Category Archives: Choral Evensong Blog

Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 7th May

There’s a book which I came across recently in which the author laments the different paths taken by secular classical music and church music in the twentieth century[1]. This is not the place to debate the issue, but there can be little doubt that church musicians have continued to write music which they felt filled the need, particularly, of the Anglican services. In the last three months I have written about Herbert Howells, Philip Radcliffe, John Sanders, Sydney Watson and Percy Whitlock, none of whom can be said to have made a major contribution to secular music, but whose church music remains part of the repertoire. So it is very welcome, and not surprising, that St Mary’s choir has several composers in the stalls, and we shall sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Kathy Goodchild at the next Evensong on 7th May.

I wrote about John Sanders last month in connection with ‘The Reproaches’. We’ll sing his responses on this occasion. They were written in 1983 to mark the centenary of the death of Richard Wagner. There is much use of the Dresden Amen with its characteristic motive of a rising scale, extensively used by Wagner in his opera Parsifal. This gives the music a very positive feel. I can’t remember whether Parsifal is a particularly positive opera – a bit of a marathon to find out!

The Psalm, no.29, is one in powerful praise of God who “commandeth the waters”, “ruleth the sea”, “breaketh the cedars of Libanus” , and finally “shall give his people the blessing of peace”. You can’t beat the Prayer Book Psalter in my view.

Thomas Attwood (c) Royal College of Music; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The chant is by Thomas Attwood, organist of St Paul’s in the early years of the nineteenth century. One of his anthems will probably turn up before long, but we can be certain that the D minor Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of his godson, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, will. Of the evening’s hymns, “In Christ there is no east or west” (HON 244) is a hymn by William Arthur Dunkerly, written under the pseudonym of John Oxenham some ten years after Kipling’s poem ‘East is east and west is west’, and seems to present a counter-argument. The tune is Kilmarnock by Niall Dougall. It’s always interesting to try to understand the naming of hymn tunes. Many, like this one, are place names and the Scottish Psalter gives us Dunfermline, Elgin, Caithness and Wigtown. The derivation of Down Ampney and Abbot’s Leigh are straightforward enough, but what was SS Wesley’s connection with Harewood, the tune for ‘Christ is our cornerstone’ (HON 77)?

The anthem by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead’, a setting of words from the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 24 verses 5-7. These are the words of the “two men .. in shining garments” who appeared to the women who first discovered the stone rolled away from Christ’s tomb, so highly relevant to this time of Easter. Stanford composed this work in about 1890, three years after he had been appointed Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge in addition to his post as Organist of Trinity College. This might have been quite enough for most people, but Stanford had been invited by George Grove (of music dictionary fame) to become involved with the Royal College of Music from its opening in 1883 as composition tutor and orchestral director.   It could be said that among his lesser known achievements was as teacher of many of the leading composers of the first half of the twentieth century, including Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland and Vaughan Williams. However, in attempting to get them to follow in his own Brahmsian tradition, Stanford seems to have ensured that they developed their own voice – success indeed. And then, of course, there was his own composition and conducting. Stanford’s compositions were not limited to the church music on which his reputation is mostly based today. A view that all is not necessarily lost for his other work can be found in The New Grove:his two last and arguably best operas, The Critic (1916) and The Travelling Companion (1919), had still not attracted the attention of professional opera companies by the mid-1990s.”

The voluntary is JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G BWV541. We might wonder about how Stanford achieved so much, but was Bach any less industrious? There are over 200 organ works alone. Most of the great Preludes and Fugues date, like this one, from his Weimar years. If you look at the score, the detail is extraordinary, but Bach blends all the elements into something that, to the listener, does not in any way seem contrived. Most importantly about this piece, it’s well worth postponing the next part of your evening for its seven or so minutes to hear Jonathan play it.

Damian Cranmer

[1] Martin Thomas: English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century

Choral Evensong Blog: Music for Palm Sunday and Easter Day

Two services this month, and neither on the first Sunday! April 9th is Palm Sunday and there is a special evening service, The Way of the Cross: Meditations in Word, Prayer and Music for the start of Holy Week. The music is worth some discussion. The following Sunday is, of course, Easter Day, and I am delighted that our choirmaster, Jonathan Goodchild, has put down Stainer in B flat for the canticles. It is this work that prompted me to start writing this column. It was quite a revelation (to me) when we sang it last summer, and I wondered how I had managed to miss it for over half a century. I think I may not have been alone, but more of that later.

For The Way of the Cross there are three choral items, one extended piece and two shorter ones. I wrote last month about Thomas Morley’s verse anthem, “Out of the Deep”: his Agnus Dei is on the list for this service. This piece is interesting from a number of points of view. It is a stand-alone work, not from a complete mass setting, and sets only the first sentence of the complete text – “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nostri.” You may notice that the last word is not the familiar “nobis”. I am unable to explain this, and I’m not even sure that I understand the Latin syntax. But all this may be related to the fact that the piece is a compositional example from Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music of 1597. It is written in the fluent contrapuntal style of Palestrina, and reflects Morley’s long interest in Italian music.

