Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 2nd June, 6.30pm

A blog by Damian Cranmer about the composers, background and history of the music sung by the choir at our monthly services of Choral Evensong.

The musical part of this service begins with the Responses by Bernard Rose who was Informatur choristarum (organist and choirmaster) at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1957 to his retirement in 1981. This set of responses, which includes a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, is unusual in that the priest’s part is newly composed and does not follow the traditional intonation. It remains one of the most popular of twentieth-century settings.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in F are the canticles. This setting in F is not nearly as well known as those in A, B flat, C and G. It has an organ part which is described as optional, but actually does rather more than cover the voice parts, providing pedal depth and support to the bass line, filling out the harmony, and covering the occasional rests. There is a limited amount of antiphony (Dec and Can), particularly effective in the Gloria which concludes both canticles. I find it interesting how Stanford manages to set the opening words of the magnificat, which in the hands of lesser composers can become stodgy and predictable, in a variety of unexpected ways. The other thing about Stanford is that his liturgical music, which we know so well, forms a very small part of his output, and each time I read about him as he turns up in this column (and he does turn up regularly) I am more intrigued. So, before I write about him again I determine to listen to a symphony and one of his operas, of which the lack of recognition and performances would probably give him most cause for regret. I’m a little late to catch the first performances for 80 years of The Travelling Companion given last year by New Sussex Opera, but I gather it is to be recorded.

Orlando Gibbons

The anthem is ‘O God, the King of Glory’ by Orlando Gibbons, which sets the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension Day, which falls this year on May 30th, so we are spot on for June 2nd. This is one of Gibbons’ ‘verse’ anthems, a form in which he was something of a pioneer. The form did exist before Gibbons in the works of Byrd, Morley (we’ve sung ‘Out of the deep’) and Mundy, but it was in breaking away from the simple structure of verse to one solo voice followed by repeated chorus which marked out Gibbons’ anthems of the first twenty years of the seventeenth century. Pieces like ‘See, the word is incarnate’ are virtually through-composed, while others have recurring refrains, and the number of voices used for the verse varies considerably. In ‘O God, the King of Glory’ the opening verse is for soprano, two altos and tenor. It is notable for ‘word-painting’ at ‘which hast exalted thine only son’ to a rising scale, and the imitative, almost antiphonal, treatment of ‘with great triumph’. The chorus repeats the words of the verse but only gradually picks up the essential features of the music. The second verse is for altos, first one solo which is then joined by a second for more imitation at ‘and exalt us’, set to the same music as ‘with great triumph’. Interestingly, this verse which is mostly in the minor key is taken up by the chorus in the major. The music returns to the minor for a version of the doxology, which features antiphonal effects between solo and full, not unlike Stanford’s treatment of his Gloria.

The organ voluntary is Fantasia in D minor by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (c1562-1621). He came from a family of many organists; he succeeded his father and was followed by his son as organist of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. He was a fine performer and was well respected as teacher, but it is as a composer that he takes his place in music history. He wrote a large number of vocal works including at least one setting of each of the 150 psalms as well as secular chansons and madrigals. His keyboard music, though widely copied, was not published in his lifetime, and there is as yet no easy way of distinguishing one of the 20 or so fantasias from the others. The one chosen for this service is sometimes described as no.4. It is one of those pieces that begins with very slow notes, but you need to beware of starting too fast because by the end the minims of the opening have become triplet semiquavers. This, though, does give the piece momentum in building the tension, something Gibbons was particularly good at.   The Fantasia is pervaded by the slow six-note descending pattern first heard at the start, but there is considerable rhythmic complexity in the accompanying material.

Damian Cranmer

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