Choral Evensong Blog: Music for Palm Sunday and Easter Day 2019

This article forms part of the Choral Evensong Blog by Damain Cranmer, and covers the evening service for Palm Sunday, entitled “The Way of the Cross”, and the music for Easter Day Evensong.

We sing the second part of ’Woefully arrayed’ (originally Woffully araide) by William Cornysh. This is a title that you don’t easily forget and I’ve known it for years, but I don’t think I’ve ever got close to the music until now. It is a passiontide text in which the first line returns at the end of each verse: “Thus wrapped all in woe,/ As never man was so,/ Treated thus in most cruel wise,/ Was like a lamb offered in sacrifice,/ Woefully arrayed.” The words are attributed to John Skelton (c1460-1529), whose London career included tutoring the young prince who would become Henry VIII. After ordination, he became rector of Diss in Norfolk, where he fell foul of the Bishop of Norwich, at least partly for his scurrilous verse and sarcastic wit, features of his poetry which Vaughan Williams used to such great effect in Five Tudor Portraits. There were two composers with the name William Cornysh around the turn of the 16th century. The younger who died in 1523 may have been son of the older, and it is he who wrote ‘Woefully arrayed’. It seems odd to us today but, there being no place before the Reformation for vernacular church music, this is a secular part-song, a genre which Cornysh did much to develop and which was greatly in favour in the early years of the reign of Henry VIII at court, where Cornysh became Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Kenneth Leighton (1929 – 1988)

Kenneth Leighton’s “Solus ad victimam” is a fine example of his contribution to church music. Like a number of 20th century composers including John Joubert whom I mentioned last time in relation to his obituary, Leighton (1929-1988) spent most of his active life in university music departments, finally as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh. So although composition was not, as his long list of works for many different groups shows, a side-line, it did sit alongside his achievements as an academic. His choral style is constructed of logical lines with interesting twists to the harmony, which makes for rewarding singing. “Solus ad victimam” sets an English translation of a poem by Peter Abelard, a Frenchman, described by Chambers Biographical Dictionary as “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”. The opening words are “Alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord, Giving thyself to Death whom thou hast slain.”

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

Victoria’s “Popule meus” follows. Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) left his home town of Avila in Spain in his early teens to enrol at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome, and he spent much of his early life in the city, resulting in the frequent Italianisation of his name to Vittoria. The text of “Popule meus” is the original Latin of the Reproaches, which were heard last year in this service in the English setting by John Sanders. Beside the dramatic, highly charged music of Sanders, that of Victoria can seem rather restrained, but it is important to remember the words from Micah, chapter 6, verse 3. “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?” One of the great results of the Reformation was the acceptance of the vernacular in the liturgy, and the Tudor English of the above must have made a significant effect on congregations. Nevertheless, the simple, repetitive harmony of the Victoria can still make an impact today.

Jonathan closes the service with Bach’s chorale prelude “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross” BWV622 (O man, bewail your great sins). This prelude comes from the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) and is designated for Passiontide. The melody is presented in highly decorated style on a solo stop, while left hand and pedal accompany in increasingly chromatic fashion.

Easter Day Evensong

The psalm set for this evening is Ps 66. This is “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands”, but not the Jubilate, which begins in the same way but is Ps 100. Ps 66 has hints of the escape from Egypt: “He turned the sea into dry land: so that they went through the water on foot, there did we rejoice thereof.” The chant is by George Elvey (1816-1893), whose music has been described as 50 years out of date at the time it was written, which, paradoxically, may be the reason that a couple of hymn tunes, “Come, ye thankful people come” and “Crown him with many thorns” survived the cull of late Victoriana and remain in the current repertoire. Most of his larger compositions do not.

The responses are by Smith, and the more I look at 16th and 17th century responses, the more I admire the work of this Durham musician, who is remembered (by me, at least) for nothing else.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

The canticles for this service are Vaughan Williams in C. It’s possible that no other great composer of recent times has done more to encourage church music at all levels. The great Te Deums and the Mass in G minor can tax the best of choirs, but the hymn tunes, both original and arrangements, the result of his researches into folk and Tudor music, are an important feature of music in all churches. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C is “set to music for the use of village choirs”, but it is much more than that, and well worth an outing for more adventurous groups. The VW style is quickly recognisable with a flat 7th (B flat) in bar 4, and later dorian harmony (sharp 6th) keeping eyes and ears open.

The anthem is “Most glorious Lord of life” by Sir William H Harris (1883-1973). Harris was a fine organist from an early age and held appointments in Lichfield and Oxford (New College and then Christ Church) before moving in 1933 to St George’s Windsor where he remained for 28 years. His most famous, and probably best, piece of church music is the anthem “Faire is the heaven” which like tonight’s anthem sets verse by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). “Most glorious Lord of life” is   from Amoretti, a collection of 89 sonnets mainly concerned with courtship, but including a few items such as this, in which everyday “secular” in the 16th century embraced what we today can easily accept as sacred. The anthem is structured as three verses of four lines each, with the final couplet a shortened version of the same melody.

Herbert Howells

The voluntary is Herbert Howells’ Paean. This ‘Hymn of praise’ is in direct contrast to the reflective calm of the Bach set for Palm Sunday. Easter needs celebration and this is a celebratory piece. Using the full range of the organ, it shows many features of Howells’ style. Over some long pedal notes, the music seems to be looking for a way out of the complex harmonies. There is a brief respite in the middle before the music proceeds to its inevitable triumphant ending.

Damian Cranmer

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