Choral Evensong Blog: Festal Evensong for Harvest, 7th October 2018

We’ll begin this service with a new introit by Kathy Goodchild “dedicated to the memory of Mary-Jane Boffey”, a member of our choir who sadly died this year. The words ‘Lead us, O God’ were chosen by Kathy specifically with Harvest thanksgiving in mind, and are by George Appleton (1902-1993), an important writer for the Anglican church, whose wide-ranging career included spells as Archdeacon of Rangoon and of London, and Archbishop of Perth, Australia, and of Jerusalem.

The responses will be those by Philip Radcliffe (1905-1986), who went to King’s College, Cambridge as an undergraduate, was appointed a Fellow in 1931 and pretty well never left. He was primarily a teacher and critic but was an enthusiastic composer, whose style was described in The Times obituary as ‘Vaughan-Brahms’. His responses were written between Good Friday and Easter Day in 1972 for Edington – flash of inspiration, last minute activity or well in advance of commission for annual August Festival? They include a full Gloria and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

The canticles will be sung to Wood in D. Charles Wood (1866-1926) was born in Armagh and received his early education at the cathedral school and in the cathedral choir there. At the age of 17, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Parry and Stanford, with whom he was later to work in Cambridge. It should be no surprise, then, that Anglican church music played an important part in his life, and, although he wrote in other forms, it is by his church music that he is known today. What is surprising to me is that he wrote so many settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – 13 in all, with two additional Latin settings of the Nunc. In my July article I could think only of Weelkes (9 settings) as the closest to Howells (21). I might have remembered that Wood is one (I’d better not say the only) composer with two settings in the same key (E flat) which have to be identified as no.1 and no.2. Wood’s 13 settings include two on Gregorian tones, one on the Genevan Psalter, a metrical version to a Sternhold and Hopkins text, and two for double choir.

Wood in D is the second of his settings, dating from 1898. It follows very much in the Stanford tradition: important organ part with dramatic interruptions, strong unisons, word painting (He hath put down), wide modulations, and contrasted quieter sections. Whether Wood intended it or not, the opening of the Gloria bears a strong likeness to the grave of Bach’s Fantasia in G BWV572. If he did intend it, it is not a cause for censure. There exists a long tradition of acknowledging another composer’s work in a new composition. The sixteenth century abounds with ‘parody’ masses paying tribute to earlier works, Bach and Handel borrowed extensively, almost always with interest, and there are numerous later examples. The Nunc Dimittis ingeniously contrasts the melody in the basses with pianissimo reflections in the upper three parts, before repeating the Gloria of the Magnificat.

Our anthem is ‘Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth’ by Lloyd Webber. Written in 1957, this is, of course, William (1914-1982), who at that time had no need to distinguish himself from his illustrious sons. 1957 comes at the end of Lloyd Webber’s most fruitful compositional period, after which he turned to teaching, becoming Principal of the London College of Music. The text of the anthem, most appropriate for Harvest, is from Isaiah, chapters 49 and 51. What I haven’t been able to discover is who the recipient of this piece was, because that might explain why there is no tenor part. We’ll have to make sure that our tenors don’t go off in a sulk; perhaps they could sing along with us basses! What is clear is that Lloyd Webber was skilful in 3-part writing. (The absolute master of this was Purcell.) The texture changes from unison to full harmony, with several solo and imitative sections. The independent organ part secures the lowest note of the harmony, so that the basses at times can leave their natural role and act as quasi-tenors.

The closing voluntary is Mendelssohn’s ‘War March of the Priests’ (Kriegsmarsch der Priester) from his incidental music to Racine’s play Athalie. If you want a quick summary of why the priests are on a war march (and I did), go to Wikipedia. Alternatively, the story can be found (and I’m extremely grateful that we’ve inherited my mother-in-law’s concordance!) in 2 Kings chapter 11 and 2 Chronicles chapter 22. Even if you don’t recognise any of the above, you may well recognise the piece. It is based on one of Mendelssohn’s characteristic melodies. I hope the Redbourn organ is up to the organist’s war-like intentions!

Damian Cranmer

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