Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 3rd March, 6.30pm

A blog about the history, composers and background to the music for our forthcoming services of Choral Evensong, by Damian Cranmer:

St George’s Church, Norton, Letchworth Garden City

In the return of last summer’s exchange, we will be joined for this service by the choir of St George’s, Norton, in Letchworth Garden City, so a warm welcome to them.

In any discussion of music for choral evensong, it’s never long before Stanford crops up. I’m not sure that he would be entirely happy that his reputation nearly 100 years after his death depended almost exclusively on his Anglican church music.

While there might be many composers who would be delighted to have such a strong continuing presence in any field, Stanford was always keen to be known in an international context, and anglican church music would not provide such a reputation. I thought of this when reading the obituary for John Joubert, who died in January, the headline describing him as the composer of ‘Torches’. Well, he was, and a jolly good piece it is too, but the composer of five operas, three symphonies and much other music deserves wider recognition for his more substantial music. Though having said that, I once had a discussion with a colleague about whether music had to be substantial to be considered great.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Anyway, crop up Stanford has, and it’s his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat that we’ll be singing with our friends from St George’s. The B flat may not have the grandeur of the setting in C, or the stature of the A, or the originality of the G, but, as the first attempt at canticle writing by a 27-year-old, it is remarkable, and it’s the one that everyone knows. For 140 years (exactly!) choirs from cathedral and parish church alike have sung this piece regularly. In 1883, four years after its composition, it was sung 12 times in Christ Church, Oxford. So why does it have a history different from the contemporary canticles of Stainer, Charles Lloyd, George Garrett and even Parry?

Its broad appeal comes inevitably from its singability. It has memorable themes with easy flowing lines, not too much counterpoint and a helpfully supportive organ part. But it is the almost symphonic approach to key and structure that makes the music so satisfying for both singers and listeners. In the Magnificat, the triple-time music of the opening returns for the Gloria, but you have to look to see this, so well is the music fitted to the new words. And the middle section, now in duple time and the subdominant key of E flat, but straying to C minor and A flat, develops its own material, giving the piece a ternary structure. The Nunc Dimittis is set mostly for unison men’s voices, but sends the tenors up to a sustained top G at ‘and to be the glo-ry’. The Gloria, different from the Magnificat is a wonderfully measured conclusion marked ‘with dignity’. Both Glorias end with a version of the Dresden Amen. I wrote about this Amen in relation to John Sanders’ responses which were written in 1983 to mark the centenary of the death of Richard Wagner who used it extensively in his opera Parsifal. Unfortunately there’s no great story about its birth or name: it was written by JG Naumann for the royal court in Dresden, but its fame has been secured by the many composers, such as Mendelssohn in his Reformation Symphony, who have adopted it.

Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877 – 1950)

The anthem is Evening Hymn by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950). It is a setting of the Latin office hymn for compline,’Te lucis ante terminum’ (a favourite of 16th century composers such as Tallis and Byrd), with alternative English words beginning ‘Thee, Lord, before the close of day’. It was written during a brief spell that the composer spent teaching at Winchester College. The organ plays an important role in setting the scene for the three verses, of which the second is contrasted. Balfour Gardiner, as he is generally known, was a man of private means which he used to support music and musicians most generously. His own composition, much of which he destroyed, ceased in the mid-1920s and, thereafter, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, “he devoted himself to a pioneering afforestation programme on his Dorset pig farm.”

For the responses, we give a second outing to the reconstructed Gibbons setting that was first heard last month.

Percy Whitlock

The closing voluntary is Toccata, the fifth and last movement from the Plymouth Suite by Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) who features quite regularly in our programmes. Each of the movements remembers a different organist, and the H.M. of the Toccata is Dr. Harold (Harry) George Moreton (1864-1961) who was organist of St Andrew’s, Plymouth, from 1885 to 1958! Whitlock held organist posts in Rochester and Bournemouth, where he was also municipal organist at the Pavilion. The Plymouth Suite dates from 1937 – after only 52 years at St Andrew’s, Moreton was probably in his prime. The Toccata, as toccatas do, has a non-stop fast semiquaver pattern which moves between the hands, against which a solo tune comes in various guises. The speed relaxes only at the very end, where some rather splendid chords bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Damian Cranmer

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 3rd February, 6.30pm

The carol books are packed away until the end of the year and we return to a pattern of first Sunday choral evensongs, starting on Sunday 3rd February. This will be celebrated as Candlemas or The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple: the actual date of the feast is 2nd February.

Johannes Eccard

Our very appropriate anthem is ‘When to the temple Mary went’ by Johannes Eccard. I would hazard a guess that anyone who has ever been a chorister would know this piece well, but would be unable to name another work of Eccard. Further, it is likely that this piece is better known in England than it is in Germany. Why? Because this piece is representative of a nineteenth-century vogue for translating continental pieces for use by the choirs and choral societies of the day. The Revd John Troutbeck, who translated Eccard’s ‘Maria wallt zum Heiligtum und bringt ihr Kindlein dar’ (no, I’d never come across this before, either!), also translated Bach’s passions into English, and it’s worth remembering that it’s only in the last 50 years that German has overtaken English as the norm for these pieces – and do we hear them as often? As for the Eccard, it’s possible that no other piece has been so frequently sung on one specific date in Anglican churches in the last 150 years.

