend Richard Strauss in 1920, the 1st World War was still on people’s mind and they were eager to heal the rift.  He suggested a joint project to orchestrate Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537.  Elgar would do the Fugue whilst Strauss would do the Fantasia.

Nothing came of the deal.  Whilst Elgar did finish orchestrating the Fugue, Strauss did not.  Subsequently, when he was asked to “write something” for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival, he remembered this incomplete orchestration and set about to do the Fantasia as well.  Thus the orchestrated version of the Fantasia & Fugue was born.

Come hear us perform Elgar’s magnificent orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc's Gloria 2nd movement error

Poulenc’s Gloria: Taking errors to a whole new level

It is common to find the inevitable odd error in even the best edited scores.  With Poulenc’s Gloria, however, there are hundreds of errors, ranging from wrong notes and text to misprinted clefs and misprinted rhythm.  The initial responsibility was not entirely on the shoulders of Edition Salabert, the publisher of the scores, although the failure to subsequently update and correct their scores cannot be denied.

Part of the reason for such messiness was the composer’s habit of working with his musical shorthand with much crossing out.  His frequent revision made accuracy practically impossible.  The original manuscripts and the first recording in 1961 differs.  The manuscripts for the full score and the vocal score differs.  To make things even worse, the composer has made changes during the 3 years the initial published scores took to be engraved and printed!

The revised edition isn’t any better

The scores are so “famous” for its errors that various journal articles have been published on the topic.  The articles were meant not only to detail the errors but also to urge the publisher to publish a corrected edition.  That was not to be, unfortunately, as the revised edition of the score (1996) was just as packed with errors.

As such, corrections need to be made prepare the scores for performance.  Librarians of professional orchestras often create their own set of part scores, incorporating all known errors and changes.  Fortunately, Professor Lee Barrow of the University of North Georgia has published an errata list on both editions of the scores based on his work with the manuscripts of the Gloria.  His work was extremely helpful for anyone who is planning to perform this very popular Gloria.

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc Gloria

Poulenc’s Gloria: You pay, I decide what to write!

In 1959 when Poulenc decided to write his Gloria, he has just seen the success of his operas “Dialogues des Carmélites” and “La voix humaine”.  Having failed to find a satisfactory libretto for yet another new opera, he decided to return to the choral genre.  His friend Pierre Bernac sent him the text and translation of the Gloria, and the decision was made.  Then came the question of money: who’s going to pay for it?

It happened that around that time the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in touch with Poulenc for a possible commission.  The composer, unwilling to conform to the initial instrumentation requirements, has been declining this commission for an “orchestral work of major proportions”.  Once he decided to compose a Gloria, however, he turned back to the Koussevitzky Foundation.

I’m taking it, but only under my terms!

His offer was this:  he will take the commission, but instead of a purely orchestral work, he would write a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano and orchestra that is 20-25 minutes in duration.  With some negotiation and possibly the help of conductor Charles Munch, the Foundation agreed to leave the terms open, and Poulenc wrote his Gloria over the next year.

The American premiere in Boston and the European premiere of the finished Gloria happened within a few weeks of each other.  Surprisingly, the reception differed vastly in the two regions.  In Paris, reviewers complained that the work was not as good as his Stabat Mater, and BBC reviewers found it “unworthy of its dignified text”.  In America, however, the Gloria was met with high praise and the New York Music Critics Circle Award.

Regardless of such polarized opinions, Poulenc’s Gloria is now frequently performed choral works and a mainstay of the choral repertoire.

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

The new village school at Su Hta

Throughout the years of military dictatorship, Myanmar has long suffered from civil war and economic and political isolation from the international community. It was only until recently that the country embarked on a process of gradual liberalisation, taking a giant step away from the shadow of oppression and enabling numerous displaced villagers to rebuild their livelihood.

Su Hta is one such village, located 3.5 hours to the west of Taungoo (including 2.5 hours of trailer ride). Access is difficult, although the villagers are creating motorcycle paths to nearby villages.

The Su Hta Village School was donated by three doctor friends of the Learners Chorus as a result of fundraising activity from the Mozart Great Mass in C minor concert on September 16, 2016, and will allow children to stay at home whilst still getting education.  The new school building is open-plan to maximize flexibility and to limit construction costs. Simple partitions are used to split the hall into smaller teaching areas and the many windows provide ample sunlight, minimizing any need for electricity, which is difficult to come by at these remote, off-grid locations.

Our vice-chairman performing a simple opening ceremony with a local representative.

Winnie Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Council unlocking the doors of the school.

Students and villagers came to attend the opening ceremony. Some walked from surrounding villages and everybody had their best outfit on.

The teachers of the Su Hta Village School.

With the new school came new toilets. Very simple construction, but this is sanitary with running water pulled by gravity.

Pumping up Lives

Net ticket proceeds from “Lux Aeterna”, our concert in January 2017, were donated to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “Village Development in Myanmar Project” towards three sets of pumps for the Hsar Phyu Su Village.

