Choral Evensong Blog: Easter Day, Sunday 1st April, 6.30pm

Firstly a follow-up to my comments on Responses for February’s choral evensong. I found myself singing tenor in the Byrd for the March service and was surprised to find that, after the creed, the tenor part follows Merbecke’s plainsong line, as it does in Tallis and Morley. The Byrd, then, is not newly composed throughout. But William Smith’s is, and it is his setting that we sing on Easter Day. Smith (1603-1645) was attached to the cathedral in Durham for most of his life, as choirboy, minor canon and precentor, and the elaborate nature of these responses may have some connection with a feud at Durham in the 1620s between two of the prebendaries, John (later bishop) Cosin and Peter Smart. Cosin’s position on music can be construed from Smart’s attack on him: “…you have so changed the whole liturgy, that though it be not in Latin, yet by reason of the confusedness of voices of so many singers, with a multitude of melodious instruments … the greatest part of the service is no better understood, than if it were in Hebrew or in Irish…”(Grove’s Dictionary) It seems that Smith sided with Cosin. The revival of Smith’s responses has largely been the inspiration for the multitude of 20th century settings, after being almost completely neglected by composers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

When I saw that Stanford in C had been selected for Easter Day choral evensong, I thought that it was a good and obvious choice. Stanford is the go-to man for celebratory settings. I then wondered whether this view was out of line with current thinking in cathedrals. So I trawled through the websites of the 44 members of the Association of English Cathedrals to see what they were singing at Easter evensong. (What is a cathedral is questionable at the edges, for example Westminster Abbey and St George’s Windsor, but this was a comprehensive list to start with.)   Half of them at the time of writing, 12 March, had not published their music lists for 1 April, so I am having to make do with just 22 results at the moment. So far, no Stanford in C, but five of the 22 are singing Stanford in A, and only three other settings come up more than once: two each for Howells’ St Paul’s Service and the D major services of Dyson and Wood. Howells is represented by three additional settings and Wood by two, so, at what we might call half-time, the score is Stanford and Howells 5, Wood 4, Dyson 2 and six others 1. Historically, there is some evidence that Stanford quickly established himself as a festive composer. I have been looking at some old music lists for Christ Church Oxford. In five of the seven years that I have looked at between 1883 and 1964, Stanford in B flat or in C was sung at Easter evensong. In 1883, only four years after it was written, Stanford in B flat was sung 12 times at Christ Church.

So what about the music? Stanford in C is a great piece and the opening of the Gloria with antiphonal unaccompanied choir and thunderous organ is a masterstroke. But we should do Stanford in A sometime.

Percy Whitlock

The anthem is ‘He is risen’ by Percy Whitlock, who has come up in this column on a number of occasions. The publication date of 1932 suggests that it was written while he was director of music at St Stephen’s, Bournemouth and it is written in a style that makes it eminently suitable for parish choirs. It uses straightforward harmony but has enough counterpoint to keep the interest. There are three verses, with the third verse an altered version of the music for the first. The words come from a poem by Mrs CF Alexander. It is included in some hymn books, Common Praise apparently, but the words come in various forms, most notably with He replaced by Christ, so that the opening line is ‘Christ is risen’.

The voluntary is JS Bach’s Fugue in G major BWV577. Its nickname, the Gigue Fugue, comes from the 12/8 time signature, and it rattles along at quite a pace. I remember a television series featuring the virtuoso American organist Carlo Curley, who incidentally made his home here in England until his untimely death in 2012. In the 1970s he was resident organist at the Alexandra Palace and, because of his size and showmanship, he became known as “the Pavarotti of the organ”. The final piece in one particular programme was the Gigue Fugue, and as he got on to the organ stool, he said – and you have to hear this in his native North Carolina accent – “Watch my size 12s dance!” The organist’s feet have to move as quickly as the hands and it’s quite a challenge, but a wonderful way to end the service on this special day.

Damian Cranmer

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