Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 1st March, 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 introit for this service is ‘How sad and solitary’ a metrical version of the first verse of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. (How doth the city [Jerusalem] sit solitary, that was full of people.) This is Song 24 from a collection produced by George Wither in 1623 and entitled ‘The Hymns and Songs of the Church’.

Orlando Gibbons

There are 90 of these “hymns and songs” and Orlando Gibbons apparently supplied 18 tunes to cover the variety of metres. I say apparently because some of the tunes are less obviously the work of Gibbons, and may have been adapted from Gibbons’ work by others, possibly Wither himself. The best of the tunes live on in current hymnbooks and seven are included in our latest A&M, including tunes to “Eternal ruler”, “Love of the Father” and “Forth in thy name O Lord I go”.

In collections of Gibbons’ music, however, the tunes have always been associated with the first verse of the first song to which Wither attached them, and this is why Song 24 goes to the first verse of the Lamentations. Gibbons supplied only treble and bass parts to Wither and alto and tenor parts have been added in versions for the hymnbooks. However, Gibbons liked the richer sonority of five parts and was a master of counterpoint, so the opportunity has been taken (by the current writer) to produce something more elaborate than is usual.

The psalm for this evening is Psalm 8, ‘O Lord, our governor, how excellent is thy name in all the world’ set in the Parish Psalter to a single chant by Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley. I’m not a great fan of single chants and this one starts high and goes low, not totally appropriate for such a confident psalm. I blame the compilers of the Parish Psalter for this, and not Ouseley; we have much to be grateful to him for.

Thomas Tomkins

There are two items of Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), his Responses and the Mag and Nunc of his First Service. I repeat some of what I have written before about Tomkins. His responses are not as well known as, particularly, those by Byrd and William Smith of Durham, although they are now quite regularly heard on the BBC’s Choral Evensong. Like those of Smith, these responses are freely composed, that is they don’t include the plainsong theme in the tenor, but there is more use of choral recitation.

Tomkins is interesting because he outlived his fellow Elizabethan and Jacobean composers by more than 30 years, long enough for his post as organist at Worcester Cathedral to become redundant when the city surrendered to parliamentary forces in 1646. By this time he had been in post for 50 years and I had always thought of him as happy to serve his time away from the capital, a bit like Weelkes in Chichester. In fact he was a member of the Chapel Royal as singer and organist and must have spent much time in London.

Tomkins’ works survive specifically in a publication, Musica Dec sacra, put together by his son some 12 years after his death. It may be, then that we can give more credence to the title ‘First Service’ than with some other composers where numbering of canticles can be more random. This service does show similar attributes to others in its simple 4-part harmony, largely chordal harmony and lack of word repetition. There is nothing of the passion that Tomkins created in his remarkable anthem, ‘When David heard’. It would seem from several points of view that this work dates from the earlier part of his life.

Henry Purcell

It was only three years after his death that the great Henry Purcell was born. The time was of Restoration and French influence at court, but Purcell managed to create an idiom which seems today to be utterly English. He was able to write the most beautifully simple folk-like melodies and clothe them with his own particular harmony which always relied on making each part logical in its own right. But he was also able to write the most complex chromatic counterpoint and our anthem tonight is one of the best examples.

‘Hear my prayer, O Lord’ is a short piece of only 34 bars which so elaborate that it is generally thought to be part of an incomplete, or incompleted, project. There are two ideas: the first is a simple 6-note setting of “Hear my prayer, O Lord” all on one note except for the 5th (to “O”) which is a third higher. This is heard alone in the alto part. Then Purcell sets “and let my crying come unto thee” to a rising chromatic phrase emphasising “cry” in best word-painting mode. But he quickly decides that this phrase will also work descending. And these three patterns work a maze of wonderful interplay in a lush 8-part texture where never more than two of the eight voices are singing the same words at the same time until the final bar. And what a typical Purcellian final scrunch that last cadence is.

This collection of works suggests that Jonathan will be playing the chamber organ for this service, and this is confirmed by his choice of voluntary, Benedictus sit Deus Pater by the composer Thomas Preston, who seems to have spent time in Oxford, Cambridge and Windsor before his death shortly before 1560. He is known for a handful of organ pieces related to the mass and a few for other instruments. Benedictus was intended for the Offertory.

Damian Cranmer

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