Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 1st July, 6.30pm

Dominic Pusey

In an imaginative piece of programming, Jonathan Goodchild has scheduled Evening Prayer by Ola Gjeilo for the anthem at our next choral evensong.  This is a piece for choir, tenor saxophone and piano, and we are delighted to welcome Dominic Pusey, former chorister at St Mary’s, as the saxophone soloist.  Dominic’s jazz background will be particularly useful as well over half the piece has to be improvised, unlike the piano part which can be improvised but does not have to be.  Definitely an occasion not to be missed!

Ola Gjeilo

I can’t do better than reproduce information from the back page of the music.  “Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) was born in Norway in 1978 and moved to the United States in 2001 to study composition at the Juilliard School in New York City.  Ola’s concert works are performed all over the world, and his debut recording as a pianist-composer, the lyrical crossover album Stone Rose, was followed by its 2012 sequel, Piano Improvisations. Many of Ola’s choral works are featured on Phoenix Chorale’s best-selling album, Northern Lights, which is devoted entirely to his music for choir.”

“Lyrical crossover” describes the style of this piece well.  The melodic line, mostly based on the opening saxophone solo, is eminently singable and the harmony moves freely from a home key of A to F sharp and C (the keys a minor third either side) and moves between major and minor with ease, the minor always characterised by a dorian sharp 6th.  The triple time aids the gentle flow of the music. The words are a prayer of St Augustine beginning: Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch or weep tonight, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Both the responses by Kathy Goodchild and the canticles by Herbert Howells are based in G minor which gives a unified feel to the service.  We sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis which Howells wrote for King’s College, Cambridge, the famous ‘Coll. Reg.’  I’ve known this title for longer than I’ve known the music!

Herbert Howells

A couple of questions that spring to mind are: how many Mag and Nuncs did Howells write and why did he write so many?  I suppose the answer to the second is that people kept asking him, and that is a measure of the success with which he dominated this form in the 20th century.  And the answer to the first is, I think, 21.   ’Coll. Reg.’ (1945) is the first of the dedicated settings after five earlier works, and was followed by Gloucester, New College Oxford, Worcester, St Paul’s, St Peter in Westminster, St John’s Cambridge, Winchester, Chichester, St Augustine Birmingham, Hereford, York and Dallas (1975) with three others without dedication (in case you’re counting). The only composer I can think of who gets anywhere near half this total is Thomas Weelkes with nine.  There are a number of “who wrote” questions and here are a couple.  Who, after Haydn and Mozart, managed to write more than nine completed symphonies, and who were the several who got stuck at nine?  And again, who wrote more cello sonatas that Beethoven’s five?

Back to Howells! Much of the Magnificat is based on the opening organ melody (G, Bb, A, G, Bb).  This seems unpromising if you’re expecting a blaze of glory to open such a famous work.  The energy level is increased at ‘He hath showed strength with his arm’, again introduced by the organ, and by the Gloria Howells reaches a full forte. The blaze of glory begins to come at ‘World without end’ but we’re still in a minor key and it’s only with the Amen that we finally get the anticipated major ending, here not in the expected G major, but the relative major of B flat.  The Nunc Dimittis is set for tenor solo with choral accompaniment and builds slowly to ‘And to be the glory’, followed by the same Gloria.  A final thought on Howells.  A major feature of his choral music is his skilful use of the organ to set the scene, inject impetus and support huge climaxes of unison singers without ever dominating the music.  He wrote a lot of other music but these Mag and Nuncs define his output.

While we take note of the composers of canticles and anthems, those who have provided the music for psalms and hymns get very little credit.  Let us today celebrate William Cross (of whom I had never heard), who held at least three simultaneous organist posts in Oxford, including the cathedral, in the early years of the 19th century.  His publication of Chants, Kyries and Sanctuses… was issued exactly 200 years ago in 1818, and while, unlike the poet John Keats who paused at The Bull on 22 June 1818, there is nothing to suggest that Cross had ever heard of Redbourn, let us not be too parochial about events in this bicentenary year. Cross’s C minor chant, composed for the funeral of a Christ Church canon, is set in the Parish Psalter for Psalm 53, appointed for this Sunday.  I am attracted to the psalms with darker moods and the psalmist does not mince his words here.  It begins “The foolish body hath said in his heart: there is no God.” And later “the children of men …. are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable.”  What a wonderful word is abominable!

If Ralph Vaughan Williams had done nothing else but edit the English Hymnal of 1906, his influence would have been felt throughout the Anglican Church, but he would have been largely forgotten.  His replacement of Victoriana by folk tunes and music from the golden age of Tudor church music was inspired, and affected the course of music throughout the 20th century.  He collected many of the folk tunes himself and it was at Kingsfold, just north of Horsham in Sussex, that he heard the tune we sing to HON 231, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’, and then rewarded the village by naming the tune Kingsfold.  I’ve known Sussex all my life, but had never heard of Kingsfold: I have now!  We’ll also get a tune by Stanford called Engelberg (did he write it in Switzerland?), and another probably by Jeremiah Clarke, the tune now known as Bishopthorpe, a village a few miles south of York.  Always read the small print!

Damian Cranmer

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