Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

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

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 6th May 2018

The psalm appointed for this evening is Ps 45, which begins ‘My heart is inditing of a good matter.’ These words have been set by Purcell, and also by Handel as one of the four anthems he wrote for the coronation of George II in 1727. (The most famous is, of course, Zadok the priest.) Verse 10 of this psalm has the memorable words, also set by Handel, ‘Kings’ daughters were among thy honourable women: upon thy right hand did stand the queen in a vesture of gold.’

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis will be sung to Harris in A minor. This is a companion piece to Harris in A which we sang last year. The copies we use are from the St Albans Diocesan Choir Festival of 1964. Both settings are in the “short service” idiom; they contain limited word repetition and little counterpoint, which does make them short, but makes the words come through the texture clearly. Harris cleverly achieves musical unity by adapting the opening phrases to new words as the music progresses. The time-signature is a simple 4/4, but Harris follows the metre of the words and we have bars of six and, more occasionally, five and seven beats.

The anthem is ‘Surgens Jesus’ by Peter Philips (c1560-1628), an English composer who because of retaining his catholic faith fled to Holland. One source that I saw gave the text as that of Responsary 8 for Low Sunday in the Roman rite. There is an equivalence in the Anglican rite with the Gospel for Low Sunday, St John chapter 20 vv 19-20. “[Then] came Jesus and stood in the midst [of the disciples] and saith unto them, Peace be unto you…[alleluia]. Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord. [alleluia]” Philips was especially fond of setting responsary texts because the responds, in this case the alleluias, enabled him to repeat earlier music and make a satisfying musical shape – A (text) – B (alleluia) – C (different text)- B (same alleluia). In ‘Surgens Jesus’ the two text sections are set very differently. The first is in typical renaissance imitative style with word painting (rising five-note pattern for surgens); the words of Jesus, pax vobis, are set in very slow chords. The second text section, gavisi sunt, is largely chordal in quicker triple time.

The voluntary is Altro recercar by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643). Frescobaldi was one of the greatest keyboard composers of the early seventeenth century and perhaps the first to be known mainly for his keyboard works. Altro recercar comes from Frescobaldi’s last newly composed publication, the fiori musicali published in Venice in 1635. The pieces in this publication are written for liturgical use in the mass, but use the standard keyboard forms of the day: toccata, canzona, capriccio and ricercar. By Frescobaldi’s time the ricercar had become a highly imitative piece and is in many ways the ancestor of the fugue. The altro recercar introduces three different themes which are combined in the final section.

Easter Evensong 2018

And now a full-time report on music listings at English Cathedrals at Evensong on Easter Day. The question was whether Stanford continued to hold sway for settings of the canticles at celebratory evensongs. Well, he does: 13 of the 44 cathedrals used his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings and his nearest rival was Herbert Howells with 9. Between them they accounted for half the settings sung on this day. George Dyson (6), Charles Wood (5) and William Walton (2) were the only others with more than one listing. On individual settings Stanford also was predominant. His setting in A was listed 10 times, ahead of Dyson in D (6), and the Collegium Regale settings by Howells and Wood in F (3 each). If “Coll Reg” these days is inextricably linked with Howells, it should be noted that the Wood setting dedicated to King’s College, Cambridge is 40 years earlier and, judging from this Easter Day, has not been overtaken by Howells.

The survey has identified 20 canticle settings by 13 composers. 17 of these pieces were written by 10 of the composers in the hundred years from 1875 and Henry Smart’s setting can be only 25 years or so earlier. It seems that a powerful setting with independent organ part is what is wanted. The other two settings come from the years after the Restoration by Michael Wise and Henry Purcell. So nothing from the Renaissance and nothing from the last 40 years; and only three composers born in the 20th century, William Walton, Kenneth Leighton and William Mathias.

The anthems show a more varied range. There are works by Byrd, Gibbons and Weelkes of early composers and more recent compositions by Jonathan Dove, Richard Shephard and Matthew Owens, as well as traditional favourites. Six cathedrals programmed Wesley’s “Blessed be the God and Father”, four “Worthy is the Lamb” from Messiah, and three Byrd’s “Haec dies”. This is much as you would expect, but it is not entirely fair because other anthems were sung at morning services.

Neither is it quite fair to talk about Matins because of the accent on communion services on Easter morning, but I’m going to. Only 13 of the 44 cathedrals had a choral Matins on Easter Day and seven of them sang a Stanford Te Deum (5 Bbs and 2 Cs). Walton’s Jubilate came up three times, Britten twice (what a shame he didn’t write a Mag and Nunc), and Ireland and Vaughan Williams also twice. We went to St Peter’s where they did Stanford in B flat and jolly good it was too! So Stanford’s position is confirmed: he is the go-to composer for celebratory canticles.

So what is my reaction to this? I’m not at all surprised by the dominance of Stanford and Howells, but it is interesting that Dyson in D holds its place so well and I’m delighted that Wood continues to feature. But where are the new pieces? Is the divide between concert and church music becoming wider? And if it is, are congregations more conservative than audiences? It all comes down to the place of music in worship, but it’s important that the best composers are encouraged to write for the church.

Anyone who is not completely turned off by the “anorak” nature of all this can get a list of the full result from me.

Damian Cranmer