This article by Damian Cranmer is the latest post in the Choral Evensong Blog, with insights into the background, history and composers of the music sung by the choir at our monthly Choral Evensong services.
After a two-month break from choral evensong, we return on the first Sunday in October for our Harvest Festival.
The canticles are the setting by Percy Whitlock, of whom I’ve written on a number of occasions, but I don’t believe that I’ve mentioned before that he was an avid railway enthusiast and, according to Music Web International, wrote “a monograph on the steam locomotives of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway”. (He was not the only musician to be so enthused: Dvořák, when he should have been in the Town Hall overseeing the preparation of his new Requiem for the 1891 Birmingham Triennial Festival, was found in the depths of Snow Hill Station.) Whitlock’s canticles were published in 1930 and come at the end of the period when settings had to be described by their key. Whitlock’s Mag looks and sounds as if it’s in B minor, but it rarely stays put for long in any key. The Gloria appears set for a return to this tonic, but suddenly in the last six bars it diverts to D major. There is little word repetition and only occasional passages of counterpoint, but the melodic line is carefully considered and effective in its treatment of the words. There are solo passages for soprano in the Magnificat and bass in the Nunc Dimittis.
When I first heard that our anthem was to be Simper’s “Sing forth his praise”, I said that I had never heard of Simper. But I am reliably informed that we sang this piece less than 10 years ago. 150 years ago you wouldn’t have said you’d never heard of Simper: his publisher proudly proclaimed that his music was sung throughout the civilised world! Caleb Simper (how could you possibly forget this name?) was born in Wiltshire in 1856. He moved to Worcester where he worked in the Elgar music shop in addition to duties as organist at the church of St Mary Magdalene. By the end of the century he had moved as organist for another St Mary Magdalene, to Barnstaple, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1942. He wrote a large amount of music and much of it was published, never greatly rated by the critics but finding a niche in the work of the average parish church. “Sing forth his praise” was published in 1921 and the front cover was already describing Simper as ‘Late organist…’, suggesting that by then he had already retired from his church duties, though almost certainly not from composing. The piece is a harvest anthem with words gathered from four different sources. Oddly, ‘Sing forth his praise’ is never sung: we have ‘Sing forth the honour of his name’ (Ps 66 v2), ‘He giveth food to all flesh’ (Ps 136 v25), ‘He gives us rain’ (Acts 14 v17) and ‘O praise the name of the Lord’ (Ps 148 v13). The idiom is fairly traditional and, unlike the Whitlock, the harmony rarely strays from the home key.
We sing again the responses by Richard Ayleward in the version elaborated for our own choir. The psalm for the evening is Ps 100, the Jubilate, which we sing to a chant by William Savage (1720-1789), at one time master of the choristers at St Paul’s in London, but who has a greater claim to fame as a singer, treble, counter-tenor and bass, in several of the major works of Handel. (If you put ‘Savage chant’ into Google, as I did, you get directed to the more vicious utterings of football hooligans!) To my mind it’s not the greatest of chants, being merely a harmonisation of a downward scale in the bass part. But, at only four verses, Ps 100 is not a bad place for it! We can hope for the usual selection of great harvest hymns.
The voluntary is the Prelude and Fugue in C BWV547 by JS Bach. The Prelude is dominated by the upward scale, divided into 3 groups of 3 notes, heard in the right hand in bar 1 and followed by the left hand in bar 2. This pattern follows, possibly directs, the music through all the expected keys – G, Ami, Dmi, F – but there is also a semiquaver countersubject which makes it vital that you don’t start too quickly. I’ve never played this piece, and I was surprised to find in my copy a pencil direction for the player to pull out the pedal trombone at the beginning of the fugue – surely too early. But the point is that you have to wait until quite near the end of the piece for the pedal to enter, by which time the need for a forceful reed stop has been established. And it’s not long after this that the pedal comes to rest on bottom C and invites the manuals to cease their conversation and resolve into the home key. By the way, did you hear the suggestion that the G7 Conference should be followed by a C major Conference for resolution? Bach had the answer centuries ago!