This remote village is located 3.5 hours northwest of Yangon and the last leg of the journey can only be made by motorcycles on muddy tracks. Agriculture is the main source of income for the villagers.  The region was badly hit by monsoon rains in mid-2016 when floods and landslides destroyed infrastructure and farmland. These pumps have helped irrigate part of the village’s paddy fields and get the village back on its feet.

The first harvest in April is expected to bring in ~US$4,000 for the village, which the villagers plan to reinvest into buying more machinery for irrigation, hopefully starting a virtuous cycle of improvement for their livelihood in this remote location.

In mid-2016, the region was badly flooded. These houses are on stilts but were nontheless inundated.

This is the house of the young village pastor, a good example of the villagers’ houses on stilts – flood water usually go at least halfway up the steps.

During the dry season it rarely rains here, so pumps are essential or the paddy fields will look like these unirrigated parts.

The first set of pump. The inlet side was slightly leaky and initially did not draw water. Some wet mud was used to reinforce the seal and it worked perfectly.

The second set was working to irrigate a parcel of the paddy fields. This pump can support 6-7 such parcels.

The third set. With more work put into the channels this set supports up to 10 parcels of paddy fields.

Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor

It is said that Mozart promised to compose a mass when he would bring Constanze Weber as his wife to Salzburg. The marriage took place in 1782 without the blessing of his father, and in a letter to his father the following year, Mozart expressed regret of the delay in his planned visit with Constanze to Salzburg, but that “the score of half of a Mass, which still lies here, is the best proof of my vow.” Such “half of a Mass” refers to his Mass in C Minor, which, notwithstanding that it remained unfinished, is considered to be Mozart’s most ambitious composition amongst his masses.

Come hear us perform, among other works, Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor at our September concert this Friday. Tickets now available at URBTIX outlets or online at

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Barber’s Agnus Dei

Since the formation of the Friends of Learners Orchestra in 2007 (now called The Learners Orchestra) we have been blessed to have a group of caring and benevolent orchestral musicians partner with us at concerts both great and small; but what if the composer, by arranging an orchestral work for unaccompanied chorus, requires that the choir becomes an orchestra itself?

Come hear The Learners Chorus transform into an orchestra of human voices in its performance this Friday of, among other works, (1) Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei”, a choral arrangement of his famous “Adagio for Strings”, and (2) “Lux Aeterna” arranged by British composer and arranger John Cameron based on Variation IX “Nimrod” of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. Tickets now available at URBTIX outlets or online at

Tavener’s The Lamb

Coughing at concerts is often considered as a distracting annoyance, but what if the noise originated from the composer himself?

John Tavener’s “The Lamb” was written in 1982 as a dedication to his nephew for his 3rd birthday. However, when the carol was performed in the same year at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (an annual Christian service which celebrates the birth of Jesus), Tavener was more anxious that Mother Thekla, a counsellor and spiritual advisor of his, would be able to hear his work. As a result, whilst sitting in the audience at King’s College, Cambridge, he gave a loud cough shortly before his work was about to commence, so that Mother Thekla, who borrowed a radio to listen to the BBC live broadcast from the convent, would take the signal and recognise his work.

Come hear us perform Tavener’s “The Lamb”, among other works, in our September concert. Tickets now available at URBTIX outlets or online at

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Stabat Mater vs. Stabat Mater

Many of you would certainly be aware that our concert in July features two Stabat Maters – one of Verdi from his Quattro pezzi sacri, and one of Rossini. Here’s a sneak peek of how our two Italian opera masters accentuate the grief of Mother Mary in their respective settings of the Catholic hymn, on the first 1-2 pages of the vocal score:-

In Rossini’s setting, a dark mood is created by the orchestra’s plaintive opening, and the initial concealment of the tonic key is suggestive of a troubled heart. Thereafter, as the strings, chorus and vocal soloists take turns coming in, the “Stabat Mater” theme, a G-minor upward scale to its fifth, emerges as a graphical representation of the anguished Mother Mary weeping next to the cross on which her Son was crucified.

Verdi opens his Stabat Mater with ominous bare open fifths in bassoons, French horns and strings, which are interrupted by the choir singing a striking augmented fourth that is traditionally associated with human suffering; The descending, chromatic scale used in “Cujus animam gementem” is also thought to represent the agonizing cries of Mother Mary.

Come hear us perform Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri and Rossini’s Stabat Mater, in our upcoming concert. Tickets now available at urbtix outlets or online at

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When high-C is not enough

Those who are familiar with Rossini operas would no doubt recognize that dotted rhythms, dramatic leggiero/coloratura lines, fast tempos, cadenzas and appoggiaturas, to name a few, are features commonly found in his works.

Can you identify any of the above features in Rossini’s “Cujus animam gementem”, an aria for tenor solo from his Stabat Mater which, partly due to it being notoriously difficult to sing, is often performed separately from the other movements of the work as a demonstration of the singer’s virtuosic vocal technique?

Come hear us perform Rossini’s Stabat Mater and Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri in our next concert. Tickets now available at urbtix outlets or online at

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