Philip Sawyers: Mayflower on the Sea of Time
The 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower was in 2020. My task as a composer was to write a substantial choral/orchestral work to celebrate this event and the challenges that the Pilgrims faced in the New World. My librettist wrote an imaginative piece that incorporated both a narrative and a reflection on the wider implications the story contained. So human attributes and frailties, moral, religious and political questions are touched upon. The resulting Oratorio, Mayflower on the Sea of Time, is in 4 parts. The soprano and baritone soloists take on multiple roles as both narrators and different characters from the story.
This recording captures the debut performance of the English Symphony Chorus. Assembled for this project, the group brings together some of the finest professional singers from across the UK. The ensemble members appear as members of elite ensembles such as The Sixteen, perform on the operatic stage, work as layclerks at Cathedrals across the UK, and work with leading orchestras and new music ensembles.
Mayflower on the Sea of Time, a majestic and powerful work that narrates a historical constellation in a rigorously thought out musical connection.
In the last 20 years the music of Philip Sawyers (b.1951) has emerged from obscurity into the limelight making a considerable impression. I make this the fifth disc that has been recorded by the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods who, by now, will really understand the composer’s needs and bring them to fruition as they do here. This oratorio which lasts almost an hour was due for performance in 2020 in Worcester, but Covid put paid to that. So, this recording is of the live performance which eventually took place in June this year at the Cathedral (2023). But why Worcester? First, it was commissioned by the wonderfully enlightened Worcester City Council in celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Sailing of the Mayflower to America and focussing on one of its early settlers, one Edward Winslow who was educated at the King’s School. The idea behind the project was educational, and involved about two hundred young people to sing this brand-new work under the guidance of director Neil Ferris. The libretto by Philip Groom focuses on Winslow but also uses entries from a diary written at the time by William Bradford which gives ‘names and glimpses of characters’, Groom tells us. But poetry by Walt Whitman is included in the final section, and Sawyers also quotes part of a motet by Thomas Tomkins who was organist of Worcester in the 1620’s. The work falls into four sections. First, Persecution and Journey which the composer admits gave him ‘scope for an exciting storm at sea section’. Part 2 is Arrival at the New World which includes a section focusing on the pilgrim children. A brief Scherzo ensues, showing that Sawyers, with five symphonies behind him, always thinks symphonically and dramatically, this is entitled Survival and Making Our Community. Finally, the longest section, Our New World, is a ‘joyous celebration, the first Thanksgiving’ the composer says. It is a good idea to follow the libretto as, although the singers do their best, some of the text gets lost in orchestral texture and acoustic. But to do this you must scan the bar code supplied in the excellent thirty-page booklet with its essays and photographs.
All praise then goes to the four very impressive soloists and the orchestra and chorus and not least to Woods, whose commitment to Sawyers has enabled this music to reach a much wider audience, which it thoroughly deserves. It is largely diatonic, full of passion and always approachable.
Review by Gary Higginson, British Music Society