Classic Hymns for Orchestra: New Album Provides Fresh Resource for Corps Music
By: Andrew Wainwright
The name Kenneth Downie will be familiar to anyone connected with Salvation Army music making, and if you have ever sung in a singing company or songster brigade, or played in a band, chances are you will have seen his name in the top right-hand corner of the page. Countless congregations have been blessed by his musical offerings, and at over 300 published works, he is one of the most prolific and renowned Salvation Army composers. After producing a sell-out album of his piano playing in 2019, he expanded his horizons to writing for orchestra – a true passion he has not often had opportunity to pursue. The first offering from this new endeavor focuses on 15 much-loved hymns, giving them fresh and creative treatments.
Whether scoring for brass, vocal or strings, what is common to all Kenneth’s music is a deep sense of spirituality. In listening through all the tracks of his new album, Classic Hymns for Orchestra, his Christian faith is in evidence, and one can’t help but be spiritually renewed by the musical offerings. Clearly, he has a deep understanding of the words of the hymns, and this is borne out in the settings, many of which have the trademark Downie sound.
Thinking back to when he first felt an interest in penning music, Kenneth recalls, “While most musicians are perfectly happy to play, conduct, or listen, a minority want to try and write, even though there is no guarantee that anyone will listen to their efforts, let alone publish or record them. The desire was there from a very early age, and my first real exposure to music was in The Salvation Army.”
Kenneth’s inspiration for this particular album came when he created a number of orchestral tracks for a Christmas solo album with BrookWright Music entitled Sounds of the Season. “It sparked off the interest in writing for orchestra again, which I had not done since university days. The extra tone colors available proved irresistible.”
He continues, “I listen to classical music all the time. Having written a large quantity of instrumental music for brass band, it is very exciting to have a larger palette to choose from to create the sumptuous chords that an orchestra is capable of. Applying these to the hymns that I grew up listening to played and sung by choirs is a treat!”
With such a plethora of hymns, one might wonder how Kenneth selected the mere 15 chosen for the album. He explains, “I wanted to keep to well-known and well-loved hymns spanning the centuries. There are good reasons why these hymns have remained popular: they speak timeless messages to people of all generations. I wanted to clothe them in new, orchestral settings, in the hope that they will reach out to even more listeners.”
Creating the album has taken the best part of two years, Kenneth writing all the arrangements and then sending them off for production. He explains, “The fun then started with the team at BrookWright, who fused state-of-the-art sounds such as those of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, some of London and Berlin’s finest session musicians, the renowned Tallinn Choir from Estonia, and even the famous Royal Albert Hall organ!”
Complementing this talent are guest soloists Tom Hutchinson, principal cornet of the world’s top-ranked brass band, The Cory Band, and London-based mezzo soprano soloist Susanne Dymott, formerly a member of the International Staff Songsters. Kenneth says, “It was a real privilege to have Susanne and Tom making telling contributions to the album. I knew Susanne as a little girl in the Singing Company at Southampton, and watching her singing career flourish in the way it has, has been rewarding. I have not met Tom personally, but I feel that I know him through his wonderful musicianship, as demonstrated superbly on this recording in his playing of Come Home! My grateful thanks to both!”
Of the process, Kenneth reveals, “Consulting over the nature of these sounds was at times a challenging process, and one that can never be perfect. But overall, we feel that this recording brings something new and special to the table, and we are praying it will be a blessing to many.”
Fellow Salvationist composer Stephen Bulla was intrigued by the concept, concluding, “This new collection of hymns will become a welcome resource with beautiful orchestral settings for listening and worship. Kenneth’s imaginative settings contribute to a recording that is one to savor.”
Journalist and author Paul Hindmarsh, long-time friend and supporter of The Salvation Army and respected music critic, explains, “Kenneth’s brass band music has been part of my musical experience for 50 years. His prolific writing for brass band displays sincerity, imagination, and skill in equal measure.”
Kenneth hopes that the recordings will prove to be a highly effective ministry tool, that will “reach out to many people and perhaps be used in public worship services, as well as in more intimate settings like house groups.” There is a plan to produce orchestral parts for those churches that have the musical resources to use them, while brass band and brass choir versions have already been published of the opening track, Now thank we all our God, with more to follow. Through these, Salvation Army groups will be able make use of the settings.
The settings, which vary from soothing to majestic and bold to sprightly, are crafted in such a way that many could be used in corps to aid congregational singing, particularly those that don’t have live music. In addition, they will be effective as preliminary or offertory music. A video with the lyrics and evocative imagery has already been created of one of the tracks, He hideth my soul, with the potential for further videos to be produced with more of the hymns.
Kenneth concludes, “My greatest reward as a composer comes from knowing that my music has touched someone’s heart and brought someone closer to God. As it goes out into the unknown now, it goes with the prayers of many that it will produce a harvest.”
Classic Hymns for Orchestra – The Symphonic Music of Kenneth Downie is available as a CD and digital download from brookwrightmusic.com and directly from Kenneth at kennethfdownie@ gmail.com.