Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 4th June

This month I’ll start at the end – with the voluntary. What is a voluntary and for whom is it voluntary? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (that’s the one in only two volumes of over 3500 pages each) gives a meaning up to the Reformation of “music added to a piece at the will of the performer”, leading to “an organ solo played before, during, or after a church service….” from the early 18th century. The playing of such a piece, particularly at the end of a service, is voluntary for an organist only to a certain extent – it is expected. For everyone else it is entirely voluntary, clergy and choir who depart to their vestries, and congregation who sit and listen, depart, greet friends and tidy the church. And what about applause? There were times when applause would never have been considered appropriate in church, but we now applaud brides and grooms and newly baptised babies. So although we don’t (yet) applaud sermons and anthems, let’s not deny the organist appreciation for his or her playing. What about an occasional “compulsory”?

On this occasion, Jonathan plays JS Bach’s Chorale Prelude BWV651, the Fantasia on “Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” (Come, Holy Ghost, Lord God). The words of the German chorale are by Luther based on the Latin hymn “Veni, sancte spiritus”, so most appropriate for Whit Sunday, as is the anthem (see below): the tune is by Johann Walter, and Bach puts this in long notes for the feet, while the hands weave a fantasia above. If fantasia suggests random improvisation, then this is not what you get from Bach, at least on the page. Everything is carefully ordered and the semiquaver arpeggios with which the piece begins are rarely absent and, at times, treated with the precision of a fugue. The genius of Bach is to make this calculated structure sound improvisatory. Do stay and listen.

The responses are our own home-grown version of those by Richard Ayleward, now for five voice parts. The increase from four to five makes more difference than you might expect, and I am a fan of the richer texture. So, I believe, was Orlando Gibbons, and it’s one of his pieces, known only to us for four voices, but which obviously needs a fifth voice, that gives proof that some early music was reduced to fit what became the choral norm of soprano – alto – tenor – bass. Richard Ayleward (1626-1669) is a couple of generations after Gibbons, so not that “early”, but he certainly relished large scale performances. His short career took off at the Restoration with his appointment as organist of Norwich Cathedral. He must have been active during the Commonwealth because he wrote music for the Coronation of Charles II.

Our Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is the setting in A by Sir William H Harris (1883-1973). Harris was a fine organist from an early age and held appointments in Lichfield and Oxford (New College and then Christ Church) before moving in 1933 to St George’s Windsor where he remained for 28 years. His most famous, and probably best, piece of church music is the anthem “Faire is the heaven”. The canticles in A are constructed from a few simple phrases which are adapted as necessary to new words: the openings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis illustrate this well. In addition the two Glorias reprise the opening of their respective movements, producing a satisfying structure. In the baroque period, composers (with tongue in cheek?) made the reprise at “as it was in the beginning” (sicut erat in principio). In fact this feature was the major factor in reuniting Handel’s psalm Nisi Dominus with its Gloria from which it had become separated for well over 100 years. We sing the Harris from music contained in a booklet for the Diocesan Choirs Festival held in St Albans Abbey in 1966. There are similar booklets for 1964 in the choir library (containing Harris’ setting in A minor), which suggests that St Mary’s choir took part in these events. Anyone remember?

The anthem is Peter Philips’ “Loquebantur variis linguis”, in Catholic usage the Responsory after the second lesson at Matins of the Feast of Pentecost. The text is based on The Acts of the Apostles (ch2 v4) and can be translated “The Apostles were speaking in different languages of the great works of God as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. Alleluia”. It’s not easy to put Philips’ life into one sentence, but here goes. A lifelong catholic who had been a chorister at St Paul’s, possibly taught by Byrd, Philips (c1561-1626) fled Reformed England in 1582 for Rome before settling in Antwerp, where he not only lost his new wife in childbirth and their daughter seven years later, causing financial disputes with his late wife’s family, but also spent time in prison having been accused (unfairly, as it turned out) of plotting against the English Queen, and eventually in 1609 became a priest, all the while composing copiously. This work is very much in the style of Palestrina, easy flowing imitative counterpoint for the main text with a more energetic and rhythmically complex “alleluia”.

Damian Cranmer

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