Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 2nd July 2017

First an update on last month’s column: within a week of writing “although we don’t (yet) applaud sermons and anthems”, I was in an Anglican church where the congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the anthem!

Thomas Tomkins

And so to the music for our July Evensong. The responses will be sung in the setting by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). These responses are not as well known as, particularly, those by Byrd and William Smith of Durham, although they are now quite regularly heard on the BBC’s Choral Evensong. Tomkins is interesting because he outlived his fellow Elizabethan and Jacobean composers by more than 30 years, long enough for his post as organist at Worcester Cathedral to become redundant when the city surrendered to parliamentary forces in 1646. By this time he had been in post for 50 years and I had always thought of him as happy to serve his time away from the capital, a bit like Weelkes in Chichester (more about him when Jonathan does his Hosanna or Alleluia, I heard a voice). These two composers interest me at the moment because, in looking at the music sung at Christ Church, Oxford from the 1880s, when such records began, I have found neither mentioned until the 1920s, whereas Tallis and Gibbons, to a lesser extent Byrd, and even Richard Farrant, of composers from the same period, feature strongly. One reason could be that neither Tomkins nor Weelkes was included in Cathedral Music, a collection of nearly 250 pieces compiled by William Boyce in the 1760s. But in Tomkins’ case, it was not because he was stuck in Worcester. In fact he was a member of the Chapel Royal as singer and organist and must have spent much time in London. His madrigals were probably better known than his church music, of which his son made a collection after his death.

Harold Darke

We sing the canticles to Darke in F. Harold Darke (1888-1976) spent 50 years as Organist at St Michael’s, Cornhill (1916-1966) and is best known for his setting of the carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. I associate this piece with King’s College, Cambridge, and Darke spent four years of the Second World War as Acting Director of Music there in the absence of Boris Ord; but now I check my copy I find that it was copyrighted in 1911! So the best I can hope for is that he took it with him to Cambridge! Of the complete service in F from the 1920s, the setting of the Communion is perhaps even better known than the evening canticles. Cathedral choirs these days regularly sing the Latin masses of Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Haydn and Mozart within the modern Eucharist, and it is a measure of the enduring quality of the music of Harold Darke, who cannot be said to have made much of an impression as a composer outside church music, that his setting of the Book of Common Prayer words for the Communion still finds a place in the repertory. The modern words of Evening Prayer have not, by and large, caught the imagination of composers and, in sung services, “My soul doth magnify the Lord” is more likely to be replaced by “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” than by “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”. It’s not exactly the ultimate test, but Wikipedia gives only the Latin and BCP texts! Darke’s setting is very varied with textures from solo lines to double choir in eight parts. The organ of course plays an important role and it’s interesting to see how much of it isn’t “in F”: the whole of the Nunc Dimittis, until the Gloria, is in D minor.

Percy Whitlock

The anthem is ‘Sing praise to God who reigns above’ by Percy Whitlock, of whom I have written a couple of times recently. The words are taken from the English Hymnal (a hymn not in HON) and are a translation of a 17th century German chorale, Sei Lob’ und Ehr’. Whitlock set three verses of the EH hymn, but ended each verse with the refrain from the first “To God all praise and glory” and in each case this is the climax of the verse. The piece was written for the Diocesan Choirs’ Festival at Rochester Cathedral in 1928. I mentioned the equivalent festival at St Albans in the 1960s last month. These festivals grew out of the Choral Revival of the 1840s and were held at both diocesan and national level. At one time up to 5000 singers would take part in huge events at the Crystal Palace; in 1987 the Royal School of Church Music was able to gather 850 singers at the Albert Hall to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee. And even today, the diocese of Salisbury maintains its June Festival with a history of over 150 years.

J S Bach

The voluntary is the first movement of JS Bach’s Sonata in C BWV529. This is the fifth of a set of six pieces often known as trio sonatas because they use the texture of the instrumental works by composers such as Corelli, often two violins and continuo. On the organ the two hands play on different manuals partly to get matching but different sounds, but also to keep out of each other’s way – the right hand is sometimes lower than the left. Meanwhile the feet provide a harmonic bass. So there are three independent melodic lines and, although you are playing only three notes at any one time, the interaction of their independence produces a challenge which I find completely impossible! My compliments to the organist!

Damian Cranmer

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