Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

Choral Matins: 19th August 2018

We are singing the second August Matins at St Mary’s in what I hope will become an annual event. It is sometimes possible, and I am guilty, to be pessimistic about Matins beyond the cathedrals of England. But in recent times, Isobel and I have attended matins at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, The Guards Chapel (with military band), the Temple Church, St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, St Peter’s in St Albans, and at St Mary’s. We have our eyes on Hampton Court and St James’ Palace. It’s no coincidence that Matins is more readily available in and near the capital where the professional choir set-up is a major influence.

So, it’s great to be singing another Matins in Redbourn; and the music is a celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Last month I was reflecting on the important work he did for the English Hymnal, and you may have noted him as one of the composers who reached, but did not pass, nine symphonies, in answer to the question I posed in a previous post. He is regarded as one of the quintessentially English composers, and his work covered every genre, hymn tunes, songs, chamber music, operas, symphonies and film music, and iconic works such as The Lark Ascending, the Sea Symphony and the Mass in G minor are among pieces which stand the test of time. His style was not entirely to everyone’s taste: Peter Warlock described his Pastoral Symphony as like “a cow looking over a gate”, and a one-time European colleague of mine commented that his music would have been better if it was all “on a theme by Thomas Tallis”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney, and this is the name that he gave to perhaps his most famous original hymn tune, intrinsically associated with the words ‘Come down, O love divine’. Appropriately in this VWfest, this is the first hymn in our service. It is one of the earliest that he wrote (c1905), and, of the 14 or so original tunes, the few that are in regular use are all early: ‘For all the saints’ and ‘Hail thee, festival day’ for instance. We sing the Te Deum and Jubilate from Vaughan Williams’ 1939 Service in D minor, “written for and dedicated to Dr CS Lang and his singers at Christ’s Hospital”. Craig Sellar Lang (1891-1971) was a New Zealander who was Director of Music at Christ’s Hospital from 1929 to 1945, when he retired to Cornwall to concentrate on composition. He edited the music for the Public School Hymn Book (1949), which included 18 of his own tunes, many with the names of Cornish towns, and over 20 descants to well known tunes. None of his music has found its way into HON, but some of the descants (like a dog, they aren’t only for Christmas!) deserve to be heard today. This is relevant because Vaughan Williams’ Service in D minor is very much a public school piece. As well as the usual four-part choir, there is an important and independent congregational part. A photograph on the school’s website of its chapel, with high and open space and inward-facing seating, prompts one to imagine the tremendous sound of perhaps more than 500 voices singing VW’s music. We may not have quite that number in August in Redbourn, but we intend to give the piece a good run for its money. As for the music, it’s not long before one recognises Vaughan Williams as the composer: the triple time with cross rhythms and flat 7ths are some of the features that show the influence of folk music and the English Tudors. The key changes easily from D minor to D major and F minor and the melodic line is fluent and singable.

The anthem is VW’s ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings’. The words of the first four verses of Psalm 84 are set to largely reflective music, before the mood changes and the last verse of Psalm 90 (“The glorious company of the Lord our God be upon us”) leads directly into the first verse of ‘O God, our help in ages past’. You could almost, but not quite, add Lang’s descant: the transposition would take the sopranos up to top C!

The closing voluntary for this service will be Vaughan Williams’ Prelude on the Welsh hymn tune ‘Hyfrydol’. (You have to ask a Welsh person how to pronounce this, but you can be sure it isn’t the obvious way!) We’ll sing this tune as our final hymn to the words ‘I will sing the wondrous story’. It is the most enduring of the many tunes written by Rev Roland Huw Pritchard (1811-1887), for some time minister in Bala. Hymn books vary in their noting of Vaughan Williams as the arranger of the tune. HON does, but English Hymnal doesn’t, for example. A quick look at the original on WIkipedia suggests that “tidying up” might be a better description of Vaughan Williams’ contribution.

Most of his arranged hymn tunes come from folk music, but it’s interesting that Vaughan Williams, who rejected much of English 19th century music, turned additionally to Celtic music of the time for inspiration.   The organ prelude is a straightforward setting with the tune in the top part and incorporating the repeat of the second part. But the tune is the only straightforward part of the piece. Everything else, and particularly the pedal part, goes at a much quicker pace and not always in the direction you might expect. A seat behind the organ would be instructive!

