Sanctus and Benedictus [4'06]
Agnus Dei [2'49]
Hyperion’s record of the month for November sees the launch of an exciting new collaboration with The Choir of Westminster Abbey—the pinnacle of the premier league of the Church of England.
This first disc presents a sequence of music such as might be heard in the Abbey on Trinity Sunday. Opening with the Abbey bells summoning the faithful, we travel through the three principal services of the day—Matins, Eucharist and Evensong—in a blaze of glorious music and atmosphere.
Alongside such old chestnuts as Walton’s Jubilate and Stainer’s I saw the Lord, we have a new recording of Francis Grier’s astonishing Missa Trinitatis Sanctae—written for the Abbey choir in 1991—and a rare performance of Howells’s ‘Westminster Service’, the second of two settings of the Evening Canticles he made for the choir in the 1950s.
Full documentation is provided, and includes a history of music-making in the Abbey through the ages, and an introduction by The Very Reverend Dr Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster.
Westminster Abbey is surely one of the most famous buildings in the world. It dominates the south side of Parliament Square in the very centre of London, flanking the Palace of Westminster whose architecture it partly inspired. Today the Abbey fulfils several contrasting and important roles. Every year over one million people from all over the world visit it. Many come to see the tombs of the Kings and Queens who over many centuries have been interred here, and to experience for themselves the unique atmosphere of the site of so many coronations, royal funerals and weddings, and countless historic state occasions. Others come to admire the breathtaking Gothic architecture of the church and its beautiful precincts, and to look at the many fascinating memorials to illustrious figures in British life – statesmen, scientists, writers, musicians, explorers, and many others. But what has always given the Abbey its fundamental character, and underpins everything else that happens within it, is its life of prayer and worship which dates back to its foundation as a Benedictine monastery over one thousand years ago.
It is thought that a monastic community was established by Saint Dunstan on the present site in about 959. In the mid-eleventh century a new Abbey church was built by King Edward the Confessor. It was consecrated on 28 December 1065. Some days afterwards the King died and was buried in front of the high altar. As his cult of sainthood developed, culminating in his canonization in 1161, so his tomb became an important shrine and place of pilgrimage, and remains so to this day. In the early thirteenth century, reflecting the growing importance of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Henry III added a Lady Chapel, and later built a completely new Abbey church in the Gothic style, incorporating a new shrine for the remains of Saint Edward. The Lady Chapel had its own pattern of Offices (or services) which took place in parallel with those in the main Abbey church. Later in the thirteenth century the musical practice in the Lady Chapel began to diverge markedly from the plainsong sung by the monks in the Abbey church, and polyphonic music and organ music began to be included. The Abbot eventually appointed a professional musician (not a monk) to oversee the Lady Chapel’s music, and, most important, boys from the Abbey’s almonry school were introduced into the Lady Chapel choir. In this way the seeds of today’s Abbey Choir were sown.
By the time the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 the daily Offices sung by the boys and men of the Lady Chapel choir had been established for many decades. The Abbey’s present choral foundation is provided for in Elizabeth I’s charter of 1560, which established the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster in place of the former monastic structure and granted it the status of a ‘royal peculiar’ (that is, a church under the immediate authority of the Crown and independent of episcopal control).
Today the Abbey is still governed according to Elizabeth’s collegiate structure and the choral foundation she established exists in much the same form. Over the centuries since the founding charter, some immensely distinguished musicians have been associated with the Abbey, including Orlando Gibbons (Organist 1623–5), Henry Purcell (1679–95), and John Blow (1669–79 and 1695–1708), and it has been the setting for the first performances of countless important works, not least those composed specially for coronations and other great occasions.
This disc contains the music you might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on Trinity Sunday. It falls into three sections, each corresponding to the three choral services sung on most Sundays throughout the year: Matins (or Morning Prayer); Eucharist; and Evensong (or Evening Prayer). Although the musical and liturgical tradition of the Church of England has developed and changed enormously over the last five hundred or so years, the foundations of all these services, and the music associated with them, lie in the monastic Offices which underpinned and formed the Abbey’s daily life since Dunstan founded his monastic community in the tenth century on what was then a marshy island site on the river Thames.
The psalm (or psalms) then follows. In the monastic tradition, the entire psalter of 150 psalms was sung each week, divided between the eight daily Offices. The Anglican reformers arranged the psalter over the course of a month, with psalms appointed for each day’s morning and evening prayer. Certain festivals are allotted Proper psalms which are particularly appropriate to the day. In the monastic era the psalms were sung to simple plainsong tones dependent upon the melodic antiphons which framed them; Anglican musicians developed a harmonized method of reciting them which is usually called ‘Anglican chant’. This method, which probably had its roots in the popular metrical psalm singing of the parish churches, became more and more established even in the great cathedrals and collegiate foundations.
