Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 5th March 2017

March Choral Evensong at St Mary’s provides another great opportunity for Jonathan Goodchild to use the chamber organ, with its limited but pure sounds – no feet (Jonathan, not the organ) and no electronics (the organ, not Jonathan): in fact everything is mechanical except the external blower.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis will be from the 2nd service of Orlando Gibbons. Gibbons (1583-1625) was one of the youngest of the “Tudor” composers and most of his music was written in the seventeenth century. He was a fine keyboard player as indicated by a report of an official visit of the French Ambassador to Westminster Abbey in 1624: at the entrance, “the organ was touched by the best finger of that age, Mr Orlando Gibbons.As a composer, Gibbons brought new ideas in form, and his music always seems to have a sense of direction. In particular, he developed the earlier style of “verse” composition into one where different combinations of solo parts alternate with sections for the full choir, and the music has greater continuity. His 2nd service is one of the greatest of all settings of this type of composition; some might say it ranks among the finest of all settings of the evening canticles.

After the organ introduction, the early verses proceed smoothly enough (“My soul doth magnify”, alto and tenor: “For behold”, two sopranos and tenor: “And his mercy”, two sopranos), but then Gibbons really winds the music up at “He hath showed strength”, two altos and two tenors, where the imitation between the voices paints a vivid picture of the “scattering of the proud”. The mighty are then put down, appropriately enough, by two basses. And so the music continues before being brought to rest by the most exquisite and languid “Amen”. The verses in the Nunc Dimittis are for two sopranos: the Gloria is different from the Magnificat but concludes with same Amen.

The anthem is ‘Out of the deep’ by Thomas Morley (1557-1603). Morley lived not much longer than Gibbons, but a generation before him. His treatise A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke of 1597 is a comprehensive instruction manual for composers and one of the earliest in the English language. He was also largely responsible for the vogue for English madrigals in the 30 years from about 1590. (Does anyone sing madrigals these days?) Among his own best known works are ‘Now is the month of maying’ and ‘Fire, fire’, but his two- and three-part canzonets have been used by generations of musicians as counterpoint exercises.

It is particularly interesting to hear ‘Out of the deep’ alongside Gibbons’ 2nd service, because the Morley represents the earlier form of verse writing, as found in the works of his teacher, William Byrd. Here there is only one solo voice throughout, alto, possibly the voice Morley himself sang at St Paul’s. Solo and chorus alternate four times; the choir writing is mostly chordal, and the music is more sectional and the mood more static than in the Gibbons. Morley also knew how to write a fine and conclusive Amen. The words of the anthem are the familiar ones of the Prayer Book version of Psalm 130.

philip-radcliffeThe responses will be the setting by Philip Radcliffe which we sang in February. Evensong is one service where the tradition of singing psalms to Anglican chants is kept alive. The origins of this type of chant go back to the the time of Gibbons and Morley. There are two psalm settings by Gibbons in the form of repeating music to each verse of the psalm; the two parts of Psalm 145 were among the early recordings of King’s College choir under Boris Ord (1956) and David Willcocks (1959). In Tudor and Jacobean times the patterns were more elaborate and the music was fully written out. Tonight we sing Psalm 50 to a chant by Rev Phocion Henley (1728-1764) who was Rector of St Andrew’s-by-the-Wardrobe with St Anne’s, Blackfriars. This chant comes from:

Divine harmony: being a collection of psalm-tunes, in three, four, and five, parts, composed by the  late Rev. Phocion Henley, M.A. and the late Rev. Thomas Sharp, M.A.

[available in 2017 on Amazon for $15.75 –  evidence of what you can buy these days]

It’s quite a good chant, but “divine harmony” seems to me to be overstepping the mark. I don’t have the hymn list for March as I write, but you have to be careful about Welsh hymns during the Six Nations Rugby Championship. I have had cause to remonstrate in the past with vicars who scheduled ‘Guide me, O thou great redeemer’ the day after Wales had beaten England – again! Rev Will Gibbs managed to avoid my censure this year by putting it on after Wales had beaten Italy. It is a great hymn (Welsh composers were good at avoiding the sentimental excesses of the English Victorians), but there are times and places!

stopsBack to Gibbons for the voluntary, Fantasia in A minor (Musica Britannica vol XX no.10), which is a good example of the shape that Gibbons brought to his music. A long imitation point on a theme with decreasing note-lengths leads to a section with semiquaver scale passages in alternating hands. Do we still think they played this without using their thumbs?

