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Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 2nd July 2017

First an update on last month’s column: within a week of writing “although we don’t (yet) applaud sermons and anthems”, I was in an Anglican church where the congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the anthem!

Thomas Tomkins

And so to the music for our July Evensong. The responses will be sung in the setting by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). These 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. 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 (more about him when Jonathan does his Hosanna or Alleluia, I heard a voice). These two composers interest me at the moment because, in looking at the music sung at Christ Church, Oxford from the 1880s, when such records began, I have found neither mentioned until the 1920s, whereas Tallis and Gibbons, to a lesser extent Byrd, and even Richard Farrant, of composers from the same period, feature strongly. One reason could be that neither Tomkins nor Weelkes was included in Cathedral Music, a collection of nearly 250 pieces compiled by William Boyce in the 1760s. But in Tomkins’ case, it was not because he was stuck in Worcester. In fact he was a member of the Chapel Royal as singer and organist and must have spent much time in London. His madrigals were probably better known than his church music, of which his son made a collection after his death.

Harold Darke

We sing the canticles to Darke in F. Harold Darke (1888-1976) spent 50 years as Organist at St Michael’s, Cornhill (1916-1966) and is best known for his setting of the carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. I associate this piece with King’s College, Cambridge, and Darke spent four years of the Second World War as Acting Director of Music there in the absence of Boris Ord; but now I check my copy I find that it was copyrighted in 1911! So the best I can hope for is that he took it with him to Cambridge! Of the complete service in F from the 1920s, the setting of the Communion is perhaps even better known than the evening canticles. Cathedral choirs these days regularly sing the Latin masses of Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Haydn and Mozart within the modern Eucharist, and it is a measure of the enduring quality of the music of Harold Darke, who cannot be said to have made much of an impression as a composer outside church music, that his setting of the Book of Common Prayer words for the Communion still finds a place in the repertory. The modern words of Evening Prayer have not, by and large, caught the imagination of composers and, in sung services, “My soul doth magnify the Lord” is more likely to be replaced by “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” than by “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”. It’s not exactly the ultimate test, but Wikipedia gives only the Latin and BCP texts! Darke’s setting is very varied with textures from solo lines to double choir in eight parts. The organ of course plays an important role and it’s interesting to see how much of it isn’t “in F”: the whole of the Nunc Dimittis, until the Gloria, is in D minor.

Percy Whitlock

The anthem is ‘Sing praise to God who reigns above’ by Percy Whitlock, of whom I have written a couple of times recently. The words are taken from the English Hymnal (a hymn not in HON) and are a translation of a 17th century German chorale, Sei Lob’ und Ehr’. Whitlock set three verses of the EH hymn, but ended each verse with the refrain from the first “To God all praise and glory” and in each case this is the climax of the verse. The piece was written for the Diocesan Choirs’ Festival at Rochester Cathedral in 1928. I mentioned the equivalent festival at St Albans in the 1960s last month. These festivals grew out of the Choral Revival of the 1840s and were held at both diocesan and national level. At one time up to 5000 singers would take part in huge events at the Crystal Palace; in 1987 the Royal School of Church Music was able to gather 850 singers at the Albert Hall to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee. And even today, the diocese of Salisbury maintains its June Festival with a history of over 150 years.

J S Bach

The voluntary is the first movement of JS Bach’s Sonata in C BWV529. This is the fifth of a set of six pieces often known as trio sonatas because they use the texture of the instrumental works by composers such as Corelli, often two violins and continuo. On the organ the two hands play on different manuals partly to get matching but different sounds, but also to keep out of each other’s way – the right hand is sometimes lower than the left. Meanwhile the feet provide a harmonic bass. So there are three independent melodic lines and, although you are playing only three notes at any one time, the interaction of their independence produces a challenge which I find completely impossible! My compliments to the organist!

Damian Cranmer

Inspiring, guiding, encouraging…

Do you remember the very first time you ever rode a bike all on your own?  Do you remember that feeling of excitement mixed with an equal sense of foreboding as you pedalled that first, short, wobbly distance?  The excitement was in doing something you had never done before; the foreboding was in the almost certain knowledge that sooner rather than later your sense of balance would desert you and you would fall off your bike.  The next frightening moment was when you learned to signal which meant having to take one hand off the handlebars with the further wobbles and the tumbles that that may have involved.  But as your technique improved every time you rode your bike you could think back to the bruised and bloodied knees of those early days and know that it had been worth it.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his rising from the dead, they were overjoyed to see him and yet they couldn’t help noticing that he still carried the wounds he suffered at his crucifixion.  They saw the marks of the nails in his hands and spear in his side and most of them would have remembered how they had abandoned him at the time when he needed them most.  But he did not blame or scold them, he wished them peace.  What was done was done and he wanted them to have peace of mind and concentrate on the future.  His wounds would remain an eternal sign of the cost of love and a lesson they’d learn for themselves in time.