The other short piece is Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacob Handl (1550-1591), who was born in Slovenia and worked in Austria and Bohemia. Handl is almost certainly a German translation of his original name, it being a regular occurrence for composers who moved around to have their names transformed or translated. One thinks of Lassus (di Lasso) and Victoria (Vittoria), but also of the English composer who went to Italy as John Cooper and came back as Giovanni Coperario. (Q: who, if he had settled in England, might have been known as Claud Greenhill?) Handl was prolific and Ecce quomodo comes from his Opus musicum, a collection of 374 works in 4 to 24 parts. Compared with the contrapuntal Morley, where each part sings a version of the same melody in imitation, the Handl is chordal throughout, using harmony as its main expressive feature. The text is the 6th Responsary for Holy Saturday and is derived from Isaiah 57:1; “Behold how the just man dies, and nobody takes it to heart.” In the second part, words from Psalm 76 v2 are followed by a repeat of the ending of the first part.

The more substantial item is The Reproaches by John Sanders (1933-2003), who was organist at Gloucester Cathedral for many years from 1967, when he succeeded Herbert Sumsion. The Reproaches (Improperia) are part of the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy for Good Friday, but have been used in the Anglican church for some time. Sanders’ setting, in English, has two refrains, one from Micah 6:3, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” and the other “Holy is God, holy and strong, holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”, the text of a Greek hymn from the 5th century with references to the Sanctus (Isaiah 6:3 and/or Revelation 4:8). These multi-part refrains are contrasted with single-line plainsong verses, all in a two-part structure as in the first verse: “I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom; but you led your Saviour to the cross.” The treatment is highly reminiscent of Allegri’s Miserere, also linked inextricably with Lent, and Sanders also echoes the slow, languid and rich harmony with 20th-century twists. The penitential mood is set by the preponderance of minor chords, often in tonally unrelated sequences (eg G minor – B minor – F minor – A minor), and by the many suspensions.

Jonathan closes the service with Bach’s chorale prelude “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross” BWV622 (O man, bewail your great sins – no need in German for pc cleansing as ‘Mensch’ is all mankind, ‘Mann’ is the male). 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.

For Easter Day Evensong we have a set of Redbourn Responses by Ian Harrold, who was a lay-clerk at Gloucester Cathedral and a prolific composer: these responses are his op.142. They were written in “Hommage à Herbert Sumsion” (organist at Gloucester for 39 years until 1967) and “for Alan Godfrey, my erstwhile alto-in-arms” (hence the Redbourn of the title). The Lord’s Prayer is set and there is an elaborate final Amen. The anthem is “O sons and daughters let us sing” by Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941). Walford Davies studied at the Royal College of Music with both Stanford and Parry and was organist at the Temple Church for 21 years. This anthem is a good example of a style of composition prevalent in the early twentieth century, in which a traditional hymn tune is elaborated with new harmonies, descants and varied textures. Neither this tune, the French 17th century melody known as ‘O filii et filiae’, nor the words have made it into Hymns Old and New, but both are comparatively well known.

And so to Stainer (1840-1901). Poor old John Stainer! His reputation for almost the whole of the last century was as representative of all that was worst about Victorian sentimentality. It was fashionable to regard him as persona non grata, and I enthusiastically joined the fashion, based mostly on the idea that it was the right thing to do, allied to a very incomplete knowledge of his oratorio,The Crucifixion. The first chink in my armour was when I discovered that a chant I had admired for many years since hearing it on the BBC’s Choral Evensong was actually one of Stainer’s. And then, last summer, came this Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat. The work dates from 1884, well into Stainer’s time at St Paul’s, where he was instrumental in improving the standards of the music and widening the repertoire. He is later said to have regretted publishing his compositions as he knew they were “rubbish”, which perhaps gave the opportunity to those critics who were inclined to downgrade his reputation. Interestingly, Stanford, who was 12 years younger than Stainer, had already written his B flat service in 1879. Of the two, Stanford was more the composer and Stainer more the educator and church musician, but looking at the two services it does seem odd that Stanford’s is one of the most widely performed of all settings of the evening canticles, while Stainer’s is almost completely forgotten. It may be that the Stainer is less interesting rhythmically, more four-square and using traditional patterns – the shape of the phrases in many Magnificats is sufficiently similar for them to be identifiable without the words. So why should you come to hear it? Because it’s rare, and you might, like me, undergo some sort of conversion! The harmony is adventurous, juxtaposing the keys of D and B flat, and, in fact, the Magnificat begins in D in the organ before moving to the home key for the first choral entry. The fugue in the Magnificat Gloria has to be heard to be believed: entry after entry of “as it was, it was in the beginning” is piled up until the sopranos can resist no longer and come in on a top B flat! Satisfyingly, the Amen recalls the opening of the movement now in the home key of B flat.

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 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