The chant used here for Psalm 115 is by Sir George Elvey, who spent his entire professional life as organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where he was credited with improving the choir and enlarging its repertory. Of his few compositions, the best known is the hymn tune Diademata (‘Crown him with many crowns’).
The two canticles, Te Deum and Jubilate, follow. In the liturgy these are each preceded by a lesson from scripture to which they form an acclamatory response. Unlike the psalms and lessons, which change every day, the canticles do not change (although the Book of Common Prayer provides for an alternative to each). Benjamin Britten’s early Te Deum in C dates from 1934 and is the first of two settings of that text in his small output of church music. It is an effective work of great economy and formal clarity. From the outset the organ asserts itself as equal partner to the choir which grows from a hushed beginning with a simple chord of C major, edgily underpinned by the organ pedals’ bell-like marcato, into a dramatic cry of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth’, at which point the music suddenly leaves C major for the first time, eventually settling gently into a peaceful A major. Now a treble soloist takes over (‘Thou art the King of glory, O Christ’), the organ pedal motif still in evidence, and the choir gently echoing the words ‘O Christ’. At ‘O Lord, save thy people’ the opening sound and style returns, skilfully using the basic chord of C major to build tension and excitement towards the climax ‘And we worship thy Name’ and animato coda (‘Vouchsafe, O Lord: to keep us this day without sin’), giving way finally to the serene ‘let me never be confounded’ which returns us to the low-lying C major with which we began.
The second canticle for Matins is Jubilate Deo – Psalm 100. It is a far shorter text than the Te Deum and its mood of praise, joy and thanksgiving lends itself to upbeat, punchy musical setting. William Walton does not disappoint in this respect. His very attractive setting was first performed in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in April 1972 and has since become a popular addition to the choral repertory. The organ sets the mood with a guilelessly jolly dotted-rhythm introduction which is taken up by the choir, divided at first into two sides (decani and cantoris). Two trios of solo voices, one high (three trebles) and one low (alto, tenor and bass), calmly begin the next section (‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God’), the trebles echoing the words of the lower voices. A high solo treble appears as though from nowhere (‘His mercy is everlasting’) and disappears as suddenly as the choir begins the exciting build-up to the final doxology (‘Glory be to the Father’) in which the opening music triumphantly reappears, coming to a blazing finish in A major on full organ.
‘I well remember my first visit to Westminster Abbey. I was about ten years old, and a chorister myself at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. The St George’s choir had travelled up to the Abbey to sing a joint Evensong in commemoration of Edward the Confessor, the royal founder of both institutions. I remember being awestruck by the size of the building, but also being very interested by its peculiar acoustic qualities: the sound in the quire seemed very clear and precise, without overmuch resonance, whereas the nave had a long echo, adding a lot of reverberation to the music. Over the years since then, I have visited the Abbey on many occasions, including having the good fortune to play a couple of organ recitals there, and that acoustical particularity has always made an impact on me.
‘So, when Martin Neary paid me the great compliment of asking me to write a Mass-setting for the Sunday dedicated to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, I wanted to try to write music which would be suitable for the closer, clearer and more personal, even intimate atmosphere of the quire, but which would also work after it had travelled down the great length of the entire building to the back of the nave, where it would arrive in a much broader, less precise, richer and more reverberant spectrum of musical colours.
‘Another quality I was keen to try to find and express was that of devotion and adoration. These would have been the guiding religious ideals which inspired and motivated Edward the Confessor, and – during the building’s initial centuries as the Abbey of a Benedictine monastery – would have been the principal ideals of the monks in their daily, vocational performance of the plainchant of the Divine Office.
‘I was also keen to try and introduce as much dramatic variation into the musical response to the Mass texts as possible. The Kyrie starts very simply, with a single treble singing the opening words, but, as the movement progresses, the writing becomes increasingly expressive and complex, the thematic lines become longer and more melodic, and the harmony becomes more richly chromatic, until, at the end, there is a strong, unified and impassioned plea – ‘Kyrie eleison’ (‘Lord, have mercy on us’) – from the whole choir, which then fades away into the distance.
‘In complete contrast, the Gloria starts and finishes with an ecstatic dance, in which the upper voices sing a line characterized by syncopated and irregular rhythms, influenced by the rhythms of some of the medieval music which would have been sung in the great London and Paris churches of Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame in the first centuries after they had been built. The lower voices, meanwhile, set up in contrast a pounding rhythm which, as I have noted in the score, should give an effect similar to the strumming of guitars, but which could equally well be thought of as the vocal equivalent of the exciting percussion accompaniment to some medieval vocal music. The central section, in complete contrast, is slow, expressive with the vocal lines often expressing anguish.
