Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 7th July 2019, 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.

William Byrd

The responses for our July Choral Evensong are those by Byrd, right up there with Smith as the best and most popular of all settings. It’s surprising how Byrd cleverly hides the traditional plainsong melody in the tenor part. We sing Psalm 65, ‘Thou O God art praised in Sion’. The first part mixes praise (‘who stillest the raging of the sea’) with penitence (‘my misdeeds prevail against me’), and the second part has the familiar harvest words beginning ‘Thou visitest the earth’. The chant is by George Garrett, who was organist for many years at St John’s College, Cambridge. At the end of the 19th century his settings of the canticles were among the most popular, but he is now largely unknown. If you remember from the 60s the spoof weather forecast sung to Anglican chant by the Master Singers, it was another of Garrett’s chants which began the recording, still available on YouTube.

Herbert Brewer

The canticles are by Herbert Brewer, his setting in E flat. Wikipedia claims that Brewer (1865-1928) “lived in Gloucester his whole life” but that seems a little wide of the mark. He grew up in Gloucester and was organist at the cathedral for over 30 years from 1896, but held posts in Oxford, Bristol, Coventry and Tonbridge in the intervening years. His work in Gloucester involved much activity outside the cathedral, particularly in relation to the Three Choirs Festival, which he conducted on eight occasions, and for which he wrote several major works on both serious and light-hearted subjects. Of his compositions, Grove’s Dictionary (4th edition 1940, and unchanged in today’s online version) stated that “he seemed happier in the concerts of the Shire Hall than in the cathedral.” Sadly, in light of this, he is known today mostly for his settings of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis which remain in the repertoire of cathedrals and which St Mary’s choir have sung on a number of occasions. The thematic material of his E flat Magnificat from 1904 is positive, confident and largely upward in its movement, as heard in the organ introduction, which is repeated at the beginning of the Gloria. The Nunc Dimittis is stately and has its own Gloria.

Herbert Howells

The anthem is ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks’ by Herbert Howells, a setting of the first three verses of Psalm 42. I have to say that this is a piece I have never liked. When I say never, I mean from the time I first sang it as a boy treble. I could try to analyse why, but actually a more interesting question arises, first posed to me as an undergraduate: which is the greater experience in music, performing or listening? In those days I had no hesitation in replying, performing. But it is extraordinarily fortunate that there are many more listeners than performers. It’s not quite fair (but it’s interesting!) to ask how many great performers are found in the audience at the concerts of others. So, while I may not have been right, I also may not have been quite so wrong as my later self sometimes feared.

For whom did Howells write the piece? The simple answer is for Thomas Armstrong, who at the time of composition (1941), was Organist at Christ Church, Oxford, one of the few cathedrals not to receive a dedicated Mag and Nunc from Howells. In fact, at Christ Church, they have often referred to what we all know as the New College Service as “the Oxford Service”, not to give too much credit to neighbours! But another answer might be that ‘Like as the hart’ was written for the benefit of the congregation and for the glory of God. I must listen to it a few more times! This performer/listener debate was at the heart of the “Choral Revival” in the middle of the 19th century. One side argued for congregations to be passive in seeking for inspiration in beautiful music; the other for familiar, simple and often plainsong melody to be available for all to sing. Cathedral Choral Evensong is derived from the former; the plainsong mass of Merbecke, which was pretty universal until about 50 years ago, is an example of the latter argument.

Howells (1892-1983) had lessons with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral before gaining a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where his tutors were Stanford, Charles Wood and Parry, all composers, like Howells, whose aspirations were to compose in a wide variety of genres, but whose reputation now relies almost exclusively on their church music. I was surprised to find that Howells, for whom the organ is an intrinsic part of his compositions, never held an organist’s post, other than as deputy for Robin Orr at St John’s, Cambridge, during the war years. ‘Like as the hart’ is in three sections; a long opening statement from the tenors and basses with full choir joining at the end (verses 1 and 2), a central section begun by the sopranos with extensive repetitions of “my tears have been my meat day and night”, words that may have had particular significance for Howells whose son had died from polio in 1935, and a reprise of the opening section with an added descant-like line above the original. The tonality of the piece is E minor with much colouring from the flat 5th (B flat), and it seems that it somewhat reluctantly approaches the final major chord of E.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley

The voluntary is Choral Song by SS Wesley. Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876). named after his father and his father’s admiration for JS Bach, was, by all accounts, a difficult man. He rarely stayed long in an organist’s job because his musical views did not fit with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. But with hindsight we might have some sympathy with him because, in his composition, he was an important link between Purcell and Stanford. Choral Song, the third of Three Pieces for Chamber Organ of 1842, is aptly described by its title. It has a theme that is hymn-like in both melody and structure, and its festive nature has made it very popular; it is in rondo form and has been through a number of adaptations, which make it eminently suitable for almost any organ.