The responses are by Smith and the psalm is no.106 to a chant by Thomas Jackson of Newark (c1715-1781). Why are the chants often by people you’ve never heard of? Well I suppose it’s that short pieces – and chants are short pieces – are easier to write, and serious composers can’t always be bothered with short pieces, though there are some original ventures into chant-writing by Elgar and others.

Damian Cranmer

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 1st July, 6.30pm

Dominic Pusey

In an imaginative piece of programming, Jonathan Goodchild has scheduled Evening Prayer by Ola Gjeilo for the anthem at our next choral evensong.  This is a piece for choir, tenor saxophone and piano, and we are delighted to welcome Dominic Pusey, former chorister at St Mary’s, as the saxophone soloist.  Dominic’s jazz background will be particularly useful as well over half the piece has to be improvised, unlike the piano part which can be improvised but does not have to be.  Definitely an occasion not to be missed!

Ola Gjeilo

I can’t do better than reproduce information from the back page of the music.  “Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) was born in Norway in 1978 and moved to the United States in 2001 to study composition at the Juilliard School in New York City.  Ola’s concert works are performed all over the world, and his debut recording as a pianist-composer, the lyrical crossover album Stone Rose, was followed by its 2012 sequel, Piano Improvisations. Many of Ola’s choral works are featured on Phoenix Chorale’s best-selling album, Northern Lights, which is devoted entirely to his music for choir.”

“Lyrical crossover” describes the style of this piece well.  The melodic line, mostly based on the opening saxophone solo, is eminently singable and the harmony moves freely from a home key of A to F sharp and C (the keys a minor third either side) and moves between major and minor with ease, the minor always characterised by a dorian sharp 6th.  The triple time aids the gentle flow of the music. The words are a prayer of St Augustine beginning: Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch or weep tonight, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Both the responses by Kathy Goodchild and the canticles by Herbert Howells are based in G minor which gives a unified feel to the service.  We sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis which Howells wrote for King’s College, Cambridge, the famous ‘Coll. Reg.’  I’ve known this title for longer than I’ve known the music!

Herbert Howells

A couple of questions that spring to mind are: how many Mag and Nuncs did Howells write and why did he write so many?  I suppose the answer to the second is that people kept asking him, and that is a measure of the success with which he dominated this form in the 20th century.  And the answer to the first is, I think, 21.   ’Coll. Reg.’ (1945) is the first of the dedicated settings after five earlier works, and was followed by Gloucester, New College Oxford, Worcester, St Paul’s, St Peter in Westminster, St John’s Cambridge, Winchester, Chichester, St Augustine Birmingham, Hereford, York and Dallas (1975) with three others without dedication (in case you’re counting). The only composer I can think of who gets anywhere near half this total is Thomas Weelkes with nine.  There are a number of “who wrote” questions and here are a couple.  Who, after Haydn and Mozart, managed to write more than nine completed symphonies, and who were the several who got stuck at nine?  And again, who wrote more cello sonatas that Beethoven’s five?

Back to Howells! Much of the Magnificat is based on the opening organ melody (G, Bb, A, G, Bb).  This seems unpromising if you’re expecting a blaze of glory to open such a famous work.  The energy level is increased at ‘He hath showed strength with his arm’, again introduced by the organ, and by the Gloria Howells reaches a full forte. The blaze of glory begins to come at ‘World without end’ but we’re still in a minor key and it’s only with the Amen that we finally get the anticipated major ending, here not in the expected G major, but the relative major of B flat.  The Nunc Dimittis is set for tenor solo with choral accompaniment and builds slowly to ‘And to be the glory’, followed by the same Gloria.  A final thought on Howells.  A major feature of his choral music is his skilful use of the organ to set the scene, inject impetus and support huge climaxes of unison singers without ever dominating the music.  He wrote a lot of other music but these Mag and Nuncs define his output.

While we take note of the composers of canticles and anthems, those who have provided the music for psalms and hymns get very little credit.  Let us today celebrate William Cross (of whom I had never heard), who held at least three simultaneous organist posts in Oxford, including the cathedral, in the early years of the 19th century.  His publication of Chants, Kyries and Sanctuses… was issued exactly 200 years ago in 1818, and while, unlike the poet John Keats who paused at The Bull on 22 June 1818, there is nothing to suggest that Cross had ever heard of Redbourn, let us not be too parochial about events in this bicentenary year. Cross’s C minor chant, composed for the funeral of a Christ Church canon, is set in the Parish Psalter for Psalm 53, appointed for this Sunday.  I am attracted to the psalms with darker moods and the psalmist does not mince his words here.  It begins “The foolish body hath said in his heart: there is no God.” And later “the children of men …. are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable.”  What a wonderful word is abominable!

