'Followers of this repertoire should certainly not hesitate' (Classic CD)
'Hill and the Winchester Choir are superb. The choral tone is luscious, the discipline outstanding, the recording captures the sumptuous acoustics of the cathedral without blurring the musical details, and the performances are vivid and exciting yet carefully nuanced' (American Record Guide)
'Superb performances, supremely fine singing, magnificently directed. A delight for Stanford lovers' (Organists' Review)
'This disc is a real gem' (Cathedral Music)
'Exemplary performances' (American Record Guide)
This is the second disc in our three-disc survey of the sacred choral music of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and concentrates on music composed between the years of 1902 and 1911. Central to the disc are the Six Bible Songs, solo motets here shared between baritone William Kendall and treble Kenan Burrows. The Songs are presented together with the full-choir anthems which Stanford couples with each song; these are short chorale-like works of an endearing simplicity.
The disc begins with the famous Evening Service in G (the one with the treble solo in the Magnificat and the bass in the Nunc dimittis) and is neatly rounded off with the joyous Morning Service in C.
Stanford’s resignation as organist and choirmaster at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the end of 1892 signalled the end of his days as a practising church musician. His decision to curtail his work at Trinity had largely been precipitated by an increasing need to be in London. Not only were his responsibilities at the Royal College of Music—teaching composition, conducting the orchestra and spearheading the College’s annual opera productions—ever more time-consuming, but there were other major distractions such as the direction of The Bach Choir and, most importantly, the pursuance of his career as a composer. For one more year he continued his link with the Cambridge University Musical Society in order to oversee the Society’s ambitious Silver Jubilee (in which Tchaikovsky, Boito, Saint-Saëns and Bruch all participated as either performer or conductor), but thereafter his one connection with the University was as Professor of Music, a position he retained until his death in 1924.
In London Stanford leased a sizeable property at 50 Holland Street, Kensington. It was ideally positioned, not far from the RCM and yet distant enough from the bustle and noise of the city to allow creative work to flourish. Stanford’s time at Holland Street (1893–1916) was very probably his most fertile period, perhaps reflecting a time of inner contentedness amid a life of frenetic activity. During the 1890s in particular he completed his Fifth Symphony, Op 56 (arguably his finest symphonic work), his Piano Concerto No 1, Op 59, the splendid Requiem, Op 63 (for Birmingham), three operas—Lorenza, Op 55, Shamus O’Brien, Op 61, and Christopher Patch, Op 69 (of which only Shamus O’Brien was performed but to great acclaim and widespread popularity in Britain, Ireland and the United States)—the Te Deum, Op 66, the Concert Variations on ‘Down among the dead men’, Op 71, and the Violin Concerto No 1, Op 74, written for his RCM colleague, Enrique Arbos. There were also numerous chamber works, many songs, part-songs (including the admirable Tennyson cycle for solo quartet, Op 68) and sets of arrangements of Irish melodies.
Only once during this period did Stanford turn his attention to the composition of liturgical music when, probably at the behest of Novello, he decided to supplement his Evening Service in A, Op 12, with settings of the Morning Canticles and the Ordinary of the Communion. These parts were published in 1895, but no other church music came from his pen until after the death of Queen Victoria.
The initial impetus came with the Coronation of Edward VII in August 1902 when, on being asked to provide a work for the service in Westminster Abbey, he orchestrated his already well-known Te Deum from the Service in B flat, Op 10 (doing the same for the rest of the Service the following year). In October 1902, within months of the Te Deum’s performance, Stanford had completed his Morning, Communion and Evening Service in G, Op 81, his fourth major setting. Dedicated to another of his RCM colleagues, Sir George C Martin, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Service in G looks back to the symphonic and cyclic paradigm of the Service in B flat, Op 10, though Stanford’s structural approach here is broader and tonally more wide-ranging than in its predecessor. The entire Service contains much fine music, but it is the Evening Canticles that have enjoyed enduring approbation, owing principally to the lyrical exuberance of the soloistic writing. In fact, beyond the seamless developmental process so characteristic of Stanford’s mature church music, it is the adoption of a lieder-orientated style—to match the ‘songs’ of Mary and Simeon—that is the miracle of these two enchanting movements.
