Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 2nd February, 6.30pm

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.


The first Choral Evensong of 2020 is on 2nd February. This is the day of the Feast of Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Presentation is relatively clear, Candlemas a little less so, but there is an old saying that sun on 2nd February will lead to six months more of winter, while a cloudy day will herald the onset of spring. Perhaps Will will enlighten us!

Choirmaster Jonathan Goodchild has been spending time in the choir library and has come up with a set of responses by a former organist of St Mary’s, Mark Sexton. A couple of ‘old Redbourners’ we’ve spoken to couldn’t shed any light on Mark, but maybe this blog will jog a few memories. These responses are interesting and adventurous harmonically: I couldn’t spot any particular derivation. My guess is that they date from the third quarter of the last century, long enough ago to be hand-written.

I think it was composer Judith Bingham who, when judging a student competition, said that she got more from a new piece if it was in the composer’s handwriting. Too many of us reach straight for the computer and its amazing capacity to produce excellent results. I expect that there is now a generation of musicians who have never had to write out music by hand. A great shame!

The canticles will be sung to Murrill in E. Herbert Murrill (1909-1952) was organ scholar at Worcester College, Oxford and held several teaching and theatre posts before joining the BBC, where he became Head of Music in 1950. His compositions are wide ranging though not extensive. His style has been described as “mildly middle-Stravinskian” (Grove’s Dictionary), but there’s not much of this in his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – English neo-classicism to the fore with a celebratory feel.

The obvious anthem for this day is Eccard’s ‘When to the temple..’, but Jonathan has scheduled Byrd’s ‘Hodie beata virgo’, equally appropriate as shown in the words, “Today the blessed Virgin Mary presented the boy Jesus in the temple, and Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, took him in his arms and blessed God in eternity.” The text is the antiphon sung “at the Magnificat” at second vespers on the feast of Candlemas in the Catholic Rite. Byrd’s setting was published as part of his ‘Gradualia’ of 1605.

Byrd (born 1542) holds an individual position in the development of music in England in the 16th century, between Tallis (born c1505) and the many others born well into the second half of the century, culminating in Gibbons (born 1583). His Catholicism remained with him to the end of his life, and the increased anti-catholic activities of the 1590s caused him to cease his activities at the court and move out to Essex. Prior to this he had received considerable patronage form Queen Elizabeth, including being granted, with Tallis, exclusive rights to music publishing.

Much of the Anglican church music of the early years of the 17th century was copied by hand, but, ironically, it was only with printing that Byrd could get his music circulated to those who would use it in relative secrecy. The style of ‘Hodie beata virgo’ is simpler than the florid music of the earlier years. The melismas are fewer and shorter, and the 4-part texture is lighter than that of his grander music, making it more suitable for the limited resources for which it was intended. Nevertheless, the music shows Byrd’s complete mastery of his idiom. His control of counterpoint is exemplary, which is why student musicians over the ages have been encouraged to explore how this complex music can be made to sound so simple.

For the voluntary, we will hear Guilmant’s arrangement of the sinfonia from Bach’s cantata 29.  Jonathan says that he has spent 2019 addicted to the You Tube videos of the Netherlands Bach Society, and was inspired to learn this piece after watching their performance of the cantata, written for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council in 1731.

The music of the sinfonia is a reworking of the Prelude from Bach’s 3rd Partita for solo violin written 11 years earlier while he was at Cöthen. Anything that was added to the violin line for the sinfonia, now with organ as protagonist and a full baroque orchestra with particularly impressive trumpets, had been implied by the original. For Alexander Guilmant (1837-1901), one of the virtuoso French organists and teachers of the 19th century, the orchestra was a bit of an unnecessary extra: he could do it all all the organ. We hope that Jonathan’s inspiration has continued into 2020!

Damian Cranmer

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