The purpose of this column is to promote choral evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer in Redbourn on the first Sunday of the month. In May, by warning you not to come in August, I gave the impression that we sang this service eleven times a year. However, there was no choral evensong in September because St Mary’s unites in one 11am service to celebrate our patronal festival. And as Revd Darren Collins reminded us in this service, autumn is all about preparation, and not just for Christmas. In November the first Sunday evening service is a Eucharist for All Souls, in December it is the Advent Carol Service – though this often comes on the last Sunday in November – and in January it is an Epiphany Carol Service. Given the odd complication of a moveable Easter, we do get a run of six choral evensongs from February to July. So only seven in the year.
Our October choral evensong celebrates Harvest Festival on Sunday 2nd at 6.30pm. Traditionally, this festival is held on the Sunday closest to the full moon nearest to the autumn equinox; this year the full moon comes on September 16, so we are a little late, but the monthly schedule rules. Celebration of harvest goes back to pagan times but did not become a major feature of church life until Victorian times, partly as a reaction to immoderate harvest suppers: St Mary’s harvest supper is on Friday 30 September, and any immoderation can be assuaged by attendance at choral evensong two days later – subject, of course, to ratification by the Vicar!
And so to the music. It is an interesting fact about responses that, after an initial flowering in settings immediately following the Reformation in England (Byrd and Smith are the two most frequently sung), composers after the Restoration seem to have neglected this part of the service and new settings did not appear until the last century. On this occasion we will sing the Preces and Responses of Humphrey Clucas, who was a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, and wrote these for King’s either while he was there or shortly afterwards. He uses single note recitation along with rich harmonic passages in up to six parts. He must surely have had the acoustic of that wonderful building in mind.
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) is best known as the composer of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘I was glad’. It’s less well known that he was the composer of some great hymn tunes including ‘O praise ye the Lord’ and ‘Dear Lord and Father’. But his output was larger than this and included much instrumental and orchestral music. Although he never held a church music post, he was writing chants and hymn tunes from a very early age. While at school near Winchester, he got to know SS Wesley, and later at Eton he wrote services and anthems. At the age of 18 he was awarded BMus from the University of Oxford for his oratorio ‘O Lord thou hast cast us out’ and promptly went up to Exeter College to read law and modern history. During this time (c1868), he managed to write, or at least get published what he had written earlier, a complete set of morning and evening canticles in D. We’ll sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of this set in which the music follows the style of Wesley with considerable independent interest in the organ part. Parry began his adult life as a Lloyd’s underwriter, but continued to follow his musical instincts until he felt able to support himself exclusively from composition. It was the continuing commissions from choral societies which enabled this change. He taught at the Royal College of Music and was Professor of Music at Oxford University.
There is a second setting of the evening canticles in D by Parry, known as the ‘Great’ service. It was written for Stanford at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1881, but apparently not performed for another ten years, when it was taken up at St Paul’s by John Stainer (1840-1901), the composer of our harvest anthem, ‘Ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers’. The words of this anthem come mostly from Ezekiel chapter 36, but the piece ends with a setting of the last verse of the Chatterton Dix’s hymn ‘To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise’ (524 in HON). This anthem, which dates from about 1880, appears to have been in the repertoire at Redbourn for some years: the copy I’m looking at cost 3d and is well used. The piece offers solo opportunities for bass in the Ezekiel section and soprano in the hymn, with largely chordal comments from the choir enlivened by enough, but not too much, spicy harmony.
The final voluntary is Paean by Percy Whitlock (1903-1946). Whitlock held organist posts in Rochester and Bournemouth, where he was also municipal organist at the Pavilion. This “song of praise” is something of a trumpet voluntary, with extensive use of the solo stop. A comment on this piece that I saw recently on YouTube regretted the lack of a 32-foot reed stop at Wells Cathedral. Well, Redbourn doesn’t have any 32-foot stops but we have every confidence in Jonathan bringing proceedings to a rousing climax.
Can we hope for ‘Come ye thankful people, come’ and ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ among the hymns?