Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

The Way of the Cross: Music for Palm Sunday

A short blog on the music to be included in the evening service on Sunday 10 April at 6.30.

Covid has impacted on many things, one of which is the Choral Evensong Blog!   So here, after a gap of some 2 years, are some thoughts on the music the choir will be singing on the evening of Palm Sunday, 10 April.

The first choir piece, Like as the Hart desireth the waterbrooks is a setting of Ps 42 by Herbert Howells (1892-1983):

Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks :
so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God :
when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
My tears have been my meat day and night :
while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?

The anthem was written in 1942 and dedicated to Thomas Armstrong, organist of Christ Church Oxford.  It combines beautiful melodies, poignant word setting and dramatic choruses.  

Herbert Howells

Howells is a composer that excites strong feelings.  I am a great fan, and remember in my teens having a record of his church music sung by the choir of King’s College Cambridge, which I wore out through it playing so much.   On the other hand Damian Cranmer, when writing his blog for our evensong in July 2019, said that Like as the Hart was a piece he never liked!  Come along and let us know who you side with. 

Ola Gjeilo

The second piece is Ubi Caritas by Ola Gjeilo.   Those of you with good memories will remember an evensong where we sang Gjeilo’s Evening Prayer accompanied on the saxophone by former choirboy Dominic Pusey.   Ubi Caritas has a similar structure comprising choral sections interspersed with piano improvisations, the learning of which have been keeping me out of mischief for some weeks.   The plainsong hymn Ubi Caritas is one of the antiphons for Maundy Thursday, traditionally sung during the washing of feet.   The words in English are:

Where charity and love are, there God is.

The love of Christ has gathered us into one.

Let us exult, and in Him be joyful.

Let us fear and let us love the living God.

And from a sincere heart let us love each other.

Where charity and love are, there God is.

Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) is a Norwegian composer who lives in the USA.  His Ubi Caritas is a spectacularly beautiful and evocative piece; have a listen:

William Byrd

The choir’s final piece will be the Agnus Dei from the 4-part mass by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623).  Byrd wrote 3 mass settings, in 3 4 and 5 parts, for the use of recusant Catholic community.   The 4-part Mass is one of the great glories of Tudor music, and the concluding words ‘grant us peace’ are particularly resonant at the time of such appalling warfare in eastern Europe. 

Jonathan Goodchild

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

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