Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

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

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 3rd March, 6.30pm

A blog about the history, composers and background to the music for our forthcoming services of Choral Evensong, by Damian Cranmer:

St George’s Church, Norton, Letchworth Garden City

In the return of last summer’s exchange, we will be joined for this service by the choir of St George’s, Norton, in Letchworth Garden City, so a warm welcome to them.

In any discussion of music for choral evensong, it’s never long before Stanford crops up. I’m not sure that he would be entirely happy that his reputation nearly 100 years after his death depended almost exclusively on his Anglican church music.

While there might be many composers who would be delighted to have such a strong continuing presence in any field, Stanford was always keen to be known in an international context, and anglican church music would not provide such a reputation. I thought of this when reading the obituary for John Joubert, who died in January, the headline describing him as the composer of ‘Torches’. Well, he was, and a jolly good piece it is too, but the composer of five operas, three symphonies and much other music deserves wider recognition for his more substantial music. Though having said that, I once had a discussion with a colleague about whether music had to be substantial to be considered great.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Anyway, crop up Stanford has, and it’s his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat that we’ll be singing with our friends from St George’s. The B flat may not have the grandeur of the setting in C, or the stature of the A, or the originality of the G, but, as the first attempt at canticle writing by a 27-year-old, it is remarkable, and it’s the one that everyone knows. For 140 years (exactly!) choirs from cathedral and parish church alike have sung this piece regularly. In 1883, four years after its composition, it was sung 12 times in Christ Church, Oxford. So why does it have a history different from the contemporary canticles of Stainer, Charles Lloyd, George Garrett and even Parry?

Its broad appeal comes inevitably from its singability. It has memorable themes with easy flowing lines, not too much counterpoint and a helpfully supportive organ part. But it is the almost symphonic approach to key and structure that makes the music so satisfying for both singers and listeners. In the Magnificat, the triple-time music of the opening returns for the Gloria, but you have to look to see this, so well is the music fitted to the new words. And the middle section, now in duple time and the subdominant key of E flat, but straying to C minor and A flat, develops its own material, giving the piece a ternary structure. The Nunc Dimittis is set mostly for unison men’s voices, but sends the tenors up to a sustained top G at ‘and to be the glo-ry’. The Gloria, different from the Magnificat is a wonderfully measured conclusion marked ‘with dignity’. Both Glorias end with a version of the Dresden Amen. I wrote about this Amen in relation to John Sanders’ responses which were written in 1983 to mark the centenary of the death of Richard Wagner who used it extensively in his opera Parsifal. Unfortunately there’s no great story about its birth or name: it was written by JG Naumann for the royal court in Dresden, but its fame has been secured by the many composers, such as Mendelssohn in his Reformation Symphony, who have adopted it.

Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877 – 1950)

The anthem is Evening Hymn by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950). It is a setting of the Latin office hymn for compline,’Te lucis ante terminum’ (a favourite of 16th century composers such as Tallis and Byrd), with alternative English words beginning ‘Thee, Lord, before the close of day’. It was written during a brief spell that the composer spent teaching at Winchester College. The organ plays an important role in setting the scene for the three verses, of which the second is contrasted. Balfour Gardiner, as he is generally known, was a man of private means which he used to support music and musicians most generously. His own composition, much of which he destroyed, ceased in the mid-1920s and, thereafter, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, “he devoted himself to a pioneering afforestation programme on his Dorset pig farm.”

For the responses, we give a second outing to the reconstructed Gibbons setting that was first heard last month.

Percy Whitlock

The closing voluntary is Toccata, the fifth and last movement from the Plymouth Suite by Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) who features quite regularly in our programmes. Each of the movements remembers a different organist, and the H.M. of the Toccata is Dr. Harold (Harry) George Moreton (1864-1961) who was organist of St Andrew’s, Plymouth, from 1885 to 1958! Whitlock held organist posts in Rochester and Bournemouth, where he was also municipal organist at the Pavilion. The Plymouth Suite dates from 1937 – after only 52 years at St Andrew’s, Moreton was probably in his prime. The Toccata, as toccatas do, has a non-stop fast semiquaver pattern which moves between the hands, against which a solo tune comes in various guises. The speed relaxes only at the very end, where some rather splendid chords bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Damian Cranmer