Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 5th February, 6.30pm

Choral Evensong is back at St Mary’s after the Christmas carol service season. The next service is on Sunday 5th February at 6.30pm.

philip-radcliffeFor the responses we continue to explore settings written in the last century with those by Philip Radcliffe (1905-1986), who went to King’s College, Cambridge as an undergraduate, was appointed a Fellow in 1931 and pretty well never left. He was primarily a teacher and critic but was an enthusiastic composer, whose style was described in The Times obituary as ‘Vaughan-Brahms’. His responses were written between Good Friday and Easter Day in 1972 for Edington – flash of inspiration, last minute activity or well in advance of commission for annual August Festival? They include a full Gloria and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis will be sung to Watson in E. Sydney Watson (1903-1991) was organ scholar at Keble College (1922-5) and organist at New College (1933-8). Either side of these he held several teaching posts before being appointed Precentor (effectively Director of Music) at Eton College in 1946. He returned to Oxford in 1955 as organist of Christ Church Cathedral. It gave him a certain pleasure to have made the journey from Eton to Christ Church in the reverse direction from Charles Lloyd in the 1890s and Henry Ley in the 1920s. A major development of his time was the introduction of choral scholars in 1960 as the six lay clerks who had 150 years’ service between them came towards retirement. He broadened the repertoire introducing more Byrd and Britten, and explored the masses of Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria. He was a man with an infectious sense of humour, often using his stutter without embarrassment to confuse his listener. His eyes would twinkle as he described this Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis as “Me in E”, and I once saw him close one of the stops on the organ with his nose, almost certainly purely for the benefit of his audience.

Watson was more of a performer than a composer, but he continued the tradition of cathedral organists in adding a few of his own works to the repertoire. Among others still sung today are the evening canticles in E flat for trebles alone and the motet ‘O most merciful’. The setting in E was written for New College in the mid 1930s. On the page, it looks deceptively easy and, with almost no word repetition, it is one of the shorter works of this type. But it has much variety of texture from simple unison lines to divisi tenors and basses and full choir with strong organ support. The harmony is inventive.

percy-whitlockThe anthem is to be Whitlock’s “Be still, my soul”. Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) held organist posts in Rochester and Bournemouth, where he was also municipal organist at the Pavilion: we heard his rousing Paean in October. This anthem is much more restrained. It was published in 1930, suggesting that it comes from his Rochester period. The three verses proceed with organ interludes and a setting of the words which makes for easy understanding. These words are not those of HON 54 (Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side) which we sing to Sibelius’s memorable theme from Finlandia, but are a poem by WD Maclagan (Be still, my soul, for God is near; the great high priest is with thee now). William Dalrymple Maclagan (1826-1910) was archbishop of York from 1891 to 1908, and as such crowned Queen Alexandra at the 1902 coronation.

max-regerWhenever Jonathan Goodchild thinks of Reger, he is reminded of the story of a notice said to have appeared in the Abbey during the organ festival which read “Please God, no more Reger”; nevertheless he’s giving us some! Max Reger (1873-1916) was a gifted pianist and organist who composed a huge amount of music in a relatively short time. His style fuses the chromaticism of the late nineteenth century with the German tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, and particularly the counterpoint of JS Bach. The voluntary for this choral evensong is the Passacaglia in D minor and a fine piece it is to end the service. It would be easy to get worked up about the difference between passacaglia, ground bass and chaconne. They all use recurring patterns, but a chaconne is composed on a repeating chord sequence, while the other two are thematic. The greatest of all ground bass composers, Henry Purcell, wrote a melody over the bass which drew the attention away from the bass; Dido’s Lament is a fine example. With passacaglia, you’re supposed to follow the line throughout. Reger’s Passacaglia is modelled very closely on Bach’s great work in C minor: it has the same rhythmic pattern, the same length of phrase, and the same overall shape. We hear the theme first on the pedals, and it remains there for the following 12 variations, in which the excitement is gradually built up by quicker note values in the upper parts, more complex harmony and, of course, a controlled crescendo. In the last variation, the music moves into the major key.

Damian Cranmer

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