Damian Cranmer

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 2nd June, 6.30pm

A blog by Damian Cranmer about the composers, background and history of the music sung by the choir at our monthly services of Choral Evensong.

The musical part of this service begins with the Responses by Bernard Rose who was Informatur choristarum (organist and choirmaster) at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1957 to his retirement in 1981. This set of responses, which includes a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, is unusual in that the priest’s part is newly composed and does not follow the traditional intonation. It remains one of the most popular of twentieth-century settings.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in F are the canticles. This setting in F is not nearly as well known as those in A, B flat, C and G. It has an organ part which is described as optional, but actually does rather more than cover the voice parts, providing pedal depth and support to the bass line, filling out the harmony, and covering the occasional rests. There is a limited amount of antiphony (Dec and Can), particularly effective in the Gloria which concludes both canticles. I find it interesting how Stanford manages to set the opening words of the magnificat, which in the hands of lesser composers can become stodgy and predictable, in a variety of unexpected ways. The other thing about Stanford is that his liturgical music, which we know so well, forms a very small part of his output, and each time I read about him as he turns up in this column (and he does turn up regularly) I am more intrigued. So, before I write about him again I determine to listen to a symphony and one of his operas, of which the lack of recognition and performances would probably give him most cause for regret. I’m a little late to catch the first performances for 80 years of The Travelling Companion given last year by New Sussex Opera, but I gather it is to be recorded.

Orlando Gibbons

The anthem is ‘O God, the King of Glory’ by Orlando Gibbons, which sets the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension Day, which falls this year on May 30th, so we are spot on for June 2nd. This is one of Gibbons’ ‘verse’ anthems, a form in which he was something of a pioneer. The form did exist before Gibbons in the works of Byrd, Morley (we’ve sung ‘Out of the deep’) and Mundy, but it was in breaking away from the simple structure of verse to one solo voice followed by repeated chorus which marked out Gibbons’ anthems of the first twenty years of the seventeenth century. Pieces like ‘See, the word is incarnate’ are virtually through-composed, while others have recurring refrains, and the number of voices used for the verse varies considerably. In ‘O God, the King of Glory’ the opening verse is for soprano, two altos and tenor. It is notable for ‘word-painting’ at ‘which hast exalted thine only son’ to a rising scale, and the imitative, almost antiphonal, treatment of ‘with great triumph’. The chorus repeats the words of the verse but only gradually picks up the essential features of the music. The second verse is for altos, first one solo which is then joined by a second for more imitation at ‘and exalt us’, set to the same music as ‘with great triumph’. Interestingly, this verse which is mostly in the minor key is taken up by the chorus in the major. The music returns to the minor for a version of the doxology, which features antiphonal effects between solo and full, not unlike Stanford’s treatment of his Gloria.

The organ voluntary is Fantasia in D minor by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (c1562-1621). He came from a family of many organists; he succeeded his father and was followed by his son as organist of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. He was a fine performer and was well respected as teacher, but it is as a composer that he takes his place in music history. He wrote a large number of vocal works including at least one setting of each of the 150 psalms as well as secular chansons and madrigals. His keyboard music, though widely copied, was not published in his lifetime, and there is as yet no easy way of distinguishing one of the 20 or so fantasias from the others. The one chosen for this service is sometimes described as no.4. It is one of those pieces that begins with very slow notes, but you need to beware of starting too fast because by the end the minims of the opening have become triplet semiquavers. This, though, does give the piece momentum in building the tension, something Gibbons was particularly good at.   The Fantasia is pervaded by the slow six-note descending pattern first heard at the start, but there is considerable rhythmic complexity in the accompanying material.

Damian Cranmer

Choral Evensong Blog: Music for Palm Sunday and Easter Day 2019

This article forms part of the Choral Evensong Blog by Damain Cranmer, and covers the evening service for Palm Sunday, entitled “The Way of the Cross”, and the music for Easter Day Evensong.