In the Magnificat Stanford’s organ accompaniment immediately recalls the imagery of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, but it is Mary, with her exultant song (rather than Gretchen’s one of romantic longing) at the Annunciation, who is placed at the spinning-wheel. Throughout the movement (in effect a deliciously gentle scherzo) the form is punctuated by the treble’s joyous top G (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’; ‘For he that is mighty’; ‘and hath exalted’; ‘As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham’) while a secondary motif (‘And my spirit hath rejoiced’), itself related to the opening phrase, is deployed as a concluding idea to both the first and last paragraphs (‘and holy is his name’; ‘for ever’). In addition to the admixture of phraseological and lyrical sophistication, Stanford brings an effortless sense of control to the tonal structure. The deft manner in which the music hovers on the dominant of E (‘And his mercy is on them’), avoids the platitude of the cadence (‘He hath filled the hungry with good things’) and strays yet further to the Neapolitan (‘his servant Israel’) only to recover to the tonic with consummate ease, demonstrates just how skilfully he had adapted those elements of Brahmsian instrumental technique for liturgical use.
The Nunc dimittis, taken by a solo bass, is composed around the seminal phrase ‘depart in peace’ heard at the opening on the organ. This motif is developed in the central section in combination with a new idea (‘To be a light’) before returning as the core of the choir’s hushed unison recapitulation (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant’). The Gloria begins by reworking corresponding material from the Magnificat (itself drawn from the opening of the Te Deum), but any sense of a more muscular conclusion is dissipated by a return to tranquillity, first in the succession of wilting, valedictory phrases (‘world without end’) and secondly in the final ‘Amen’ which recalls the central motive of the Nunc dimittis one last time.
Just as Stanford wished to bring the idiom of song to the Evening Canticles, so did he also experiment with the notion of song as a sacred genre. In moving one step beyond Dvorák’s Biblical Songs, Op 99, for voice and piano (published in 1895), Stanford’s six Bible Songs, Op 113 (first performed by his fellow Irishman and future biographer, Harry Plunket Greene), for voice and organ, are designed principally for the church rather than the concert room. The more ambitious solo ‘verses’ in S S Wesley’s anthems (one thinks particularly of ‘Thou, O Lord God, art a thing that I long for’ from Let us lift up our heart) spring to mind as a precedent and it was repertoire Stanford both knew well and greatly admired, but the more elaborate conception of the organ part (which has more in common with his orchestral songs) together with the scale of gesture and tonal organization tend to suggest the idea of a miniature cantata rather than a song. As if to reinforce this cantata-like impression, Stanford composed a set of Six Hymns (sometimes known as ‘short anthems’, published by Stainer & Bell in 1910) which could be individually appended to each song. Based on well-known hymns of the day (in a manner often deployed by others such as Charles Wood and Basil Harwood), their intention, in an almost Lutheran, not to say Bachian, manner, was to comment theologically on the scriptural meditation of the preceding song whose theme is made explicit in the title. The general texture of the organ accompaniment is also derived from the material of the song which can be heard clearly in the interludes between verses.
A Song of Freedom, a setting of Psalm 126, tells of the Jews’ return out of captivity, praying for and prophesying future prosperity. From the Psalm’s six-verse structure Stanford constructs two strophes which end with the same refrain, ‘whereof we rejoice’. The song is concluded with the first two verses of John Milton’s Let us with a gladsome mind to the anonymous tune ‘Monkland’, a hymn that affirms the faithfulness of God in its two-line refrain ‘For his mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure’.
Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’), which talks of the security of the godly who put their trust in God’s protection, forms the basis of A Song of Trust. Constructed in two distinct sections, the first part of the song in 9/8 evokes a pastoral atmosphere while the second (‘The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil’) is marked ‘Quasi arioso’, is hymn-like in its simple phraseology and is used as the accompaniment for Purest and highest. For this short anthem the words are taken from Robert Bridges’ translation of the Latin hymn ‘Amor Patris et Filii’ in his Yattendon Hymn-Book (No 28); the tune is Orlando Gibbons’ Song 22 on which Stanford had also founded his Prelude No 2 of the second set of Six Short Preludes and Postludes, Op 105, completed in February 1908.
The greatest pathos is reserved for A Song of Hope, an appropriately dark setting of Psalm 130 (‘Out of the deep have I called’), where the Psalmist in distress professes his hope in God and exhorts Israel to do the same. Perhaps sensing its greater emotionalism, Stanford also orchestrated the song for strings and organ, though this arrangement remains unpublished. From this darker atmosphere emerge the comforting strains of In thee is gladness, the words of Ludwig M Lindemann and the tune by G G da Caravaggio (1591).
