Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 7th May

There’s a book which I came across recently in which the author laments the different paths taken by secular classical music and church music in the twentieth century[1]. This is not the place to debate the issue, but there can be little doubt that church musicians have continued to write music which they felt filled the need, particularly, of the Anglican services. In the last three months I have written about Herbert Howells, Philip Radcliffe, John Sanders, Sydney Watson and Percy Whitlock, none of whom can be said to have made a major contribution to secular music, but whose church music remains part of the repertoire. So it is very welcome, and not surprising, that St Mary’s choir has several composers in the stalls, and we shall sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Kathy Goodchild at the next Evensong on 7th May.

I wrote about John Sanders last month in connection with ‘The Reproaches’. We’ll sing his responses on this occasion. They were written in 1983 to mark the centenary of the death of Richard Wagner. There is much use of the Dresden Amen with its characteristic motive of a rising scale, extensively used by Wagner in his opera Parsifal. This gives the music a very positive feel. I can’t remember whether Parsifal is a particularly positive opera – a bit of a marathon to find out!

The Psalm, no.29, is one in powerful praise of God who “commandeth the waters”, “ruleth the sea”, “breaketh the cedars of Libanus” , and finally “shall give his people the blessing of peace”. You can’t beat the Prayer Book Psalter in my view.

Thomas Attwood (c) Royal College of Music; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The chant is by Thomas Attwood, organist of St Paul’s in the early years of the nineteenth century. One of his anthems will probably turn up before long, but we can be certain that the D minor Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of his godson, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, will. Of the evening’s hymns, “In Christ there is no east or west” (HON 244) is a hymn by William Arthur Dunkerly, written under the pseudonym of John Oxenham some ten years after Kipling’s poem ‘East is east and west is west’, and seems to present a counter-argument. The tune is Kilmarnock by Niall Dougall. It’s always interesting to try to understand the naming of hymn tunes. Many, like this one, are place names and the Scottish Psalter gives us Dunfermline, Elgin, Caithness and Wigtown. The derivation of Down Ampney and Abbot’s Leigh are straightforward enough, but what was SS Wesley’s connection with Harewood, the tune for ‘Christ is our cornerstone’ (HON 77)?

The anthem by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead’, a setting of words from the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 24 verses 5-7. These are the words of the “two men .. in shining garments” who appeared to the women who first discovered the stone rolled away from Christ’s tomb, so highly relevant to this time of Easter. Stanford composed this work in about 1890, three years after he had been appointed Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge in addition to his post as Organist of Trinity College. This might have been quite enough for most people, but Stanford had been invited by George Grove (of music dictionary fame) to become involved with the Royal College of Music from its opening in 1883 as composition tutor and orchestral director.   It could be said that among his lesser known achievements was as teacher of many of the leading composers of the first half of the twentieth century, including Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland and Vaughan Williams. However, in attempting to get them to follow in his own Brahmsian tradition, Stanford seems to have ensured that they developed their own voice – success indeed. And then, of course, there was his own composition and conducting. Stanford’s compositions were not limited to the church music on which his reputation is mostly based today. A view that all is not necessarily lost for his other work can be found in The New Grove:his two last and arguably best operas, The Critic (1916) and The Travelling Companion (1919), had still not attracted the attention of professional opera companies by the mid-1990s.”

The voluntary is JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G BWV541. We might wonder about how Stanford achieved so much, but was Bach any less industrious? There are over 200 organ works alone. Most of the great Preludes and Fugues date, like this one, from his Weimar years. If you look at the score, the detail is extraordinary, but Bach blends all the elements into something that, to the listener, does not in any way seem contrived. Most importantly about this piece, it’s well worth postponing the next part of your evening for its seven or so minutes to hear Jonathan play it.

Damian Cranmer

[1] Martin Thomas: English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century

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