Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

Choral Evensong for Harvest: Sunday 6th October, 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.

After a two-month break from choral evensong, we return on the first Sunday in October for our Harvest Festival.

Percy Whitlock

The canticles are the setting by Percy Whitlock, of whom I’ve written on a number of occasions, but I don’t believe that I’ve mentioned before that he was an avid railway enthusiast and, according to Music Web International, wrote “a monograph on the steam locomotives of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway”.  (He was not the only musician to be so enthused: Dvořák, when he should have been in the Town Hall overseeing the preparation of his new Requiem for the 1891 Birmingham Triennial Festival, was found in the depths of Snow Hill Station.)  Whitlock’s canticles were published in 1930 and come at the end of the period when settings had to be described by their key.  Whitlock’s Mag looks and sounds as if it’s in B minor, but it rarely stays put for long in any key.  The Gloria appears set for a return to this tonic, but suddenly in the last six bars it diverts to D major.  There is little word repetition and only occasional passages of counterpoint, but the melodic line is carefully considered and effective in its treatment of the words.  There are solo passages for soprano in the Magnificat and bass in the Nunc Dimittis.

Caleb Simper

When I first heard that our anthem was to be Simper’s “Sing forth his praise”, I said that I had never heard of Simper.  But I am reliably informed that we sang this piece less than 10 years ago.  150 years ago you wouldn’t have said you’d never heard of Simper: his publisher proudly proclaimed that his music was sung throughout the civilised world!  Caleb Simper (how could you possibly forget this name?) was born in Wiltshire in 1856.  He moved to Worcester where he worked in the Elgar music shop in addition to duties as organist at the church of St Mary Magdalene.  By the end of the century he had moved as organist for another St Mary Magdalene, to Barnstaple, where he remained for the rest of his life.  He died in 1942.  He wrote a large amount of music and much of it was published, never greatly rated by the critics but finding a niche in the work of the average parish church.  “Sing forth his praise” was published in 1921 and the front cover was already describing Simper as ‘Late organist…’, suggesting that by then he had already retired from his church duties, though almost certainly not from composing.  The piece is a harvest anthem with words gathered from four different sources.  Oddly, ‘Sing forth his praise’ is never sung: we have ‘Sing forth the honour of his name’ (Ps 66 v2), ‘He giveth food to all flesh’ (Ps 136 v25), ‘He gives us rain’ (Acts 14 v17) and ‘O praise the name of the Lord’ (Ps 148 v13).  The idiom is fairly traditional and, unlike the Whitlock, the harmony rarely strays from the home key. 

We sing again the responses by Richard Ayleward in the version elaborated for our own choir. The psalm for the evening is Ps 100, the Jubilate, which we sing to a chant by William Savage (1720-1789), at one time master of the choristers at St Paul’s in London, but who has a greater claim to fame as a singer, treble, counter-tenor and bass, in several of the major works of Handel. (If you put ‘Savage chant’ into Google, as I did, you get directed to the more vicious utterings of football hooligans!)  To my mind it’s not the greatest of chants, being merely a harmonisation of a downward scale in the bass part.  But, at only four verses, Ps 100 is not a bad place for it!  We can hope for the usual selection of great harvest hymns.

The voluntary is the Prelude and Fugue in C BWV547 by JS Bach.  The Prelude is dominated by the upward scale, divided into 3 groups of 3 notes, heard in the right hand in bar 1 and followed by the left hand in bar 2.  This pattern follows, possibly directs, the music through all the expected keys – G, Ami, Dmi, F – but there is also a semiquaver countersubject which makes it vital that you don’t start too quickly.  I’ve never played this piece, and I was surprised to find in my copy a pencil direction for the player to pull out the pedal trombone at the beginning of the fugue – surely too early.  But the point is that you have to wait until quite near the end of the piece for the pedal to enter, by which time the need for a forceful reed stop has been established.  And it’s not long after this that the pedal comes to rest on bottom C and invites the manuals to cease their conversation and resolve into the home key.  By the way, did you hear the suggestion that the G7 Conference should be followed by a C major Conference for resolution?  Bach had the answer centuries ago!

Damian Cranmer

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