From the moment we were born, life has been a constant learning process.  Over the years we have all had opportunities to learn new skills.  When we attempt something that is unfamiliar or complicated we have to make allowances for the mistakes we shall make in the process.  If we are seriously committed to what we have begun, we may have to allow ourselves some extra time and patience until, gradually, we are able to move forwards from ‘beginner’ to ‘proficient’ and maybe even to ‘expert’ status.

The strange thing is that we do not always make allowances for ourselves or for others as we learn the biggest and most important lesson that will ever challenge us: how to live as a fallible human being in a world that is itself far from perfect.  We have a lifelong path of discovery to take if we are to be rewarded with a quality of goodness at the heart of us.  Everybody stumbles and falls on the way, so it is important that we shouldn’t feel discouraged and give up altogether.

God knows that we are learners in life.  He sees the ‘L’ plates which are invisible to us and to others.  He still loves us when we fall far short of perfection and asks just one thing of us: that we ‘dust ourselves off and try again’.  At Pentecost Jesus again tells us to be at peace, however battered and bruised we may feel.  We are still learning to be like him and God makes allowances for that by sending us the Spirit of love and encouragement to help us make a fresh start at all those times when that is just what we need.


Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 4th June

This month I’ll start at the end – with the voluntary. What is a voluntary and for whom is it voluntary? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (that’s the one in only two volumes of over 3500 pages each) gives a meaning up to the Reformation of “music added to a piece at the will of the performer”, leading to “an organ solo played before, during, or after a church service….” from the early 18th century. The playing of such a piece, particularly at the end of a service, is voluntary for an organist only to a certain extent – it is expected. For everyone else it is entirely voluntary, clergy and choir who depart to their vestries, and congregation who sit and listen, depart, greet friends and tidy the church. And what about applause? There were times when applause would never have been considered appropriate in church, but we now applaud brides and grooms and newly baptised babies. So although we don’t (yet) applaud sermons and anthems, let’s not deny the organist appreciation for his or her playing. What about an occasional “compulsory”?

On this occasion, Jonathan plays JS Bach’s Chorale Prelude BWV651, the Fantasia on “Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” (Come, Holy Ghost, Lord God). The words of the German chorale are by Luther based on the Latin hymn “Veni, sancte spiritus”, so most appropriate for Whit Sunday, as is the anthem (see below): the tune is by Johann Walter, and Bach puts this in long notes for the feet, while the hands weave a fantasia above. If fantasia suggests random improvisation, then this is not what you get from Bach, at least on the page. Everything is carefully ordered and the semiquaver arpeggios with which the piece begins are rarely absent and, at times, treated with the precision of a fugue. The genius of Bach is to make this calculated structure sound improvisatory. Do stay and listen.

The responses are our own home-grown version of those by Richard Ayleward, now for five voice parts. The increase from four to five makes more difference than you might expect, and I am a fan of the richer texture. So, I believe, was Orlando Gibbons, and it’s one of his pieces, known only to us for four voices, but which obviously needs a fifth voice, that gives proof that some early music was reduced to fit what became the choral norm of soprano – alto – tenor – bass. Richard Ayleward (1626-1669) is a couple of generations after Gibbons, so not that “early”, but he certainly relished large scale performances. His short career took off at the Restoration with his appointment as organist of Norwich Cathedral. He must have been active during the Commonwealth because he wrote music for the Coronation of Charles II.

Our Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is the setting in A 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”. The canticles in A are constructed from a few simple phrases which are adapted as necessary to new words: the openings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis illustrate this well. In addition the two Glorias reprise the opening of their respective movements, producing a satisfying structure. In the baroque period, composers (with tongue in cheek?) made the reprise at “as it was in the beginning” (sicut erat in principio). In fact this feature was the major factor in reuniting Handel’s psalm Nisi Dominus with its Gloria from which it had become separated for well over 100 years. We sing the Harris from music contained in a booklet for the Diocesan Choirs Festival held in St Albans Abbey in 1966. There are similar booklets for 1964 in the choir library (containing Harris’ setting in A minor), which suggests that St Mary’s choir took part in these events. Anyone remember?

The anthem is Peter Philips’ “Loquebantur variis linguis”, in Catholic usage the Responsory after the second lesson at Matins of the Feast of Pentecost. The text is based on The Acts of the Apostles (ch2 v4) and can be translated “The Apostles were speaking in different languages of the great works of God as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. Alleluia”. It’s not easy to put Philips’ life into one sentence, but here goes. A lifelong catholic who had been a chorister at St Paul’s, possibly taught by Byrd, Philips (c1561-1626) fled Reformed England in 1582 for Rome before settling in Antwerp, where he not only lost his new wife in childbirth and their daughter seven years later, causing financial disputes with his late wife’s family, but also spent time in prison having been accused (unfairly, as it turned out) of plotting against the English Queen, and eventually in 1609 became a priest, all the while composing copiously. This work is very much in the style of Palestrina, easy flowing imitative counterpoint for the main text with a more energetic and rhythmically complex “alleluia”.

Damian Cranmer