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Hyperion Records

CDA67503 - Vaughan Williams & Bingham: Mass

Recording details: July 2005
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: May 2005
Total duration: 78 minutes 49 seconds

'As is only to be expected from its past record, the Choir of Westminster Cathedral brings tonal richness and a superb musicality to its performances of these works. The solos sound as confident from the trebles as from the men, and one can almost smell the incense from the atmospheric recording' (The Daily Telegraph)

'A stirring Vision of aeroplanes testifies to the choir's extraordinary virtuosity which, under Baker, is clearly going from strength to strength … Hyperion has been making recordings in Westminster Cathedral almost since the day the company first came into being, and, as ever, the sound on this latest disc is gorgeous, full of depth, and with an ideal balance between, choir, organ and atmosphere' (International Record Review)

'A glorious celebration of music written with the acoustics of Westminster Cathedral in mind' (Classic FM Magazine)

Vaughan Williams & Bingham: Mass
Kyrie  [4'13] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [4'04] LatinEnglish
Credo  [5'54] LatinEnglish
Kyrie  [2'30] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [5'08] LatinEnglish

Hyperion’s record of the month for May presents a programme of sacred choral music from Westminster Cathedral.

Since its dedication, Westminster Cathedral has been a place of inspiration and prayer—and one of musical discovery. Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor is popularly reported as having received its first performance in the Cathedral. Although this statement is untrue, it is certainly true to say that it was the work’s first liturgical performance—at a service in 1923 directed by the pioneering Richard Runciman Terry—that won a place at the centre of the repertory for this pioneering piece, justly described as the first ‘English’ Mass setting since the sixteenth century and the time of Byrd and Tallis. This new performance, similarly, promises to set a new standard.

The three further Vaughan Williams pieces on this recording are fascinating. O vos omnes, a setting of texts from the Book of Lamentations, is probably the best known; it is joined by Valiant-for-Truth, a narrative from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the extraordinary A vision of aeroplanes which vividly depicts Ezekiel’s prophetic inspiration.

The pantheon of composers to have responded to commissions from Westminster Cathedral—including Vaughan Williams, Howells, Holst and Britten—now counts Judith Bingham among its number. And what a welcome this new Mass can expect. With its carefully structured and thought-provoking music, this new setting fits at once into the constant evolving liturgy of the church, combining the highest artistic needs with an awareness of contemporary sympathies. This Mass recently won a British Composer Award for Liturgical Music, and this recording will now offer it a place in the repertory beyond the cloister.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Since its dedication, Westminster Cathedral has been a place of inspiration and prayer. This comes partly from the juxtaposition of marble and mosaic with the cavernous, now incense-blackened vaults, but more especially from the light of flickering candles and the sound of silent prayer. Amplifying this prayer is a choir of men and boys first established in 1901 by Richard Runciman Terry at the request of Cardinal Vaughan. Terry quickly achieved a high standard and impressive repertoire for his new choir, consisting not only of the accepted greats – Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria – but also of unknown pre- and post-Reformation English composers in his own new editions. He was also keen to commission suitable music from his contemporaries and, both during his time and subsequently, significant works have been written for this choir with its unique Catholic sound. These include Nunc dimittis settings by Charles Wood (1912), Herbert Howells (1914) and Gustav Holst (1915), four Marian antiphons by Herbert Howells (two of which are currently lost), Benjamin Britten’s Missa brevis (1959), Lennox Berkeley’s Mass for five voices (1964) and, more recently, works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Roxanna Panufnik and James MacMillan.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his setting of O vos omnes for Westminster in 1922 and although the Mass in G minor was written for Holst’s Whitsuntide Singers and the premiere given by the City of Birmingham Choir, it was Richard Terry’s first liturgical performance in 1923 that established its reputation.

