Cecilia McDowall was born in London in 1951, educated at Edinburgh and London Universities and was a prize-winning student at Trinity College of Music. She has a distinctive style which speaks directly to listeners, instrumentalists and singers alike. Her most characteristic works fuse fluent melodic lines with occasional dissonant harmonies and rhythmic exuberance.
Her music has been commissioned and performed by leading choirs, including the BBC Singers, ensembles, and at festivals worldwide. She has won many awards and has been short-listed eight times for the British Composer Awards.
Her 2011 work The Shipping Forecast (commissioned by the Portsmouth Festival Choir), gained national media attention. Cecilia says "There’s something rather beguiling and mysterious about the Shipping Forecast which sounds so poetic, but at the same time is very crucial to people at sea". The work reflects the mystery and force of the sea, drawing together the poetry of Sean Street, the psalm ’They that go down to the sea in ships’, and the words of the shipping forecast itself.
Recent projects include Some Corner of a Foreign Field, scored for choir and orchestra to mark the centenary of WW1, setting texts from WW1 poets plus references to poems by Dulwich College alumni Sir Ernest Shackleton. Night Flight, scored for SSATB and solo cello marks the centenary of Harriet Quimby’s pioneering journey across the English Channel. She sets text by Sheila Bryer relating to the mysterious power of the sea, earth and air. Cecilia was awarded the 2014 British Composer Award (Choral category) for Night Flight.
Choral works published by OUP in the New Horizons series include three Latin motets: Ave Regina, Ave Maria and Regina Caeli, the exuberant Christmas cantata Christus Natus Est, the sumptuous peace motet Ave maris stella and the Magnificat.
Cecilia’s recent works include When time is broke, a three movement work setting text by Shakespeare, and premiered by the BBC Singers January 2016, and McDowall’s works are regularly broadcast on BBC Radio and readily available on CD. A new choral disc, featuring the City of Canterbury Chamber Choir and soprano Rachel Nicholls, was released on the Dutton Epoch label last year. Three Latin motets have been recorded by the renowned American choir, Phoenix Chorale, (Chandos); this recording, Spotless Rose (Hymns to the Virgin Mary), won a Grammy award in 2010 for ’Best small ensemble performance’ and was nominated for ’Best Classical Album’. Cecilia is currently Composer-in-Residence at Dulwich College.
These three songs are settings of less well known excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and each, in some way, has an association with music; harmony, rhythm, discord.
The first, Give me some music, from Much Ado About Nothing, is an appraisal – not a very pleasant one – of marriage; advice given by Beatrice to her cousin, Hero. Marriage begins, she says, like a Scottish jig, all hot and hasty. After that, everything’s downhill.
The second song, Mark how one string, sweet husband to another, is a setting of an extract from Sonnet VIII which takes quite a different view of marriage; this is Shakespeare’s exhortation to a young man to marry, because matrimony brings concord, happiness and ‘mutual ordering’.
With text taken from Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, the third and final song, How sour sweet music is, explores discord and ‘unpleasing’ sounds, finally dissolving into silence with lines from Hamlet, "You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass... The rest is silence."
When time is broke, Three Shakespeare Songs is dedicated to Nancianne Parrella on her 80th birthday, 14 November 2015, in honour of a lifetime devoted to the art of choral music. It was first performed on 28 January 2016 at LSO St Luke’s, London, by the BBC Singers, conductor David Hill.