Last weekend I was at the record shop and picked up this new disc of choral music by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), sung by choirs from Wells Cathedral. Leighton’s music is not extremely well known, and all of the pieces on this disc are new to me. The centerpiece of the program is The World’s Desire, “A Sequence for Epiphany”. (Clearly, it is highly unseasonable music, but bear with me.) In this piece Leighton sets a number of texts, from the Bible and the liturgy, as well as hymns by Reginald Heber. Most interesting to me, however, is that he includes a setting of G.K. Chesterton’s poem “The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap”. I believe this is the first time that I have heard one of Chesterton’s poems set to music.
The text of them poem reads:
The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)
The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)
The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)
The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.
It is very simple, but touching in its tender portrait of mother and child. According to my edition of Chesterton’s poems, it comes from the late 1890s, when Chesterton was a young man. Note that the third stanza contains the phrase “the world’s desire”, which means that the title for Leighton’s work, and for this disc on which it appears, are drawn from this poem.
Here is Leighton’s setting of the poem (Duration: 4 min.):
[From Hyperion CDA67641: Matthew Owens; Wells Cathedral Choir]
That is beautiful; I’ve been humming it to myself all day. It also gives an indication of the high performance standards on this recording. Highly recommended.