It’s a wonder that John Troutbeck (1832-1899) found any time for his day job as Precentor, first in Manchester and later at Westminster Abbey, because his translations included works by almost every major composer, including many operas, and he also compiled a number of hymn books and chant books. In my opinion, Troutbeck made a very good job of the Eccard translation. Where Eccard had two verses with a repeated chorus, Troutbeck changed the words of the second chorus to make a more complete summation of the text, which is, of course, a free version of the Nunc Dimittis.

What, then, of Eccard (1553-1611)? His career was as a court musician, largely in the service of the Margraves of Brandenburg-Ansbach, firstly in Königsberg and later in Berlin, where he became Kapellmeister. This was a time of great development of Protestant German music and most of Eccard’s compositions are based on the chorale, some extensive, others like the current piece simple harmonisations of a chorale-like melody. He favoured rich textures and ‘When to the temple’ is in six parts, two sopranos and two basses, the latter creating depth in the sonority.

Orlando Gibbons

The responses will be my own recently completed setting using the music of Orlando Gibbons, who left only the opening preces. The psalm attached to these preces has been used as the source for a setting of the Lord’s Prayer and the second part of the responses.

We sing the canticles of Richard Farrant in G minor. There were a number of musicians by the name of Farrant in the sixteenth century, at least two Johns, a Daniel and Richard (c1530-1580). There is some confusion over the attribution of music between them, but Richard is the most significant figure. He held posts at Windsor and the Chapel Royal and wrote several plays, none of which survives, for companies that he set up primarily for his singing boys.

As a composer he is best known for two anthems, ‘Call to remembrance’ and ‘Hide not thou thy face’, and this service, described in Grove’s Dictionary as ‘High’ or ‘Third’ service, which suggests that it isn’t only his plays which are no longer with us. These three pieces owe their popularity to their inclusion in Boyce’s Cathedral Music (1760-1773), which was for some time the major source of repertoire for English cathedrals. It was Boyce who first established the key of G minor for this service despite earlier sources written a tone higher, and it is in G minor that we shall sing it. It is written in the style of a ‘short’ service, that is with little word repetition and a largely chordal texture. But the dramatist in Farrant found expressiveness in the antiphonal exchange of short phrases between the two sides of the choir.

The organ voluntary is the Prelude in C minor op.37 no.1 by Felix Mendelssohn, who was a fine organist and already writing music for the instrument at the age of eleven. It was almost inevitable that his organ music would be greatly influenced by his rediscovery of the music of Bach, and many of his works are preludes, fugues and other contrapuntal exercises, or works based on chorales. The Prelude in C minor of 1841 looks back to the baroque. It consists of a running quaver figure, which works through all the parts and at times invades the pedal part requiring nimble footwork, set against a slow moving harmonic background with complex Bach-like harmonies.

Damian Cranmer

Choral Eucharist for the Feast of All Souls: 4th November 2018, 6.30pm

This article is the latest instalment of the Choral Evensong Blog, giving an insight into the history of and background to music sung by the choir at our monthly Choral Evensong services.  Click here to read all previous instalments of the blog.


Some of you may already have in your diaries Andrew Green’s talk on Tuesday 20 November on Vaughan Williams short opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. If not, put it in straightaway! More details here

Andrew Green will be talking about his conviction that (though not stated publicly by the composer) the piece is a memorial to those who died in the Great War. The text of the opera is largely adapted from John Bunyan’s allegory of 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was hugely popular at the time of the Great War. Some of us have heard Andrew’s talk before, and we can promise a moving, intriguing and fascinating evening, just a few days after the centenary of the Armistice. The evening will include the playing of a recording of the whole opera. But don’t worry, it is not a work of Wagnerian proportions, and lasts just over half an hour.

It occurred to Kathy Goodchild that movements from this work and Vaughan Williams’s later and longer opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (of which The Shepherds forms a part) would adapt well into a service for All Souls. She has therefore arranged four movements for choir, organ and viola (to be played by choir member and webmistress Kate Ford).

The Introit and motet after the commemoration of the departed are from ‘Watchful’s Song’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress, including words from Psalms 31, 127 and 121 and Isaiah 11 and 14.

Into thy hands O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Except the Lord keep the house, the watchman waketh in vain. The Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep peace: the whole earth is at rest and is quiet.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from when cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved. He that keepeth thee shall not sleep. Behold he that keepeth thee shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord himself is thy keeper, he shall preserve thee from all evil: yea it is even he that shall keep thy soul from this time forth for evermore

The Gradual is from The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, and sets words from Psalm 91:

Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers. He shall give his angels charge over thee, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.

To this the Requiem words have been added:

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis   (Give them eternal rest O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them)

The anthem, taken from The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains sets words from Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul, he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake. Yea though I walk thro’ the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

We hope that this music will give solace to the bereaved in 2018 just as it did after the Great War.

Jonathan Goodchild