First a short follow-up to the Choral Matins of August. This was well supported by both choir and a congregation of over 50 and I hope we may be able to sing this service, now rare in parish churches, again soon. I spoke to one current member of the congregation who first sang Matins in St Mary’s choir in the early 1940s. Someone should gather the reminiscences of such people together; and there are photographs of the choir in 1920 and 1996 in the vestry but nothing in between. Who has any material?
There’s a new (well I’ve only just come across it) website for Choral Evensong, titled appropriately choralevensong.org. It lists services by locality and I was pleased to see that St Mary’s is listed, but as yet there is no picture and no detail of the music: both can fairly easily be remedied, I hope. It also gives links to related articles and there is a good one from Religion News Service at the moment on the growing popularity of the service. Our Evensong this month is for the occasion of Harvest Festival.
The responses of Thomas Tomkins will get a second airing; I wrote about the longevity of Tomkins (1572-1656) in relation to these responses in July. I’ve been listening to some of his music recently and it’s interesting how little his choral music differs in style from the norm of 1600. At times he almost outdoes Gibbons in his use of false relation. One of his best pieces is “When David heard”, published in 1622 in his Songs of Three, Four, Five and Six Parts, the last but one of the many madrigalian publications of the Elizabethan and Jacobean composers.
The canticles will be sung in the setting in E minor by Heathcote Statham (1889-1973). Heathcote, by the way, is a first name, but Statham (doesn’t sound right, does it?) has never managed to lose it, unlike contemporaries such as Dyson, Darke and Howells. For the majority of the First World War, he was organist at the cathedral in Calcutta, but returned to St Michael’s Tenbury, where he had been a chorister, to take up the post of organist in 1918. But the greatest part of his active life was as organist of Norwich Cathedral (1928-1966), and the E minor Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were written in the middle of this time. The style is in keeping with the prevalent idiom of church music in the first half of the last century, but the changing time signatures show an awareness of the rhythm of the words and an ability to avoid stock patterns. The tonality is mostly E minor, but one section of the Magnificat and all of the Nunc Dimittis are in E major.
The anthem is “Blessing, Glory, Wisdom and Thanks” by Herbert Brewer, a setting of words from Revelation and Psalms 148 and 106, which was composed for the Gloucester Diocesan Choral Festival in June 1909 and is eminently suitable for such a festival as this. We have noted before how important these festivals were and how much music was written for them. The piece is in three sections corresponding to the three sources of the text and the organ part is significant. Wikipedia claims that Brewer (1865-1928) “lived in Gloucester his whole life” but that seems a little wide of the mark. He grew up in Gloucester and was organist at the cathedral for over 30 years from 1896, but held posts in Oxford, Bristol, Coventry and Tonbridge in the intervening years. His work in Gloucester involved much activity outside the cathedral, particularly in relation to the Three Choirs Festival, which he conducted on eight occasions, and for which he wrote several major works on both serious and light-hearted subjects. Of his compositions, Grove’s Dictionary (4th edition 1940, and unchanged in today’s online version) stated that “he seemed happier in the concerts of the Shire Hall than in the cathedral.” Sadly, in the light of this, he is known today mostly for his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in D which remains in the repertoire of cathedrals and which St Mary’s choir have sung on a number of occasions.
The voluntary is Obangiji by Fela Sowande (1905-1987), a Nigerian musician who is regarded as the father of modern Nigerian art music. His early education was based on the cathedral in Lagos and was in traditional European music. He came to London in 1934 and contributed widely to the musical scene. He was the soloist in Gershwin’s Rhapsody, played with Fats Waller and accompanied Adelaide Hall on the organ. He went back to Nigeria for a time before settling in the USA where he held several research and teaching posts. He composed extensively and, although I have not heard Obangiji, we can be fairly certain that there will be more to this piece than the traditional organ postlude.