O vos omnes was first performed on 13 April 1922 during Holy Week. This setting of words from the Office of Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday is in some ways a precursor of the Mass. It delves into a past world of supple lines reminiscent of Gregorian chant and modal harmonies, yet the scoring and harmonic control are entirely modern. The verses (from the book of Lamentations) are scored for divided upper voices with a solo alto declaiming parts of the text. The final obligatory statement ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum’ receives added weight and darkness with the addition of the otherwise silent tenors and basses, working first antiphonally with the upper voices and then conjoining for the final bars.

Vaughan Williams did not possess a conventional faith or belief. The son of an Anglican clergyman and a strict Christian mother, he managed to develop a deep-seated scepticism from an early age. As a Cambridge undergraduate he strode into Trinity College Hall demanding: ‘Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?’; and according to Ursula Vaughan Williams: ‘He was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.’

Behind Vaughan Williams’ scepticism was however a deep understanding and affection for the Church of England, which he perceived to be a vital part of the nation’s artistic and spiritual heritage. But he was uncomfortable with strict forms of worship and liturgy and, although he loved the Authorized Version of the Bible, the spiritual, symbolic, free-thinking poetry and prose of Bunyan, Herbert, Blake and Walt Whitman was more to his taste. Apart from some juvenilia and student exercises, he set no biblical verses until 1913 and indeed his first major religious work, Five Mystical Songs (George Herbert), did not appear until 1911. However a number of pieces based around sacred or spiritual texts were written perhaps in response to the extraordinary maelstrom of the Great War: O clap your hands (1920), Lord, thou hast been our refuge (1921), O vos omnes (1922), Mass in G minor (1922), The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922) and Sancta civitas (1925). In total this ‘cheerful agnostic’ produced three anthems, four canticles, nine motets, an Evening Service, several Anglican chants and twenty hymn tunes.

In the late nineteenth century, England had been dominated by the German-influenced composers Parry, Stanford and Elgar, with the maverick Delius lurking on the sidelines. It was only really with Vaughan Williams that music began to speak with a radically different, quintessentially English voice, something which modern ears now take for granted. Stanford produced a large-scale orchestral mass for Thomas Wingham’s choir at the London Oratory and is reputed to have written an unaccompanied eight-part setting in Latin for Westminster – although it is referred to in the music lists for 1920 neither parts nor sketches have ever been found. Herbert Howells wrote his Mass in the Dorian mode in 1912 but more as an exercise in polyphonic writing than a serious original composition. Thus it could be argued that Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor of 1922 was the first substantial, unaccompanied setting to be written with a distinctly English voice since the time of William Byrd in the sixteenth century.

‘There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass’, insisted Vaughan Williams, and certainly Richard Terry, the consummate musician-liturgist of his generation, was delighted with the new setting: ‘I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.’

This duality between the ‘modern idiom’ and the ‘old liturgical spirit’ lies at the heart of the composition’s success. It takes as its starting point the sound world of the sixteenth century with its modal writing and subtle imitation, a style which Vaughan Williams had already utilized in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Mass seems to reach back to a long-forgotten world, yet it is not some atavistic exercise but new music, coloured by Vaughan Williams’ love of rich harmonies and made more dramatic by the juxtaposition of sinuous Gregorian-like lines with blazing choral antiphony. These effects are achieved by a scoring very similar to the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ which had so gripped concert-goers at the Three Choirs Festival over a decade earlier in 1910. Two four-part SATB choirs (string orchestras in the ‘Fantasia’) work in dialogue with a solo SATB quartet (solo strings) who provide more personal, impassioned comment.

The Mass was taken up enthusiastically and was even performed by the choir of Westminster Abbey in 1924, where one would have expected not to hear Latin settings of the Catholic mass but the English words of the Book of Common Prayer such as the Te Deum in G duly set by Vaughan Williams in 1928. Commissioned for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury on 4 December, this latter piece rolls with confidence from the outset, a strong declamatory unison leading to an antiphonal representation of the angelic chorus before the opening material is transformed into a prayerful, supplicatory ending.