Damian Cranmer

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 5th February, 6.30pm

Choral Evensong is back at St Mary’s after the Christmas carol service season. The next service is on Sunday 5th February at 6.30pm.

philip-radcliffeFor the responses we continue to explore settings written in the last century with those by Philip Radcliffe (1905-1986), who went to King’s College, Cambridge as an undergraduate, was appointed a Fellow in 1931 and pretty well never left. He was primarily a teacher and critic but was an enthusiastic composer, whose style was described in The Times obituary as ‘Vaughan-Brahms’. His responses were written between Good Friday and Easter Day in 1972 for Edington – flash of inspiration, last minute activity or well in advance of commission for annual August Festival? They include a full Gloria and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis will be sung to Watson in E. Sydney Watson (1903-1991) was organ scholar at Keble College (1922-5) and organist at New College (1933-8). Either side of these he held several teaching posts before being appointed Precentor (effectively Director of Music) at Eton College in 1946. He returned to Oxford in 1955 as organist of Christ Church Cathedral. It gave him a certain pleasure to have made the journey from Eton to Christ Church in the reverse direction from Charles Lloyd in the 1890s and Henry Ley in the 1920s. A major development of his time was the introduction of choral scholars in 1960 as the six lay clerks who had 150 years’ service between them came towards retirement. He broadened the repertoire introducing more Byrd and Britten, and explored the masses of Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria. He was a man with an infectious sense of humour, often using his stutter without embarrassment to confuse his listener. His eyes would twinkle as he described this Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis as “Me in E”, and I once saw him close one of the stops on the organ with his nose, almost certainly purely for the benefit of his audience.

Watson was more of a performer than a composer, but he continued the tradition of cathedral organists in adding a few of his own works to the repertoire. Among others still sung today are the evening canticles in E flat for trebles alone and the motet ‘O most merciful’. The setting in E was written for New College in the mid 1930s. On the page, it looks deceptively easy and, with almost no word repetition, it is one of the shorter works of this type. But it has much variety of texture from simple unison lines to divisi tenors and basses and full choir with strong organ support. The harmony is inventive.

percy-whitlockThe anthem is to be Whitlock’s “Be still, my soul”. Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) held organist posts in Rochester and Bournemouth, where he was also municipal organist at the Pavilion: we heard his rousing Paean in October. This anthem is much more restrained. It was published in 1930, suggesting that it comes from his Rochester period. The three verses proceed with organ interludes and a setting of the words which makes for easy understanding. These words are not those of HON 54 (Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side) which we sing to Sibelius’s memorable theme from Finlandia, but are a poem by WD Maclagan (Be still, my soul, for God is near; the great high priest is with thee now). William Dalrymple Maclagan (1826-1910) was archbishop of York from 1891 to 1908, and as such crowned Queen Alexandra at the 1902 coronation.

max-regerWhenever Jonathan Goodchild thinks of Reger, he is reminded of the story of a notice said to have appeared in the Abbey during the organ festival which read “Please God, no more Reger”; nevertheless he’s giving us some! Max Reger (1873-1916) was a gifted pianist and organist who composed a huge amount of music in a relatively short time. His style fuses the chromaticism of the late nineteenth century with the German tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, and particularly the counterpoint of JS Bach. The voluntary for this choral evensong is the Passacaglia in D minor and a fine piece it is to end the service. It would be easy to get worked up about the difference between passacaglia, ground bass and chaconne. They all use recurring patterns, but a chaconne is composed on a repeating chord sequence, while the other two are thematic. The greatest of all ground bass composers, Henry Purcell, wrote a melody over the bass which drew the attention away from the bass; Dido’s Lament is a fine example. With passacaglia, you’re supposed to follow the line throughout. Reger’s Passacaglia is modelled very closely on Bach’s great work in C minor: it has the same rhythmic pattern, the same length of phrase, and the same overall shape. We hear the theme first on the pedals, and it remains there for the following 12 variations, in which the excitement is gradually built up by quicker note values in the upper parts, more complex harmony and, of course, a controlled crescendo. In the last variation, the music moves into the major key.

Damian Cranmer