Agnus Dei [2'31]
Nunc dimittis [3'03]
This new recording from Westminster Abbey presents Matins, Eucharist and Evensong as they might be heard on the Feast of St Edward (13 October). The Saint, whose death in 1066 sparked the Norman Conquest, remains buried in the Abbey to this day and his shrine is a point of global pilgrimage.
The Service of Matins is centred around the Morning Canticles from Stanford’s epic Service in C, Op 115, while Evensong takes is cue from Purcell’s masterful Evening Service in G minor, Z231. The Evensong anthem is the first recording of The King and the Robin, composed for the millennial celebrations of St Edward’s birth in 1005 with music by Philip Moore and words by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
The Eucharist setting is Jonathan Harvey’s adventurous Missa brevis, composed for the Abbey in 1995 and here receiving its first recording. This striking, but assuredly liturgical, work combines shouted text and chaotic choral passages into a whole of unusual impact.
This is Hyperion’s third recording of The Choir of Westminster Abbey. William Byrd’s Great Service (CDA67533) was described by Gramophone as ‘a very polished and confident performance’, while Fanfare in America greeted Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey (CDA67557) thus: ‘I’m so taken by this program that I frankly rebel at the notion of spending one sentence, much less a paragraph, on the topic of alternative recordings … so enough already. I’m about to sound like a baseball announcer calling attention to a no-hitter-in-the-making during the seventh-inning stretch, but writing just after the Feast of St Philip of Punxsutawney, I’d say this release stands quite a good chance of turning up on my 2006 Want List. Thankfully, dear reader, you needn’t wait nearly so long to decide that it belongs on yours.’
And here we offer more of the same immaculate performances from this A-list Church of England choir.
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Westminster Abbey is 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 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, including that of the Abbey’s great patron Saint Edward, 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 dating 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. 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, which had become a significant site of pilgrimage. 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 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 (rather than 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, 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 music you might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on the Feast of the Translation of Edward, King and Confessor, which falls on 13 October. Naturally the Abbey accords this festival particular significance and observes it with great solemnity, including special prayers and devotions at the Saint’s shrine. The disc follows the structure of the three major choral services of a great feast day, all of which have their roots in the monastic Offices that took place in the Abbey since its original foundation: Matins (or Morning Prayer); Eucharist (or Mass); and Evensong (or Evening Prayer).
In monastic tradition the Psalms were the core of the daily Offices and the monks sang all 150 Psalms during the course of each week. The Anglican reformers spread the Psalter over a monthly cycle, although Proper Psalms are allocated to certain festivals. The chant by William Crotch used here for Psalm 132 is of particular nobility and poise, in keeping with its uplifting text. As in monastic practice the verses are sung in alternation between the two sides of the choir.
Among Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s enormous output in almost every musical medium, his many contributions to the Anglican choral repertory remain perhaps his best-known works, and certainly the most frequently performed today. The Service in C (Op 115) dates from 1909. It contains music for the Communion service, Evensong and Matins (two of whose movements are included here), and remains one of his greatest achievements in the genre. The Te Deum and Benedictus make a strong, yet contrasting, pair. The Te Deum begins straightforwardly with a simple, stepwise theme announced in unison. This is the core musical material for much of the work, and Stanford organizes the thematic structure with notable economy and imagination. For the setting of the Canticle of Zechariah, the Benedictus, he uses substantially different thematic material. It is a lyrical and sensitive treatment of the beautiful text. The phrase ‘And thou, child’ is touchingly given to the trebles alone, reminding one of a similar section in the Te Deum (‘We therefore pray thee’). The imposing final Gloria (also used in the two Evening canticles in the service, not included on this disc) makes a dramatic foil to the placid final phrase of the canticle (‘and to guide our feet into the way of peace’) in which the composer poignantly returns to his opening material.
