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Hyperion Records

CDA67593 - Elgar: Great is the Lord & other works

Recording details: July 2006
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by Simon Eadon & David Hinitt
Release date: February 2007
Total duration: 72 minutes 2 seconds

'The Abbey Choir … give an excellent account of themselves, the trebles especially singing with the confidence of professional musicianship and with voices in fine, generous bloom. In some of the short, quieter pieces, such as They are at rest and Ecce sacerdos magnus, they achieve a standard as near perfection as any. And Robert Quinney is a tremendous asset: an organist who puts his technical skill to imaginative use, sometimes … to vivid effect. Recorded sound is both clear and spacious, and the authoritative booklet contains some evocative period photographs' (Gramophone)

'The Westminster Abbey Choir delivers its organ-accompanied programme with beautiful tonal colour and blend' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The most impressive items are Great is the Lord and Give unto the Lord, two powerfully expressive large-scale anthems composed just before the First World War. Their texts allow Elgar to explore a wide range of choral and organ effects in the service of some vividly graphic word-painting, which Westminster Abbey Choir bring to life with obvious relish' (The Daily Telegraph)

'James O'Donnell never lets a detail pass or an effect count for nothing; likewise the Westminster Abbey Choir. Rarities, such as the Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode of 1932, receive equal care and attention … above all, this disc projects Elgarian grandeur and dignity' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Every work on the disc receives a convincing performance. James O'Donnell has chosen the tempi carefully, allowing the music enough space to breathe in the Abbey's generous acoustic whilst managing to avoid any sense of dragging. The choir sings well throughout and almost without fail produces a well-blended sound. Robert Quinney's accompaniments are colourful and exciting … highly recommended' (Cathedral Music)

'The Choir of Westminster Abbey, directed by James O'Donnell, does great service in a programme ranging from his naive early pieces for his local Catholic Church, to Coronation music and an Ode, written for the unveiling of Queen Alexandra's memorial in 1932, one of his last pieces. Beautiful singing and sound quality from Hyperion' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'These choral works can be judged as small masterpieces' (

Great is the Lord & other works

Elgar from the Abbey—what could be more fitting? From the regal opulence of Great is the Lord, first performed in Westminster Abbey in 1912, to the quiet devotion of the opus 2 Ave verum and Ave Maria, this varied programme is the perfect guide through Elgar’s rich choral output.

Performances on this new recording are astounding, as James O’Donnell guides the men and boys of Westminster Abbey through the grandiloquence and tenderness of this seminal music. The full gamut of Elgar’s career—from son of provincial instrument dealer to ‘composer laureate’—is represented and at every turn these performers offer new insights into the performing possibilities of these all-too-often-hackneyed works. There is also a rare performance of the long-forgotten Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode—a fitting tribute by Poet Laureate (John Masefield) and Master of the King’s Musick (Elgar) to Edward VII’s much-lamented consort.

Performances by The Choir of Westminster Abbey, under the direction of James O’Donnell and with the sympathetic organ accompaniment of Robert Quinney, are every bit as good as their previous Hyperion recordings would lead us to expect.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
We all know that Edward Elgar was the son of a Worcester piano and music dealer. In spite of ambitions to study in Leipzig, it could never be afforded and he was almost entirely self taught. In fact he had about him in his father’s shop all the elements of practical musicianship which allowed him to develop. Yet he was the son of a shopkeeper and in the 1870s that defined his place in society—servicing the musical needs of the upper echelons of society, but not allowed join them. Also his was a provincial city a long way from London: they looked to Birmingham as their local metropolis.

Although his first job on leaving school was in a solicitor’s office, where he lasted a year, Elgar was, though not formally indentured, in a very real sense the product of being de facto apprenticed to his father’s business. Essentially able to turn his hand to anything, by his later twenties was making a rapidly growing local reputation in the West Midlands as a musician and composer.

Elgar took his first musical post as assistant organist to his father at St George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, first playing there in July 1872 and succeeding his father in 1880. He was Director of Music at Powick Lunatic Asylum from 1879. But it was through choral music that he became known and his fame spread to other provincial choral centres. As he approached the age of forty he was acknowledged as the composer of such vivid scores as The Black Knight, The Light of Life and King Olaf. His marriage, just before his thirty-second birthday to Caroline Alice Roberts, a woman nearly nine years his senior, became the driving force behind his later development. It also emphasized the social and religious pressures on Elgar, for his wife came from a ‘county’ military background. Worse, Elgar was a Catholic (to which Church his wife converted). Until the outbreak of the Great War, Elgar’s star was vigorously in the ascendant and most of the music for which he is remembered was written before then. He received many honours, including his knighthood; he moved in Court circles and at the time of the Coronation of King George V he was appointed to the Order of Merit.