We sing the second part of ’Woefully arrayed’ (originally Woffully araide) by William Cornysh. This is a title that you don’t easily forget and I’ve known it for years, but I don’t think I’ve ever got close to the music until now. It is a passiontide text in which the first line returns at the end of each verse: “Thus wrapped all in woe,/ As never man was so,/ Treated thus in most cruel wise,/ Was like a lamb offered in sacrifice,/ Woefully arrayed.” The words are attributed to John Skelton (c1460-1529), whose London career included tutoring the young prince who would become Henry VIII. After ordination, he became rector of Diss in Norfolk, where he fell foul of the Bishop of Norwich, at least partly for his scurrilous verse and sarcastic wit, features of his poetry which Vaughan Williams used to such great effect in Five Tudor Portraits. There were two composers with the name William Cornysh around the turn of the 16th century. The younger who died in 1523 may have been son of the older, and it is he who wrote ‘Woefully arrayed’. It seems odd to us today but, there being no place before the Reformation for vernacular church music, this is a secular part-song, a genre which Cornysh did much to develop and which was greatly in favour in the early years of the reign of Henry VIII at court, where Cornysh became Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Kenneth Leighton (1929 – 1988)

Kenneth Leighton’s “Solus ad victimam” is a fine example of his contribution to church music. Like a number of 20th century composers including John Joubert whom I mentioned last time in relation to his obituary, Leighton (1929-1988) spent most of his active life in university music departments, finally as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh. So although composition was not, as his long list of works for many different groups shows, a side-line, it did sit alongside his achievements as an academic. His choral style is constructed of logical lines with interesting twists to the harmony, which makes for rewarding singing. “Solus ad victimam” sets an English translation of a poem by Peter Abelard, a Frenchman, described by Chambers Biographical Dictionary as “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”. The opening words are “Alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord, Giving thyself to Death whom thou hast slain.”

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

Victoria’s “Popule meus” follows. Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) left his home town of Avila in Spain in his early teens to enrol at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome, and he spent much of his early life in the city, resulting in the frequent Italianisation of his name to Vittoria. The text of “Popule meus” is the original Latin of the Reproaches, which were heard last year in this service in the English setting by John Sanders. Beside the dramatic, highly charged music of Sanders, that of Victoria can seem rather restrained, but it is important to remember the words from Micah, chapter 6, verse 3. “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?” One of the great results of the Reformation was the acceptance of the vernacular in the liturgy, and the Tudor English of the above must have made a significant effect on congregations. Nevertheless, the simple, repetitive harmony of the Victoria can still make an impact today.

Jonathan closes the service with Bach’s chorale prelude “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross” BWV622 (O man, bewail your great sins). This prelude comes from the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) and is designated for Passiontide. The melody is presented in highly decorated style on a solo stop, while left hand and pedal accompany in increasingly chromatic fashion.

Easter Day Evensong

The psalm set for this evening is Ps 66. This is “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands”, but not the Jubilate, which begins in the same way but is Ps 100. Ps 66 has hints of the escape from Egypt: “He turned the sea into dry land: so that they went through the water on foot, there did we rejoice thereof.” The chant is by George Elvey (1816-1893), whose music has been described as 50 years out of date at the time it was written, which, paradoxically, may be the reason that a couple of hymn tunes, “Come, ye thankful people come” and “Crown him with many thorns” survived the cull of late Victoriana and remain in the current repertoire. Most of his larger compositions do not.

The responses are by Smith, and the more I look at 16th and 17th century responses, the more I admire the work of this Durham musician, who is remembered (by me, at least) for nothing else.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

The canticles for this service are Vaughan Williams in C. It’s possible that no other great composer of recent times has done more to encourage church music at all levels. The great Te Deums and the Mass in G minor can tax the best of choirs, but the hymn tunes, both original and arrangements, the result of his researches into folk and Tudor music, are an important feature of music in all churches. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C is “set to music for the use of village choirs”, but it is much more than that, and well worth an outing for more adventurous groups. The VW style is quickly recognisable with a flat 7th (B flat) in bar 4, and later dorian harmony (sharp 6th) keeping eyes and ears open.

The anthem is “Most glorious Lord of life” 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” which like tonight’s anthem sets verse by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). “Most glorious Lord of life” is   from Amoretti, a collection of 89 sonnets mainly concerned with courtship, but including a few items such as this, in which everyday “secular” in the 16th century embraced what we today can easily accept as sacred. The anthem is structured as three verses of four lines each, with the final couplet a shortened version of the same melody.

Herbert Howells

The voluntary is Herbert Howells’ Paean. This ‘Hymn of praise’ is in direct contrast to the reflective calm of the Bach set for Palm Sunday. Easter needs celebration and this is a celebratory piece. Using the full range of the organ, it shows many features of Howells’ style. Over some long pedal notes, the music seems to be looking for a way out of the complex harmonies. There is a brief respite in the middle before the music proceeds to its inevitable triumphant ending.

Damian Cranmer