The carol books are packed away until the end of the year and we return to a pattern of first Sunday choral evensongs, starting on Sunday 3rd February. This will be celebrated as Candlemas or The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple: the actual date of the feast is 2nd February.
Our very appropriate anthem is ‘When to the temple Mary went’ by Johannes Eccard. I would hazard a guess that anyone who has ever been a chorister would know this piece well, but would be unable to name another work of Eccard. Further, it is likely that this piece is better known in England than it is in Germany. Why? Because this piece is representative of a nineteenth-century vogue for translating continental pieces for use by the choirs and choral societies of the day. The Revd John Troutbeck, who translated Eccard’s ‘Maria wallt zum Heiligtum und bringt ihr Kindlein dar’ (no, I’d never come across this before, either!), also translated Bach’s passions into English, and it’s worth remembering that it’s only in the last 50 years that German has overtaken English as the norm for these pieces – and do we hear them as often? As for the Eccard, it’s possible that no other piece has been so frequently sung on one specific date in Anglican churches in the last 150 years.
It’s a wonder that John Troutbeck (1832-1899) found any time for his day job as Precentor, first in Manchester and later at Westminster Abbey, because his translations included works by almost every major composer, including many operas, and he also compiled a number of hymn books and chant books. In my opinion, Troutbeck made a very good job of the Eccard translation. Where Eccard had two verses with a repeated chorus, Troutbeck changed the words of the second chorus to make a more complete summation of the text, which is, of course, a free version of the Nunc Dimittis.
What, then, of Eccard (1553-1611)? His career was as a court musician, largely in the service of the Margraves of Brandenburg-Ansbach, firstly in Königsberg and later in Berlin, where he became Kapellmeister. This was a time of great development of Protestant German music and most of Eccard’s compositions are based on the chorale, some extensive, others like the current piece simple harmonisations of a chorale-like melody. He favoured rich textures and ‘When to the temple’ is in six parts, two sopranos and two basses, the latter creating depth in the sonority.
The responses will be my own recently completed setting using the music of Orlando Gibbons, who left only the opening preces. The psalm attached to these preces has been used as the source for a setting of the Lord’s Prayer and the second part of the responses.
We sing the canticles of Richard Farrant in G minor. There were a number of musicians by the name of Farrant in the sixteenth century, at least two Johns, a Daniel and Richard (c1530-1580). There is some confusion over the attribution of music between them, but Richard is the most significant figure. He held posts at Windsor and the Chapel Royal and wrote several plays, none of which survives, for companies that he set up primarily for his singing boys.
As a composer he is best known for two anthems, ‘Call to remembrance’ and ‘Hide not thou thy face’, and this service, described in Grove’s Dictionary as ‘High’ or ‘Third’ service, which suggests that it isn’t only his plays which are no longer with us. These three pieces owe their popularity to their inclusion in Boyce’s Cathedral Music (1760-1773), which was for some time the major source of repertoire for English cathedrals. It was Boyce who first established the key of G minor for this service despite earlier sources written a tone higher, and it is in G minor that we shall sing it. It is written in the style of a ‘short’ service, that is with little word repetition and a largely chordal texture. But the dramatist in Farrant found expressiveness in the antiphonal exchange of short phrases between the two sides of the choir.
The organ voluntary is the Prelude in C minor op.37 no.1 by Felix Mendelssohn, who was a fine organist and already writing music for the instrument at the age of eleven. It was almost inevitable that his organ music would be greatly influenced by his rediscovery of the music of Bach, and many of his works are preludes, fugues and other contrapuntal exercises, or works based on chorales. The Prelude in C minor of 1841 looks back to the baroque. It consists of a running quaver figure, which works through all the parts and at times invades the pedal part requiring nimble footwork, set against a slow moving harmonic background with complex Bach-like harmonies.