Choral Evensong Blog: Music for Palm Sunday and Easter Day

Two services this month, and neither on the first Sunday! April 9th is Palm Sunday and there is a special evening service, The Way of the Cross: Meditations in Word, Prayer and Music for the start of Holy Week. The music is worth some discussion. The following Sunday is, of course, Easter Day, and I am delighted that our choirmaster, Jonathan Goodchild, has put down Stainer in B flat for the canticles. It is this work that prompted me to start writing this column. It was quite a revelation (to me) when we sang it last summer, and I wondered how I had managed to miss it for over half a century. I think I may not have been alone, but more of that later.

For The Way of the Cross there are three choral items, one extended piece and two shorter ones. I wrote last month about Thomas Morley’s verse anthem, “Out of the Deep”: his Agnus Dei is on the list for this service. This piece is interesting from a number of points of view. It is a stand-alone work, not from a complete mass setting, and sets only the first sentence of the complete text – “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nostri.” You may notice that the last word is not the familiar “nobis”. I am unable to explain this, and I’m not even sure that I understand the Latin syntax. But all this may be related to the fact that the piece is a compositional example from Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music of 1597. It is written in the fluent contrapuntal style of Palestrina, and reflects Morley’s long interest in Italian music.

The other short piece is Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacob Handl (1550-1591), who was born in Slovenia and worked in Austria and Bohemia. Handl is almost certainly a German translation of his original name, it being a regular occurrence for composers who moved around to have their names transformed or translated. One thinks of Lassus (di Lasso) and Victoria (Vittoria), but also of the English composer who went to Italy as John Cooper and came back as Giovanni Coperario. (Q: who, if he had settled in England, might have been known as Claud Greenhill?) Handl was prolific and Ecce quomodo comes from his Opus musicum, a collection of 374 works in 4 to 24 parts. Compared with the contrapuntal Morley, where each part sings a version of the same melody in imitation, the Handl is chordal throughout, using harmony as its main expressive feature. The text is the 6th Responsary for Holy Saturday and is derived from Isaiah 57:1; “Behold how the just man dies, and nobody takes it to heart.” In the second part, words from Psalm 76 v2 are followed by a repeat of the ending of the first part.

The more substantial item is The Reproaches by John Sanders (1933-2003), who was organist at Gloucester Cathedral for many years from 1967, when he succeeded Herbert Sumsion. The Reproaches (Improperia) are part of the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy for Good Friday, but have been used in the Anglican church for some time. Sanders’ setting, in English, has two refrains, one from Micah 6:3, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” and the other “Holy is God, holy and strong, holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”, the text of a Greek hymn from the 5th century with references to the Sanctus (Isaiah 6:3 and/or Revelation 4:8). These multi-part refrains are contrasted with single-line plainsong verses, all in a two-part structure as in the first verse: “I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom; but you led your Saviour to the cross.” The treatment is highly reminiscent of Allegri’s Miserere, also linked inextricably with Lent, and Sanders also echoes the slow, languid and rich harmony with 20th-century twists. The penitential mood is set by the preponderance of minor chords, often in tonally unrelated sequences (eg G minor – B minor – F minor – A minor), and by the many suspensions.

Jonathan closes the service with Bach’s chorale prelude “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross” BWV622 (O man, bewail your great sins – no need in German for pc cleansing as ‘Mensch’ is all mankind, ‘Mann’ is the male). This prelude comes from the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) and is designated for Passiontide. The melody is presented in highly decorated style on a solo stop, while left hand and pedal accompany in increasingly chromatic fashion.

For Easter Day Evensong we have a set of Redbourn Responses by Ian Harrold, who was a lay-clerk at Gloucester Cathedral and a prolific composer: these responses are his op.142. They were written in “Hommage à Herbert Sumsion” (organist at Gloucester for 39 years until 1967) and “for Alan Godfrey, my erstwhile alto-in-arms” (hence the Redbourn of the title). The Lord’s Prayer is set and there is an elaborate final Amen. The anthem is “O sons and daughters let us sing” by Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941). Walford Davies studied at the Royal College of Music with both Stanford and Parry and was organist at the Temple Church for 21 years. This anthem is a good example of a style of composition prevalent in the early twentieth century, in which a traditional hymn tune is elaborated with new harmonies, descants and varied textures. Neither this tune, the French 17th century melody known as ‘O filii et filiae’, nor the words have made it into Hymns Old and New, but both are comparatively well known.

And so to Stainer (1840-1901). Poor old John Stainer! His reputation for almost the whole of the last century was as representative of all that was worst about Victorian sentimentality. It was fashionable to regard him as persona non grata, and I enthusiastically joined the fashion, based mostly on the idea that it was the right thing to do, allied to a very incomplete knowledge of his oratorio,The Crucifixion. The first chink in my armour was when I discovered that a chant I had admired for many years since hearing it on the BBC’s Choral Evensong was actually one of Stainer’s. And then, last summer, came this Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat. The work dates from 1884, well into Stainer’s time at St Paul’s, where he was instrumental in improving the standards of the music and widening the repertoire. He is later said to have regretted publishing his compositions as he knew they were “rubbish”, which perhaps gave the opportunity to those critics who were inclined to downgrade his reputation. Interestingly, Stanford, who was 12 years younger than Stainer, had already written his B flat service in 1879. Of the two, Stanford was more the composer and Stainer more the educator and church musician, but looking at the two services it does seem odd that Stanford’s is one of the most widely performed of all settings of the evening canticles, while Stainer’s is almost completely forgotten. It may be that the Stainer is less interesting rhythmically, more four-square and using traditional patterns – the shape of the phrases in many Magnificats is sufficiently similar for them to be identifiable without the words. So why should you come to hear it? Because it’s rare, and you might, like me, undergo some sort of conversion! The harmony is adventurous, juxtaposing the keys of D and B flat, and, in fact, the Magnificat begins in D in the organ before moving to the home key for the first choral entry. The fugue in the Magnificat Gloria has to be heard to be believed: entry after entry of “as it was, it was in the beginning” is piled up until the sopranos can resist no longer and come in on a top B flat! Satisfyingly, the Amen recalls the opening of the movement now in the home key of B flat.

The voluntary is Herbert Howells’ Paean. This ‘Hymn of praise’ is in direct contrast to the reflective calm of the Bach set for Palm Sunday. Easter needs celebration and this is a celebratory piece. Using the full range of the organ, it shows many features of Howells’ style. Over some long pedal notes, the music seems to be looking for a way out of the complex harmonies. There is a brief respite in the middle before the music proceeds to its inevitable triumphant ending.

Damian Cranmer

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