Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 3rd March, 6.30pm

A blog about the history, composers and background to the music for our forthcoming services of Choral Evensong, by Damian Cranmer:

St George’s Church, Norton, Letchworth Garden City

In the return of last summer’s exchange, we will be joined for this service by the choir of St George’s, Norton, in Letchworth Garden City, so a warm welcome to them.

In any discussion of music for choral evensong, it’s never long before Stanford crops up. I’m not sure that he would be entirely happy that his reputation nearly 100 years after his death depended almost exclusively on his Anglican church music.

While there might be many composers who would be delighted to have such a strong continuing presence in any field, Stanford was always keen to be known in an international context, and anglican church music would not provide such a reputation. I thought of this when reading the obituary for John Joubert, who died in January, the headline describing him as the composer of ‘Torches’. Well, he was, and a jolly good piece it is too, but the composer of five operas, three symphonies and much other music deserves wider recognition for his more substantial music. Though having said that, I once had a discussion with a colleague about whether music had to be substantial to be considered great.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Anyway, crop up Stanford has, and it’s his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat that we’ll be singing with our friends from St George’s. The B flat may not have the grandeur of the setting in C, or the stature of the A, or the originality of the G, but, as the first attempt at canticle writing by a 27-year-old, it is remarkable, and it’s the one that everyone knows. For 140 years (exactly!) choirs from cathedral and parish church alike have sung this piece regularly. In 1883, four years after its composition, it was sung 12 times in Christ Church, Oxford. So why does it have a history different from the contemporary canticles of Stainer, Charles Lloyd, George Garrett and even Parry?

Its broad appeal comes inevitably from its singability. It has memorable themes with easy flowing lines, not too much counterpoint and a helpfully supportive organ part. But it is the almost symphonic approach to key and structure that makes the music so satisfying for both singers and listeners. In the Magnificat, the triple-time music of the opening returns for the Gloria, but you have to look to see this, so well is the music fitted to the new words. And the middle section, now in duple time and the subdominant key of E flat, but straying to C minor and A flat, develops its own material, giving the piece a ternary structure. The Nunc Dimittis is set mostly for unison men’s voices, but sends the tenors up to a sustained top G at ‘and to be the glo-ry’. The Gloria, different from the Magnificat is a wonderfully measured conclusion marked ‘with dignity’. Both Glorias end with a version of the Dresden Amen. I wrote about this Amen in relation to John Sanders’ responses which were written in 1983 to mark the centenary of the death of Richard Wagner who used it extensively in his opera Parsifal. Unfortunately there’s no great story about its birth or name: it was written by JG Naumann for the royal court in Dresden, but its fame has been secured by the many composers, such as Mendelssohn in his Reformation Symphony, who have adopted it.

Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877 – 1950)

The anthem is Evening Hymn by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950). It is a setting of the Latin office hymn for compline,’Te lucis ante terminum’ (a favourite of 16th century composers such as Tallis and Byrd), with alternative English words beginning ‘Thee, Lord, before the close of day’. It was written during a brief spell that the composer spent teaching at Winchester College. The organ plays an important role in setting the scene for the three verses, of which the second is contrasted. Balfour Gardiner, as he is generally known, was a man of private means which he used to support music and musicians most generously. His own composition, much of which he destroyed, ceased in the mid-1920s and, thereafter, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, “he devoted himself to a pioneering afforestation programme on his Dorset pig farm.”

For the responses, we give a second outing to the reconstructed Gibbons setting that was first heard last month.

Percy Whitlock

The closing voluntary is Toccata, the fifth and last movement from the Plymouth Suite by Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) who features quite regularly in our programmes. Each of the movements remembers a different organist, and the H.M. of the Toccata is Dr. Harold (Harry) George Moreton (1864-1961) who was organist of St Andrew’s, Plymouth, from 1885 to 1958! Whitlock held organist posts in Rochester and Bournemouth, where he was also municipal organist at the Pavilion. The Plymouth Suite dates from 1937 – after only 52 years at St Andrew’s, Moreton was probably in his prime. The Toccata, as toccatas do, has a non-stop fast semiquaver pattern which moves between the hands, against which a solo tune comes in various guises. The speed relaxes only at the very end, where some rather splendid chords bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Damian Cranmer

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