Category Archives: Worship

Choral Matins: 19th August 2018

We are singing the second August Matins at St Mary’s in what I hope will become an annual event. It is sometimes possible, and I am guilty, to be pessimistic about Matins beyond the cathedrals of England. But in recent times, Isobel and I have attended matins at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, The Guards Chapel (with military band), the Temple Church, St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, St Peter’s in St Albans, and at St Mary’s. We have our eyes on Hampton Court and St James’ Palace. It’s no coincidence that Matins is more readily available in and near the capital where the professional choir set-up is a major influence.

So, it’s great to be singing another Matins in Redbourn; and the music is a celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Last month I was reflecting on the important work he did for the English Hymnal, and you may have noted him as one of the composers who reached, but did not pass, nine symphonies, in answer to the question I posed in a previous post. He is regarded as one of the quintessentially English composers, and his work covered every genre, hymn tunes, songs, chamber music, operas, symphonies and film music, and iconic works such as The Lark Ascending, the Sea Symphony and the Mass in G minor are among pieces which stand the test of time. His style was not entirely to everyone’s taste: Peter Warlock described his Pastoral Symphony as like “a cow looking over a gate”, and a one-time European colleague of mine commented that his music would have been better if it was all “on a theme by Thomas Tallis”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney, and this is the name that he gave to perhaps his most famous original hymn tune, intrinsically associated with the words ‘Come down, O love divine’. Appropriately in this VWfest, this is the first hymn in our service. It is one of the earliest that he wrote (c1905), and, of the 14 or so original tunes, the few that are in regular use are all early: ‘For all the saints’ and ‘Hail thee, festival day’ for instance. We sing the Te Deum and Jubilate from Vaughan Williams’ 1939 Service in D minor, “written for and dedicated to Dr CS Lang and his singers at Christ’s Hospital”. Craig Sellar Lang (1891-1971) was a New Zealander who was Director of Music at Christ’s Hospital from 1929 to 1945, when he retired to Cornwall to concentrate on composition. He edited the music for the Public School Hymn Book (1949), which included 18 of his own tunes, many with the names of Cornish towns, and over 20 descants to well known tunes. None of his music has found its way into HON, but some of the descants (like a dog, they aren’t only for Christmas!) deserve to be heard today. This is relevant because Vaughan Williams’ Service in D minor is very much a public school piece. As well as the usual four-part choir, there is an important and independent congregational part. A photograph on the school’s website of its chapel, with high and open space and inward-facing seating, prompts one to imagine the tremendous sound of perhaps more than 500 voices singing VW’s music. We may not have quite that number in August in Redbourn, but we intend to give the piece a good run for its money. As for the music, it’s not long before one recognises Vaughan Williams as the composer: the triple time with cross rhythms and flat 7ths are some of the features that show the influence of folk music and the English Tudors. The key changes easily from D minor to D major and F minor and the melodic line is fluent and singable.

The anthem is VW’s ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings’. The words of the first four verses of Psalm 84 are set to largely reflective music, before the mood changes and the last verse of Psalm 90 (“The glorious company of the Lord our God be upon us”) leads directly into the first verse of ‘O God, our help in ages past’. You could almost, but not quite, add Lang’s descant: the transposition would take the sopranos up to top C!

The closing voluntary for this service will be Vaughan Williams’ Prelude on the Welsh hymn tune ‘Hyfrydol’. (You have to ask a Welsh person how to pronounce this, but you can be sure it isn’t the obvious way!) We’ll sing this tune as our final hymn to the words ‘I will sing the wondrous story’. It is the most enduring of the many tunes written by Rev Roland Huw Pritchard (1811-1887), for some time minister in Bala. Hymn books vary in their noting of Vaughan Williams as the arranger of the tune. HON does, but English Hymnal doesn’t, for example. A quick look at the original on WIkipedia suggests that “tidying up” might be a better description of Vaughan Williams’ contribution.

Most of his arranged hymn tunes come from folk music, but it’s interesting that Vaughan Williams, who rejected much of English 19th century music, turned additionally to Celtic music of the time for inspiration.   The organ prelude is a straightforward setting with the tune in the top part and incorporating the repeat of the second part. But the tune is the only straightforward part of the piece. Everything else, and particularly the pedal part, goes at a much quicker pace and not always in the direction you might expect. A seat behind the organ would be instructive!

The responses are by Smith and the psalm is no.106 to a chant by Thomas Jackson of Newark (c1715-1781). Why are the chants often by people you’ve never heard of? Well I suppose it’s that short pieces – and chants are short pieces – are easier to write, and serious composers can’t always be bothered with short pieces, though there are some original ventures into chant-writing by Elgar and others.

Damian Cranmer

Baby Loss Service: Sunday 29th April, 6.30pm

Revd Tim writes:

When I first came to the village a few years ago, I remember a village tree was ‘yarnbombed’ to support Tommy’s – a charity which funds research into the causes of miscarriage, still birth and premature birth. This made an impact and I cut out the article and still have it. At the time Sophy had just given birth to Jem, but he was our third pregnancy. So this is an issue close to my heart. Since coming to Redbourn, holding a service for those of us who have lost children, at whatever stage and under whatever circumstances, was something I wanted to do.