If Ralph Vaughan Williams had done nothing else but edit the English Hymnal of 1906, his influence would have been felt throughout the Anglican Church, but he would have been largely forgotten.  His replacement of Victoriana by folk tunes and music from the golden age of Tudor church music was inspired, and affected the course of music throughout the 20th century.  He collected many of the folk tunes himself and it was at Kingsfold, just north of Horsham in Sussex, that he heard the tune we sing to HON 231, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’, and then rewarded the village by naming the tune Kingsfold.  I’ve known Sussex all my life, but had never heard of Kingsfold: I have now!  We’ll also get a tune by Stanford called Engelberg (did he write it in Switzerland?), and another probably by Jeremiah Clarke, the tune now known as Bishopthorpe, a village a few miles south of York.  Always read the small print!

Damian Cranmer

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 3rd June, 6.30pm

Richard Shephard

The responses are by Richard Shephard, a contemporary musician, not to be confused with Richard Sheppard, a composer of pre-Reformation Latin music in the first half of the sixteenth century. Shephard spent his early adult life in Salisbury undertaking several activities including as a lay clerk in the cathedral choir of Richard Seal, and it is to Seal and his choir that these responses are dedicated. They were published in 1985, the year that Shephard moved to York to take up the post of headmaster of the Minster School: a parting gift, perhaps?

The responses are interesting for a number of reasons. The intonations of the cantor are newly composed, the Lord’s Prayer is set for the choir, and the texture, while nominally in four parts (SATB) has many points where the voices divide, giving the music a varied and at times rich colour.

Thomas Attwood Walmisley

The canticles will be Walmisley in D minor. Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814-1856) was the godson of the composer Thomas Attwood, with whom he had early composition lessons. At the age of 16, Walmisley was appointed organist of Croydon Parish Church, and three years later as organist jointly of Trinity and St John’s Colleges, Cambridge. At the age of 22, he proceeded to the post of Professor of Music at the university. This may have been as much a reflection of the sorry state of music in the university as of his undoubted prowess as a musician. It is greatly to his credit that he raised the status of the post he held and also the quality of his joint college choir, which was described in one instance as the best in England.

He suffered from bouts of depression from which he consoled himself with wine, both of which may have been the cause of his untimely death. The D minor Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis date from late in his life and are said to have been rescued by a colleague from the waste paper basket, a most fortunate occurrence as they remain his most popular composition and are widely sung today. My copy of this music is in a booklet produced by the RSCM to be performed at evensong around the country for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Walmisley is there alongside Tye, Weelkes, Purcell, SS Wesley and Stanford as part of the RSCM’s “endeavour to see that the music represents the best of all periods of the English school of composition” – more contemporary works were to be included in the service at the Royal Albert Hall.

The Magnificat is interesting because it alternates strong unison passages with more gentle music for upper voices. It can be used as an opportunity to involve the congregation in singing the canticles. There’s one other thing to note about the piece: the last verse of the Magnificat, ‘He remembering his mercy’, is repeated, so those waiting for ‘and his seed for ever’ to stand for the Gloria should not get up until they hear it for a second time!

John Stainer

The anthem is I am Alpha and Omega by John Stainer, a work of which I had no prior knowledge, though there are several versions on YouTube, which suggests that it is not unknown elsewhere. The words, designated for Trinity-tide, are from Revelation Chapter 1 Verse 8, followed by the Sanctus, and the music is in two equivalent parts, each introduced by a solo voice. The copies from our choir library are well used and originated from St Ann’s Church Newcastle-on-Tyne. It would be interesting to know when it was last sung in Redbourn (are there any records of music sung in church records?). If these well travelled copies are the result of someone finding it impossible to throw music away, as I do, it is very welcome. It is impossible to be certain of future tastes, and I have written about the reassessment of Stainer before now. Walmisley told an unbelieving audience in Cambridge that JS Bach would come to be recognised as unparalleled as a composer!

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 as great for the brain as the fingers!

Damian Cranmer