When the Enigma Variations were taken up by Hans Richter in 1899, he found almost overnight he had arrived. All too soon Richter was the chosen conductor for the first performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in October 1900, but thanks to Elgar delivering it very late and the chorus master dying during rehearsals, it was not a successful first performance, though despite Elgar’s passing despair within three years it had established itself. In spite of his various orchestral works—Enigma, the first four Pomp and Circumstance marches, Cockaigne, In the South and the Introduction and Allegro—at the height of Edward VII’s reign Elgar remained best known as a choral composer. By 1908, Gerontius was a repertory work, given everywhere. The earlier choral music, especially King Olaf, Caractacus and The Banner of Saint George, was also frequently performed, while the more recent Apostles and The Kingdom (both written for Birmingham, in 1903 and 1906 respectively) were highly regarded.

The War of 1914–1918 and the death of his wife in 1920 represented for Elgar turning points, and although appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1924 he composed comparatively little.

Elgar came to music from the organ loft, a Roman Catholic organ loft, and his first attempts especially for choir were practical music for performance by the Choir of St George’s. We hear four of these: the early O salutaris hostia of 1880, one of three settings of these words; from 1887 the Ave verum and Ave Maria, later revised as part of his Opus 2; and from 1888 a setting of the Gradual Ecce sacerdos magnus, written for liturgical use in Birmingham.

As Elgar became known by a wider musical world his music became more and more influenced by the Anglican liturgy heard in the Cathedrals of the Three Choirs Festival and especially at Worcester. Elgar’s first appearance as a composer at the Worcester Three Choirs in 1890 must have been the outcome of much careful lobbying, yet to us it seems to have come out of the blue, with the orchestral overture Froissart. Just how did he suddenly learn to write and score like that? Here Elgar seems to arrive at his mature personality and orchestral manner at a stroke: what a remarkable achievement this now seems in comparison with his contemporaries. This orchestral imagination coupled with his growing expertise at choral writing combined during the 1890s to allow him to write The Black Knight in 1892 (heard at Worcester in 1893), the Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands in 1895 (1896), and later that year The Light of Life and Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf. In 1900 Birmingham heard The Dream of Gerontius: and the rest is history.

Great is the Lord Op 67 (1912)
This setting was started in 1910 but without an immediate commission or performance in view it dragged on until 1912 and was first performed with organ accompaniment at Westminster Abbey on 16 July 1912 conducted by Sir Frederick Bridge. It was orchestrated in September 1913.

Elgar’s setting is markedly less complex than many other similar works, and it falls into a number of sections each using new material. At the opening the altos, tenors and basses are in unison, later in two parts and with passages of block harmony. Elgar sets the central text ‘We have thought on Thy loving-kindness, O God’ for bass solo, and in the richer choral setting of the closing section finds invention that is reminiscent of similar moments in the oratorios.

They are at rest Anthem for SATB (1909)
Elgar’s elegy for unaccompanied chorus sets words by Cardinal Newman. It was written in response to a commission from Sir Walter Parratt for an anthem to be sung on the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death, and was first performed at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore on 22 January 1910.

Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode (1932)
Written for the unveiling of the Queen Alexandra Memorial outside Marlborough House on 8 June 1932, this was the formal elegy by the Poet Laureate and Master of the King’s Musick. Elgar’s setting of Masefield’s words was scored for chorus and military band and it was heard in the open air accompanied by the band of the Welsh Guards.

For Elgar it closed an era more effectively than almost any of his other works. In 1902 he had written the Coronation Ode for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, but it took the orchestration by Anthony Payne in 2004 to reveal how the Memorial Ode returns to the world of that piece, celebrating its final close.

Among the choristers at the unveiling was Sir David Willcocks who (in conversation with Andrew Neill) recalled the occasion:

I remember it was a fine day and we were in cassocks and surplices. I was from Westminster Abbey but the choirs taking part, if I remember rightly, were the choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, The Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. We were stretched out in a semi-circle and I happened to be on the end of the row. After the performance I said to one of the St Paul’s boys: ‘Elgar seems to be looking in our direction’; and of course the chap said: ‘No, he was looking at us the whole time.’ Elgar has that all embracing gaze, and I remember feeling that I was in the presence of a great person. Of course he had great charisma.

The Ode was not published and the manuscript short score remained forgotten in the Royal Library. In 1975 when I first researched this work and was supplied a photocopy from Windsor the full score and parts could not be traced and they are still missing. One is aware that reconstructions of the original band scoring are afoot but none has yet been heard and it is good to have this performing edition by Jonathan Wix with organ accompaniment by Robert Quinney.