‘The Sanctus (containing the Benedictus) is purely and simply a song of contemplative adoration. It involves many solo singers, and I have tried to find light and shade within the musical canvas by asking the soloists and the answering and supporting chorus to sing at fairly extreme ends of their different registers.
‘The final movement, the Agnus Dei, harks back, in some ways, to the opening Kyrie. It is in the same key, and has something of the same contrast between those moments when the text is set very simply and syllabically, and others where there is much greater melodic and harmonic expressiveness. I was keen to try to express an emotional oscillation between a sense of trust and confidence, as implied by the invitation to God using the tender symbol of the lamb, and a sense of unease, anxiety and pleading, invoked by the prayer ‘miserere nobis’ (‘have mercy on us’).’
As the Te Deum and Jubilate form the unchanging elements of choral Matins, so the Office of Evensong has at its heart the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Herbert Howells has been described as ‘the arch-priest of Impressionism in English church music’. His large output includes many settings of both morning and evening canticles specifically composed for particular cathedrals and college chapels, and he is without doubt among the pre-eminent composers of English church music of the twentieth century. His mature style is both unique and instantly recognizable, its ambiguities and avoidance of directness in stark contrast to the straightforward, sometimes faintly triumphalist utterances of earlier composers. Howells is not merely concerned with setting the text: rather, he evokes a mood and creates an atmosphere from the midst of which the words seem to emerge, now with clarity, now more muted and introverted. To achieve this he employs a rich harmonic language, favouring minor modes, in which the inflexions of jazz can be heard, within a slow-moving pulse (typically in 3/2 time) which can lend a dreamlike, floating tread to the music. In his old age, Howells was a regular visitor to the Abbey and wrote two sets of evening canticles for it; the first, written in 1956 for the jubilee celebrations of the Church Music Society, was so successful that Howells offered to compose another setting for the Abbey choir under Sir William McKie. It is this setting, headed ‘For the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in Westminster’ and first sung in July 1957, that is recorded here.
The ‘Westminster Service’ is among Howells’s most impressionistic and elusive settings. It avoids even the slightest hint at having been composed for the coronation church; rather, it projects a melancholy, almost troubled mood that draws the listener into its world. The Magnificat begins in F sharp minor, but with strong inflexions of D minor which make their presence felt from the very first chord. Howells marks the movement ‘Moving easily and lightly’, and it is characterized by a harmonic fluidity and textural delicacy unusual even for him. The Gloria, which is common to both canticles, builds up to a typically hair-raising climax (on a D minor chord) at ‘world without end’ before the final struggle to reach a triumphant conclusion in F sharp major. By contrast, the Nunc dimittis begins gently with just the tenors and basses, while the organ uses material heard in the Magnificat. The upper voices enter at ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and the canticle reaches its climax in a final unison phrase before the Gloria returns.
Sir John Stainer was one of the remarkable musicians of his day, and it is perhaps only today that the value of his pioneering work as a scholar of pre-Renaissance English music – an interest that was regarded as somewhat cranky in his lifetime – can be fully appreciated. Stainer had been a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral as a boy, and after a distinguished period as organist of Magdalen College, Oxford, he returned to St Paul’s as organist in 1872 where he helped improve the standard of the choir and enlarge its repertory. In 1888, shortly after having been knighted, he was forced to resign owing to his failing eyesight. During his lifetime he was a highly regarded composer (although Stainer himself dismissed his own music as ‘rubbish’), but today only a handful of his works remain popular, including I saw the Lord, a dramatic setting combining a passage from Isaiah with a devotional hymn to the Trinity. It is scored for double choir and organ and exploits to the full the potential for dramatic dialogue between the sides of the choir. After a rousing climax at ‘and the house was filled with smoke’, a serenely beautiful melody appears, at first with a few voices, and later taken up by the full choir.
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was born in Dublin of a wealthy Protestant family. He studied at Cambridge, and also in Leipzig and Berlin. He became professor of composition at the new Royal College of Music, was elected professor of music at Cambridge in 1887, and knighted in 1901. His influence as a teacher was profound, and his output as a composer was enormous and varied, including operas, symphonies, concertos and a large amount of church music of generally high quality. The Fantasia and Toccata for organ was composed in 1894 and clearly shows the ways in which Stanford was influenced and inspired by German music, particularly that of Brahms and Mendelssohn. Following the lyrical ending of the dramatic Fantasia, the pedals announce the theme for the Toccata and there begins an exciting roller-coaster ride in which the musical tension builds continuously towards the magnificent conclusion.
James O'Donnell © 2005
Other albums in this series