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Rorate Caeli, by Dominic McGonigal - another excellent entry in the Peter Tranchell Foundation Composition Prize 2023

As well as the winning piece by Dónal McCann and runner up by Liam Condon, there were some excellent runners up in the Peter Tranchell Foundation Composition Prize 2023, and it was just a pity we could not offer more prizes. One of the runners up was Rorate Caeli, by Dominic McGonigal.

An electronic rendition of the work can be played on YouTube:

Dominic provided an account of his use of the competition brief:

Peter Tranchell was an inspirational composer, academic and teacher. He probably never knew what an inspiration he was to me and other students.

As a shy 19 year-old, I never told him.

Rorate Caeli is a chance to put that right, albeit posthumously.

I remember one supervision where the whole hour was spent on Baroque architecture, but that taught me more about polyphony and structure than a year of harmony and counterpoint classes. His compositions too were revelatory. At the time, the hegemony was the post modernism promulgated by William Glock at the BBC. Peter showed there were other courses to furrow, although sadly he was marginalised by the musical establishment.

Rorate Caeli starts from the incipit of the Introit for the 4th Sunday of Advent. The rising 6-note motif is a common riff in Gregorian chant. Peter himself often drew on plainsong, such as Tu Es Petrus in the organ sonata, and of course he was very familiar with the canon of liturgical music as Director of Music at Caius.

Rorate Caeli develops the lyrical line, initiated by the plainsong and layers those lines to create lush harmonies, perfect for a college chapel or cathedral and in keeping with his own extraordinary ear for harmony. He was a master at creating harmonies that were new, but clearly drawn from our musical heritage.

The structure of the piece owes much to that memorable supervision on Baroque architecture (as does the symphony I am currently writing for an orchestra in London). The arching phrases counterbalance each other so the listener can admire the beauty of the moment and the journey through the piece. I also share with Peter a love of plants (I have designed several gardens). This was composed while surrounded by my beautiful garden, a reminder of the many forms of beauty.

Finally, there is a specific reference to Peter’s forty years as Director of Music of the college. The choir at the time was all male and had a very distinctive sound. At the top were the countertenors, enjoying the limelight normally stolen by boy trebles or sopranos. The final ‘Rorate caeli’ is sung by a solo alto, preferably a countertenor to remind us of Peter in Cambridge.

About Dominic McGonigal

Dominic McGonigal’s work has been described as "beautiful music" and “confident writing for instruments and voices, great textures and a perfect sense of spacing and pacing.” His work Ave Maris Stella Takes Flight recently won the Palimpsest Competition. It has been recorded by Canterbury Cathedral Choir with Sam Corkin (sax) and will be released on Signum Classics in September 2023.

He found his voice as a composer with the Missa Et Incarnatus Est, a large work for 8-part choir, soloists and instrumental ensemble. This led to two commissions from Pat Halling to write string quartets for the Quartet Pro Musica which which have since been recorded. Vocal group Fever Pitch commissioned him to write a new piece for their Christmas repertoire, which resulted in In The Beginning, premiered at a major charity event in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden and later performed in Southwark Cathedral. Recent commissions include a setting of the song La Fleur des Eaux for tenor and orchestra, Theorbo Chaser for theorbo duet, 345 for brass quintet, Some Stranger Somewhere for choir a cappella and Pachamama Regina Caeli which will be premiered by tenor Rafael Montero and baroque guitarist Fabio Fernandes in June 2023.

A new ensemble of six sopranos, Philomel, commissioned him to write Night Song for their inaugural concert in November 2017. So began an artistic collaboration with poet Euan Tait and a second commission for Philomel, Rhythm Herd, premiered by Philomel in November 2017. His Ave Maria à 10 was selected for a workshop by the BBC Singers with Judith Weir. Future projects include a piece for large orchestra and a wind trio including improvisation.

After training as a chorister, Dominic McGonigal read music at King’s College, Cambridge where he sang bass in King’s Chapel Choir, including the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast to several hundred million people around the world. He then combined a career in the music business with performing and conducting, including appointments as musical director of W11 Opera, COMA Voices, Stoneleigh Choral Society, the Church of St Anselm & St Cecilia in Holborn, Opera Spezzata and EJMS Big Band. Besides composing, Dominic McGonigal is also a conductor, singer (bass) and instrumentalist (cello and tuba). He is regularly engaged to perform in London and Brussels. His conducting has prompted comments such as “…amazed by the conducting…a wonderful way with singers…”.

The score

Rorate Cael is now available to purchase here