The organ is an integral part of evensong and we shall hear it used in several different ways at Choral Evensong on Sunday 3rd July.
The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis will be sung to the 2nd service of William Byrd (c.1540-1623). This is a verse service, that is it has sections for one or more solo voices alternating with sections for full choir. The organ, then, provides an essential part of the texture, though relatively low-key throughout.
We don’t know – well, let’s be frank, I don’t know – details of the organ in Lincoln Cathedral where Byrd was organist from 1563 to 1570 and may well have composed this service. The problem with the early history of organs in England is that they were removed from churches and destroyed during the Commonwealth, when, far from being integral to the service, they were regarded as heretical. But the Lincoln organ would have had gentle flute-like stops, easily reproduced on modern instruments.
I find it quite surprising that Byrd, now regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of 16th-century English composers, has not always had such a reputation. In the late 19th century he was known by only three or four pieces, many fewer than Tallis or Gibbons. It’s not all explained by his continued adherence to catholicism (the same is true of Tallis) or the relatively few of his compositions found in Boyce’s Cathedral Music. These days, even his Latin masses (along with those of Palestrina and Victoria) are part of the staple diet of cathedral services.
For the anthem, we shall sing one of SS Wesley’s extended cantata-like anthems, which also has many sections using solo voices. Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) was the son of Samuel Wesley, a noted composer, and grandson of Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn-writer. SS Wesley began his career in the London theatre world, but then took several posts in cathedrals, never quite finding an ecclesiastical or choral set-up to match his aspirations: as I said last month, cathedrals in the 19th century did not have the quality and professionalism in their music which we cherish today. But Wesley wrote many impressive pieces for the church, perhaps the greatest in the repertoire between Purcell and Stanford. He chose his words carefully and ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul’ takes text from Psalms 103, 3 and 5. The care he took with the setting of the words is illustrated in the very first phrase of the anthem where, for musical reasons, he omits the “O” (Praise the Lord, my soul), restoring it in later passages – the cause of some variety in the work’s title.
Perhaps the most interesting point in the anthem is that, during an angelic treble solo, the organ suddenly takes off in a flight of fancy; the piece was written for the opening of, and to show off, the new organ at Holy Trinity Church, Winchester, in 1861 when Wesley held the organist’s post at the cathedral there. Wesley, unlike Byrd, wrote for an organ with a pedal board, but, apart from this one passage of exhibition, the organ mostly provides a harmonic accompaniment.
If the Byrd and Wesley are about 300 years apart, it was around half way between that JS Bach (1685-1750) was writing for the more advanced organs in Germany. It requires the whole of the modern St Mary’s organ to exploit Bach’s great “Dorian” fugue which is the final voluntary of this service. In May we heard Mendelssohn’s answer to Bach fugues. Here is the real thing and impressive it is too.
A copy of this music in my possession is full of a previous owner’s pencil additions: ‘add to great’, ‘add to swell’, ‘full pedal by hand’. So come on, Jonathan, for the final entries of this fugue “Pull out all the stops!” Actually our organ has tabs, but somehow “flick all the tabs” doesn’t have quite the same ring about it. Incidentally, the knobs or tabs which are the means of accessing additional sounds on an organ are called stops because in the early organs they were a method of stopping rather than increasing sounds. In other words, unlike modern organs which are off until you draw a stop, these early organs were fully on until you stopped something.
We’ll also sing Responses by Kathy Goodchild, a member of our choir. Kathy says she wrote these in response (no pun intended) to a request by David Forbes and so, if you don’t like them, please blame David!
This music together with some rousing hymns will be a fine way to bring to an end a year of choral services at St Mary’s.