Loss at any stage of pregnancy is traumatic. Early loss is often not acknowledged or discussed, with commemorative services seldom taking place. Services for babies who are stillborn or lost in early years, are usually conducted whilst parents are in a fog of grief and pain.

This service, to be held at St Mary’s, is for anyone who has never had the opportunity to grieve the loss of a child, as well as for their children and their extended family and friends, whether the loss be recent or historic. Additionally, anyone who is grieving the fact that they have never had children is also welcome.

All are welcome regardless of the type or circumstances of loss they have experienced. Whether you have been through early or late miscarriage, missed miscarriage, compassion induction, an ectopic or molar pregnancy, stillbirth, neonatal or early infant loss or any other type of baby or child loss.

If you need to say goodbye to a baby or to grieve, or you want to come along with a friend who needs to say goodbye, you are welcome. The service will give you the opportunity to stand with other people who ‘know’ the pain of losing a child, whatever the circumstances, and to offer you a time to publicly acknowledge and remember children who have been lost.

There will also be non-judgemental pastoral support available after the service for anyone who needs it.

Lord, we pray for those who mourn, for parents and children, friends and neighbours.

Be gentle with them in their grief.

Show them the depths of your love, a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

Spare them the torment of guilt and despair.

Be with them as they weep beside the empty tomb of our risen Saviour,

Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Music for Palm Sunday: The Way of the Cross, 25 March 6.30pm

Music plays a significant part in this service. ‘Ride on’ by Grayston Ives (b1948) was commissioned for the Ash Wednesday to Easter for Choirs volume (1998) in the comprehensive OUP series of albums of choral music for all seasons. Away from composing he is Bill Ives, former tenor in the King’s Singers and more recently director of the choir at Magdalen College, Oxford (actually Informator Choristarum). In this post he was responsible for the 2003 recording of the music of Orlando Gibbons (With a Merrie Noyse) which was one of the earliest recordings of Tudor music to explore the use of lower pitch and a choir with high tenors instead of altos. (See last month’s blog.) The words are those of the hymn (HON 435) by Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868), an interesting character whose biography on Wikipedia is well worth reading. The music follows the upbeat nature of the words with prominent use of a rising 5th until “in lowly pomp ride on to die” where all becomes much softer and the choir sings on one note to the end. The organ is independent of the choir throughout and is dominated by the rhythm – crotchet, dotted minim – perhaps illustrating the inevitability of what is to come.

And this is where O vos omnes (O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see: if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow) follows on. The text is an adaptation of Lamentations 1:12 of the Latin Vulgate Bible used as a responsary for Holy Week. If the English translation does not seem quite right, as it doesn’t to me, it’s probably because of familiarity with the King James version, which starts ‘Is it nothing to you’ and which has been set by Ouseley, and Stainer in The Crucifixion. O vos omnes (I wish my computer wouldn’t “correct” my Latin!) was set by almost anyone you can think of in the sixteenth century – and many more since. Our version is by someone you might not have thought of, Giovanni Croce (c1557-1609), a Venetian priest who wrote much music including a set of 4-part motets published in 1597, which almost certainly included this piece. It is simple in style, but effective in communicating the text. Croce was described in a contemporary report as “a reliable singer of moderate quality”. Some of us might be reasonably pleased with such a comment, but I’m not sure it was intended as a compliment at the time.

With The Reproaches by John Sanders (1933-2003) we have reached Good Friday. I wrote about this remarkable piece last year. The Latin Improperia have been in the liturgy since at least the ninth century, but were deleted from the English rite at the Reformation, only to be restored at a later point. If O vos omnes has been set by numerous composers, it is surprising that the Improperia have attracted few, only Palestrina and Victoria of the sixteenth century. Sanders’ setting, in English, has three refrains, two different settings of 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 form is that of a traditional responsary, such as Allegri’s Miserere, also linked inextricably with Lent, but the slow, languid and rich harmony, often in 8 parts, is more reminiscent of Gesualdo but with 20th-century twists. The penitential mood is set by the preponderance of minor chords: there are only three major chords in the piece. This results in tonally unrelated sequences, for example, G minor-B minor-F minor-A minor at “Holy is God”.

I’m interested in the derivation of hymn tune names, and here’s a bit of obscure pub quiz information. Sir Sydney Nicholson, of whom I wrote for February’s choral evensong, composed the tune to our first hymn ‘We sing the praise of him who died’ (HON 536) and called it Bow Brickhill, which is a village near Milton Keynes. All Saints’ church had a visit from Sir Sydney and the choristers of Westminster Abbey in 1923 and this tune honours that occasion. Also, fittingly, we sing two great chorale tunes used by Bach in his Passions, though sadly HON gives only one of Bach’s matchless harmonisations.

Jonathan plays us out to JS Bach’s Fantasia in G minor BWV542. The improvisatory opening, with all the interest in the right hand and chords beneath, alternates with more rhythmic and contrapuntal sections. Bach thought in such a linear way that even the introductions to his fugues contain fugal passages. Partly because of this, these introductions (fantasias, preludes, toccatas) can stand as complete pieces in their own right.

Damian Cranmer