The prophetic Messianic text of Isaiah Chapter 11 (‘There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse’—made famous as the Fourth Lesson of the Christmas Service of Nine Lessons and Carols) is used for A Song of Peace, a sonata structure in which Stanford symbolically introduces the tune ‘Veni Emmanuel’ as the second-group idea. The same material subsequently permeates Pray that Jerusalem, the melody taken from Playford’s Psalms (1671) and the words from the Scottish Psalter.
The opening thematic idea for A Song of Battle recalls similar material from the Finale of the Fifth Symphony and Prelude No 6 of the Six Short Preludes and Postludes, Op 105. Stanford’s organization of Psalm 124 is, as with A Song of Freedom, in two strophes with a coda (‘Our soul is escaped’) in the tonic major, and it is this latter material in the major mode that underpins Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the tune of which is from Praxis pietatis melica (1668) and the words from Neander’s hymn.
The text of A Song of Wisdom is, perhaps not surprisingly, taken from the book of Ecclesiasticus (Chapter 24), the most extensive portion of Israelite wisdom literature in the Bible. Here, as a conclusion to the six songs (if they are to be construed as such), is a poetical discourse on the virtue of wisdom and the Lord as its bountiful source. Stanford’s textual adaptation gives a freedom to his through-composed musical design: an opening paragraph is framed in E flat major (‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High’), after which a more tonally dissolute section (‘And I took root in a people that was glorified’—verses 12 to 17) leads to the climax of a top B flat (‘Come unto me, ye that are desirous’—verse 19). In the third section the growth of the stream to a river, and the river to a sea, aptly mirrored in the imagery of the organ accompaniment, is likened to the limitless bounds of wisdom. The last eleven bars recapitulate the first two lines of text, though this time the mood is one of triumphant acclamation. The last of the ‘Hymns’, O for a closer walk with God, taken from the Scottish Psalter (1635) with words by William Cowper, is the most original of the six. Using three verses (1, 3 and 5) from the original five, Stanford constructs a fantasia around the melody in which the diversification of harmony, phrase-length, register and counterpoint becomes increasingly intricate. This is especially delectable in the last verse where the words ‘Calm and serene my frame’ are set to what must be one of Stanford’s most enchanting phrases.
The Service in C, Op 115 (published by Stainer & Bell in 1909), was Stanford’s last major setting of the Morning, Communion and Evening Canticles (there is a later unison setting in D major published by OUP in 1923 but this is, by comparison, of much slighter substance). It is also without doubt his most cohesive attempt in terms of thematic concentration and cyclic unity. The Te Deum introduces what are the three most important thematic germs of the entire Service: the first, an idea (‘We praise thee, O God’) that rises and falls conjunctly through a tetrachord (1); the second, a figure (‘The glorious company of the apostles’) marked ‘Alla marcia’ (2) in E flat that emulates the motion of (1); a third idea (3) forms the accompaniment to a section in A (‘When thou tookest upon thee’). The form of the Te Deum is also tightly knit in terms of tonal and thematic interaction. The first major paragraph, in C major, is ternary in design and the material of (1) frames a central presentation of (2) in E flat. A secondary paragraph, using (3), contrasts in A. This yields to a third section in E flat (‘We therefore pray thee’) where a new lyrical idea is initiated by the trebles. The tonal centre of E flat conveniently leads to a restatement of (2) but quickly this gives way, first to an allusion to A minor (‘O Lord, have mercy upon us’) and then to an expansive recapitulation of (1) as the final affirmation of faith.
The scherzo-like Jubilate has an ABA design in which the A sections are based on a broken arpeggio figure (‘O be joyful’). The whole movement is, however, virtually monothematic in its deployment of figure (3) from the Te Deum. The Benedictus is more thematically independent from the Te Deum but nevertheless bears a strong allusion through the tonal organization (C/E flat) of its two abundantly lyrical ideas. The character of a fanfare is assigned to the concluding Gloria (which shows an inventive use of the juxtaposition of root position chords) which also deploys the material of (1), first fragmented (‘world without end’) and finally as a whole (‘Amen’) in the last ecstatic utterance.
Jeremy Dibble © 1998