Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 4th February 2018

Choral Evensong returns after the season of carol services, and the next service in St Mary’s is on February 4th at 6.30.

Thomas Morley

We shall sing the Responses by Thomas Morley (1557-1603). Unlike the more familiar Responses of, say, Smith and Byrd, which are newly composed throughout and therefore more “interesting”, those of Morley and Tallis follow the melodic line of the everyday ferial responses. So, for most of the time, but not quite all, if you knew the traditional shape of the responses, you would be able to sing along with the choir. The other interesting point – well, it’s interesting to me – is that in both the Tallis and the Morley the congregational line is in the treble in the first part of the responses (the preces) but in the tenor for the second part (after the creed). I don’t know why this is, but I’m going to try to find out!

Sir Sydney Nicholson

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis will be sung to the setting in D flat by Sir Sydney Nicholson. Nicholson (1875-1947) held several organist posts before being appointed to Westminster Abbey. He gave up this post in 1927 to found the School of English Church Music (later to become The Royal School of Church Music – RSCM) because of what he saw as the poor state of music in parish churches (not Redbourn, surely!). He invested a lot of time and his own money in promoting the society through training courses for musicians at the College of St Nicolas in Chislehurst, and travelling the country conducting choirs. The measure of his success is that, by the outbreak of the Second World War, there were 1300 choirs worldwide affiliated to the School, and today that number is over 8000. In the year after Nicholson’s death the RSCM published a Commemoration Book containing much of his music, including the canticles in D flat. His compositions include anthems and several hymn tunes of which only three have found their way into Hymns Old and New, the most memorable being that to ‘Lift high the cross’.

Nicholson’s canticles illustrate his involvement with music for parish choirs, and so there is nothing over-complicated, except possibly for the key signature which moves between five flats and five sharps. There is little counterpoint and there is a strongly supportive organ part. For a time they were heard regularly in cathedrals, but like much music of the period they are no longer part of the staple diet. In parish churches, however, you are more likely to come across them.

Martin How

The anthem is ‘O taste and see’ by Martin How, who was associated with the RSCM for much of his career before returning to organ playing in retirement in Croydon. It’s courageous to set these words, when the Vaughan Williams is so well known, but How manages to achieve something quite different. His purpose may be deduced from the dedication – For Michael Fleming and St Michael’s, West Croydon – and the footnote – Written in deep gratitude for John Loughborough Pearson, inspired church architect (1817-97). Pearson was heavily involved with the Gothic Revival, and, if you look at pictures of St Michael’s, you cannot help seeing similarities with St Pancras station, the work of Gilbert Scott, with which and with whom St Michael’s and Pearson were largely contemporary. The high vaulting produces an acoustic in which slow moving block harmonies are particularly effective, and this is what How achieves in his reflective anthem.

The voluntary is JS Bach’s Fugue in D minor BWV539. This is one of Bach’s arrangements of an earlier composition, in this case the second movement of Sonata no.1 in G minor for solo violin, which has resulted in the organ work being known as the “Fiddle Fugue”, not that the violin is often referred to as a fiddle these days except in the context of folk music. Bach spent a lot of time transcribing his own music and that of other composers, and he, like Handel, was a very swift worker. I’m not sure that I could write out Messiah in the three weeks that it took Handel to compose it! But Handel, the great improviser with all the music in his head, scarcely looked up from the page that he was writing. Bach, on the other hand, was more methodical, and in this transcription from violin to organ there is very little change, just the occasional elongation of a phrase to accommodate a pedal statement of the fugue subject.

Damian Cranmer

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