Vaughan Williams had a great fondness for the work of John Bunyan. Always aware of English heritage, he regarded him as one of the most powerful writers the country had ever produced. The setting of Mr Valiant-for-Truth’s great speech from Pilgrim’s Progress seems to have been prompted by the death of Vaughan Williams’ close friend Dorothy Longman. Unaccompanied solo altos (a favourite sonority for Vaughan Williams) act as a quasi-narrator to introduce the words of the hero sung by the choir, which are set with characteristic modal harmony. First performed in 1942 it must have had great resonances for all living through the dark days of the Second World War, especially with the concluding trumpet effects that accompany the welcome of the righteous one into the court of heaven.

The critical school which claims that Vaughan Williams wrote solely in a comfortable pastoral style needs to check its facts, especially in the face of the extraordinary setting of words from the prophet Ezekiel. A vision of aeroplanes was written for Harold Darke (who had conducted the first performances of the Te Deum in G and Valiant-for-Truth) and was first performed under his direction on 4 June 1956. With its cataclysmic organ writing and whirling voice-parts it is a highly imaginative setting without a trace of pastoralism. Epic in style and proportion, the ‘vision’ has more than a hint of the film scores which had preoccupied Vaughan Williams for the previous ten years.

Judith Bingham was born in Nottingham, grew up in Sheffield and had been composing for many years when she entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1970 to study composition and singing. Her individual style soon attracted attention and led to many commissions from groups as diverse as The King’s Singers, The Songmakers’ Almanac, the BBC Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras and from Westminster Cathedral who, in 2003, requested a Mass for Ascension Day.

This Mass is as much a narrative journey as a celebration of the Eucharist and takes the story of Christ’s encounter with the Apostles on the road to Emmaeus as its starting point. The narrative thread (from St Luke’s Gospel) is provided by two substantial organ pieces – the ‘Preamble The road to Emmaeus’ and the ‘Voluntary Et cognoverunt eum’ – and an Offertory motet Et aperti sunt oculi (‘and their eyes were opened’). In spite of the atmospheric sunrise at the beginning of the Preamble, a mood of desolation soon becomes evident as the disciples trudge on their way, dispirited and empty without Christ in their midst. This movement, rather like an overture to an opera, encapsulates the whole story, including many of the musical themes (in embryo at least) that will recur later in the composition and so a feeling of hope develops. The once-lifeless footfalls of the disciples become more energized with the rising motif in the bass line, leading to a moment of ‘stunned recognition’ before the quiet contemplation of the final bars. After a restless Kyrie, the Gloria erupts with joy, introducing a fantasia-like accompaniment for the melody of ‘Laudamus te, benedicimus te, glorificamus te’. Throughout the movement the organ and voices are of equal importance and there is a general sense of uplift in both the melodies and harmonic progressions – an Ascension in music.

As perhaps befits a mass written in the twenty-first century there is no setting of the Credo but there is a motet at the Offertory depicting the moment when Christ breaks bread with the disciples and they realize his true identity. The Sanctus is dominated by a mantra-like repetition which owes something to an earlier musical style, the organ being used simply as a drone while the voices work in canon. This is continued in the Agnus Dei but softened by the use of supplicatory harmonies. The ‘Voluntary Et cognoverunt eum’ (‘and they knew’ – or ‘recognized’ – ‘him’) completes the narrative, using the final few words of the motet as its starting point and climaxing in a further vivid depiction of the Ascension.

Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor was a landmark composition in its day – a mixture of old and modern styles, perfect for the liturgy and with a new, distinctly English voice. In Judith Bingham’s Mass the liturgy is also of paramount importance. With its carefully structured and thought-provoking music, she, like Vaughan Williams before her, has provided a mass for our time which appeals to the highest artistic needs. Worshipping God solely with simplistic music that demands nothing of the listener and even less of the performer is inadequate and arrogant. This Mass has just been awarded a British Composer Award for Liturgical Music. It is now time for the clergy and musicians of the Church to give it an accolade of equal importance – regular liturgical performance.

Andrew Carwood © 2005

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