Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 3rd June, 6.30pm

Richard Shephard

The responses are by Richard Shephard, a contemporary musician, not to be confused with Richard Sheppard, a composer of pre-Reformation Latin music in the first half of the sixteenth century. Shephard spent his early adult life in Salisbury undertaking several activities including as a lay clerk in the cathedral choir of Richard Seal, and it is to Seal and his choir that these responses are dedicated. They were published in 1985, the year that Shephard moved to York to take up the post of headmaster of the Minster School: a parting gift, perhaps?

The responses are interesting for a number of reasons. The intonations of the cantor are newly composed, the Lord’s Prayer is set for the choir, and the texture, while nominally in four parts (SATB) has many points where the voices divide, giving the music a varied and at times rich colour.

Thomas Attwood Walmisley

The canticles will be Walmisley in D minor. Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814-1856) was the godson of the composer Thomas Attwood, with whom he had early composition lessons. At the age of 16, Walmisley was appointed organist of Croydon Parish Church, and three years later as organist jointly of Trinity and St John’s Colleges, Cambridge. At the age of 22, he proceeded to the post of Professor of Music at the university. This may have been as much a reflection of the sorry state of music in the university as of his undoubted prowess as a musician. It is greatly to his credit that he raised the status of the post he held and also the quality of his joint college choir, which was described in one instance as the best in England.

He suffered from bouts of depression from which he consoled himself with wine, both of which may have been the cause of his untimely death. The D minor Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis date from late in his life and are said to have been rescued by a colleague from the waste paper basket, a most fortunate occurrence as they remain his most popular composition and are widely sung today. My copy of this music is in a booklet produced by the RSCM to be performed at evensong around the country for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Walmisley is there alongside Tye, Weelkes, Purcell, SS Wesley and Stanford as part of the RSCM’s “endeavour to see that the music represents the best of all periods of the English school of composition” – more contemporary works were to be included in the service at the Royal Albert Hall.

The Magnificat is interesting because it alternates strong unison passages with more gentle music for upper voices. It can be used as an opportunity to involve the congregation in singing the canticles. There’s one other thing to note about the piece: the last verse of the Magnificat, ‘He remembering his mercy’, is repeated, so those waiting for ‘and his seed for ever’ to stand for the Gloria should not get up until they hear it for a second time!

John Stainer

The anthem is I am Alpha and Omega by John Stainer, a work of which I had no prior knowledge, though there are several versions on YouTube, which suggests that it is not unknown elsewhere. The words, designated for Trinity-tide, are from Revelation Chapter 1 Verse 8, followed by the Sanctus, and the music is in two equivalent parts, each introduced by a solo voice. The copies from our choir library are well used and originated from St Ann’s Church Newcastle-on-Tyne. It would be interesting to know when it was last sung in Redbourn (are there any records of music sung in church records?). If these well travelled copies are the result of someone finding it impossible to throw music away, as I do, it is very welcome. It is impossible to be certain of future tastes, and I have written about the reassessment of Stainer before now. Walmisley told an unbelieving audience in Cambridge that JS Bach would come to be recognised as unparalleled as a composer!

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 as great for the brain as the fingers!

Damian Cranmer

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