Following Smith’s Responses, including the famous setting of the Lord’s Prayer by Robert Stone (or Stones), and the three sung Collects with their choral Amens, the anthem is Henry Purcell’s well-known O God, thou art my God, dating from the early 1680s, very shortly after the composer took up the position of Organist of Westminster Abbey. It contains many imaginative touches and some effective word-painting (‘and lift up my hands in thy name’ is set to a rising scale; ‘For thy loving-kindness’ is given to an expressive trio of high solo voices), but its most celebrated moment comes in the final ‘Hallelujah’—a decidedly tuneful setting in which the two sides of the choir cast phrases back and forth, uniting only at the end. It proved so popular that the entire ‘Hallelujah’ section was later turned into the hymn tune ‘Westminster Abbey’ (usually sung to the words ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’).
The motet for Eucharist, Os iusti meditabitur, is one of Anton Bruckner’s choral masterpieces. Although he is best known today as a symphonist in the great Austro–German tradition, Bruckner’s early musical education was as a boy chorister at the Abbey of St Florian where he later became organist before studying in Vienna and then becoming organist of Linz Cathedral. Throughout his life he was profoundly religious and his sacred music forms an important part of his output. This text, consisting of verses taken from Psalm 37, is used in the Roman rite as an introit and gradual for Saints’ days (specifically Doctors of the Church). Bruckner composed this setting in 1879 for the choir of St Florian. Like most of his liturgical choral music, it is scored for an unaccompanied choir, basically in four parts but divided to enrich certain sections of the text (such as the gloriously expansive ‘Lex Dei’ in the final moments). The central section ‘et lingua eius’ is set fugally. The strictly Lydian modality of the setting lends an otherworldly feel to the music, for although the tonal centre is F the music contains no B flats.
The anthem The King and the Robin is another recent Westminster Abbey commission, this time for the 2005 millennium celebrations for St Edward. It was first performed at Evensong on the Eve of the Feast of St Edward, 12 October 2005, and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. This time both words and music were specially created. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate, who wrote the text, writes:
When I began thinking about the poem that has become The King and the Robin, I read a certain amount about Edward the Confessor—and realized that we know precious little about him. As a living, breathing man, that is. What we do have, though, are a number of contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the miraculous good deeds that he was able to perform—healing the blind, for instance. This lack of precise information, combined with the suggestiveness of the healing stories, pushed me in the direction of thinking I might write something which had the feel (roughly) of a medieval lyric: the kind of poem which uses stock images and ideas (orchards, mysterious encounters and so on), and draws on their accumulated associations while adding its own emphases.
I hope The King and the Robin might have this kind of combination. I’m not aware of a story in which we see the king meeting such a bird, but their encounter here triggers a little debate which I hope his chroniclers would recognize as being essentially true. A debate, that is to say, about the relative merits of ‘action’ and ‘art’—and about our continuing need to combine them. As the idea developed, I tried to move between an up-front kind of language and a more ornamental one—partly to reflect the argument of the poem in its sounds, and partly to give the composer some variety to work with …
The composer Philip Moore, director of music at York Minster since 1983, has responded imaginatively to the rich imagery and texture of the poem. Much of his melodic and harmonic material is derived from the first three bars of the piece and Moore takes every opportunity for word-painting and characterization; most obviously, perhaps, the King is depicted by a baritone soloist and the mythical figure of the Robin by a solo treble. The final two lines of the text, in which the two protagonists agree that both ‘action’ and ‘art’ are equally valuable and combine to make ‘a thousand years of praise’, are brilliantly set in an exciting fugue that builds up to a blazing conclusion.
This disc ends with another Te Deum, this time for solo organ by the French woman organist Jeanne Demessieux. A student of Marcel Dupré, Demessieux (1921–1968) had a brilliant international career as a virtuoso and was particularly renowned for her improvisations. She was the first female organist to perform at Westminster Abbey. The Te Deum, Op 11, was written in 1965. It is closely based on the plainsong melody and, unlike many organ works based on the chant, is not an improvisatory fantasia, but instead builds up tension through the use of ostinatos and driving rhythms, allied to a powerful, sometimes dissonant harmonic language. Finally the tension erupts into a wilder, freer section resulting in a resplendent final E major chord.
James O'Donnell © 2006
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