Composer Sarah MacDonald has written a commissioned piece for International Women’s Day 2023, to be played at March Bradford Cathedral organ recital.

Sarah MacDonald MA FRCO ARSCM is the Director of Music at Selwyn College (Cambridge); University Organist at the University of Cambridge and the Director of the Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral. Last year she was approached by Alexander Berry, Bradford Cathedral’s Director of Music, to create a special composition for International Women’s Day 2023, to be played on the visiting Wingfield Organ by Imogen Morgan of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh.

We caught up with Sarah ahead of this recital to find out more about the piece, and how it came about. We began by asking her to summarise her extensive musical career so far.

“I am a pianist, organist, conductor and composer, and do a lot of teaching and examining.

“My first experience of music was as a choir singer growing up, coming from Canada to the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate Organ Scholar. I grew up with the Anglican choral tradition in Canada.

“I’ve been at Selwyn for almost 24 years and Ely for twelve; Alex Berry was one of my assistants in Ely, and I knew him when he was at Cambridge. He invited me to write this piece for you.”

We took this opportunity to check if Alex had been good in his role.

“He was an excellent assistant!”

Next we asked Sarah about the conception of the new piece.

“It was specifically conceived for the Wingfield Organ, which is a mock-Tudor reproduction by Goetze & Gwynn, and is hand-pumped and has an odd temperament, with a limited number of keys and a single manual. It’s meant to give student organists a taste of early instruments – and playing early music on it gives us a sense of the music written for it.
“I had a lot of constraints with how I was going to write, and not the least of these were temperament and touch. I’ve written the piece in a consciously early Baroque style.”

We asked Sarah how she started the composition.

“I started with a blank piece of manuscript paper and I thought – How can I make this special? So I found a 19th century hymn tune called Bradford, which was adapted by Haydn. It’s in a number of hymn books, though it’s not one I know, and I’ve not seen it any hymn books used in the Anglican Church. That said, it has appeared in some earlier ones, some Methodist hymn books, and some in the US.

“I ended up writing a three-part suite based on that hymn tune – and it’s called Duet, Aria & Fughetta on Bradford.”
As Sarah mentioned, the piece was composed to be played on the Wingfield Organ, which is currently based at Bradford Cathedral since the Organ Day held in Autumn 2022. We asked Sarah is the restrictions of this organ were helpful to her as a composer, or whether it made things difficult.

“The more constraints there are when I’m writing the better, from my perspective! I like to have those limitations on what I can do; I find it channels my energies.

“This is like the Oulipo (the early 20th Century French writing collective). One of them wrote an entire novel – in French – without using the letter ‘e’!”

Ahead of the recital in March, Sarah has sent the score onto Imogen Morgan, who will play the piece.

“She hasn’t come back to me yet – so I hope that means she’s happy! Hopefully it’s not a particularly difficult piece to play, with a two-part invention, a slow movement and then the fugue.”

We asked Sarah is being a pianist, producer and organist helps her when composing pieces.

“I suppose it does. It means I know how to write idiomatically because I am an organist, so I hope that what I’ve written fits nicely under the fingers. Certainly – as a teacher of composition – it’s quite geekily accurate! It’s grammatically very sound.”

As well as being a musician, Sarah’s creativity also stretches out into photography, where she enjoys capturing landscapes and seascapes – whatever catches my eye, really – and also enjoys writing, with a monthly column in The American Organist. These columns have also recently been collected into a book.

“I’ve been writing that column for around thirteen years. The opportunity to get them published as a book came about due to lockdown, because I wouldn’t have had time otherwise! One of my publishers in the US was keen. I did a lot of editing, collating and anthologizing but he did a lot of the leg work, typesetting, distributing and promoting, which is great as now that we’re not in lockdown I don’t have the time anymore!”

Looking at her wider work – of which there are over fifty pieces – we asked Sarah if she had any personal favourites amongst her compositions.

“It’s funny, because some of the ones I’m proudest of aren’t necessarily my most popular pieces. There is a set of three Christmas carols which were published by Banks – The Manger is Empty, a setting of the words of R S Thomas – which I’m really proud of.

“And last term I wrote a Missa brevis for a Church in the US, which will be published by RSCM for SATB and organ, which I was really pleased with, and I hope that will get some traction eventually.”

Finally, we asked Sarah to sum up the piece for those joining for the March organ recital.

“It’s very tonal. It’s pastiche. I hope they will hear the tune of the hymn, and its two-part invention. I hope by the end they’ll think that’s a nice little hymn tune by Haydn – we should sing it!

Duet, Aria & Fughetta on Bradford, a piece for International Women’s Day – composed by Sarah MacDonald MA FRCO ARSCM, will be played by Imogen Morgan on Wednesday 8th March 2023 at Bradford Cathedral as part of that week’s free Wednesday@One Organ Recital.

You can find out more about Sarah on her website, or on the Selwyn College or Ely Cathedral websites, and you can find out more, including a selected discography and bibliography, on Wikipedia by searching for ‘Sarah_MacDonald_(musician)’.

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