Ave verum Op 2 No 1 (1887)
Ave Maria Op 2 No 2 (1887)
When Elgar left school at the age of fifteen his father asked his friend W A Allen, a local solicitor and the treasurer of St George’s, if he had a position for the young Edward. Elgar thus worked, as what appears to have been office boy and clerk, but left after a year. When Allen died in January 1887 Elgar marked it with a funeral setting from the Requiem Mass for the choir of St George’s, subsequently resetting it to the words of Ave verum in 1902. Ave Maria was similarly written for St George’s and revised with Ave verum for publication in 1902 when the opus number was allocated. The music for Ave Maria is dedicated to Mrs H A Leicester, wife of his friend Hubert Leicester.

The Spirit of the Lord from The Apostles, Op 49 (1903)
Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles was first heard at Birmingham Town Hall on 14 October 1903. The Prologue ‘The Spirit of the Lord’ was extracted by Novello in 1907 and issued in their series of choruses for church use. The Apostles was the first of Elgar’s two Biblical oratorios to be completed and tells of the calling of the Apostles, their teaching and Jesus’s betrayal and the ascension. He set a composite text which he compiled from a variety of Biblical texts. In the Prologue—Jaeger called it a ‘chorus mysticus’—Elgar introduces many of the musical themes and motifs used throughout, and thus when performed as a separate item it is remarkable for its variety of invention. Jaeger identified a succession of themes starting with the opening idea in the accompaniment which he associated with the Spirit of the Lord. At the words ‘and recovering of sight’ Elgar quotes from his earlier oratorio The Light of Life.

Te Deum & Benedictus Op 34 (1897)
The Te Deum and Benedictus was written for chorus and orchestra for Elgar’s friend G R Sinclair (GRS of the Enigma Variations), organist of Hereford Cathedral, to mark the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1897. It was first heard there on 12 September 1897. Here Elgar takes two morning service canticles and treats them as a whole. This was the year of the Imperial March and The Banner of Saint George and Elgar was clearly aiming at a big, popular, setting, revelling in writing for large forces in a big space; the grand festival occasion was already meat and drink to him. The opening motif recurs throughout and in the Benedictus reappears at the words ‘And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest’. Elgar has the Te Deum end serenely, gradually fading away on a long organ (or orchestral) postlude. In the Benedictus Elgar opens with the choir only lightly accompanied, if at all. Later however he signals the Gloria (‘Glory be to the Father …’) with a crash on the cymbals and now returns to the world of the Te Deum with a grand and celebratory treatment of the words.

O salutaris hostia (1880)
One of three settings of these words, this strophic setting of a Gregorian hymn was made for service use at St George’s, and is perhaps reassuring to us of the choral standard they achieved.

Ecce sacerdos magnus Gradual for SATB and organ (1888)
In October 1888 the Archbishop of Birmingham visited St George’s and for this occasion Elgar produced this setting developed from a melody in Haydn’s Harmoniemesse. It was orchestrated in 1893 for St Catherine’s of Siena, Birmingham. In this case it is dedicated to his boyhood friend Hubert Leicester, the son of a Worcester printer. Leicester was choirmaster at St George’s when Elgar was organist. His career was spent as a Worcester Accountant. He was for many years Mayor of Worcester and was later responsible for Elgar receiving the freedom of the city.

O hearken Thou Op 64 (1911)
O hearken Thou was written, for chorus and orchestra, for the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary and was completed in March 1911 and first performed at the Coronation service in Westminster Abbey on 22 June 1911, when the conductor was Sir Frederick Bridge. It was immediately issued by Novello in this version for chorus and organ in Novello’s series of church anthems. Elgar had also written a Coronation March and a Coronation Hymn, but here he is not looking to make a big public statement. Elgar takes verses 2 and 3 from Psalm 5 for his setting which was sung while the King took communion. This was not the time for his ceremonial manner and Elgar’s intense mood encompassing a rich choral sound took advantage of the huge acoustic to underline the fervent but essentially private dedication of the moment.

Give unto the Lord Op 74 (1914)
Written in February 1914, Give unto the Lord was immediately published by Novello. It was first heard in a version for chorus and orchestra at the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral on 30 April 1914, and was consequently dedicated to Sir George Martin, the organist of St Paul’s.

Elgar responds to the words of Psalm 29 with vigour and powerfully contrapuntal choral writing, but with a gentle central interlude at the words ‘In His Temple’. Eventually Elgar returns to the music of the opening but ends with the words ‘the blessing of peace’. As these words are, uniquely, repeated and given added emphasis by being echoed round the choir, one has to wonder whether Elgar had any inkling in April 1914 of what was to be.

Lewis Foreman © 2007

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