Hyperion is delighted to present this latest CD from The Choir of Westminster Abbey under their inspirational director, James O’Donnell. They continue their exploration of the rich repertoire of the liturgy in its historical context in the Abbey with music for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. The texts for Michaelmas are uniquely dramatic and visionary, describing the angelic host and the war in heaven, and have inspired composers throughout the centuries to create settings of thrilling immediacy. This fascinating disc presents the best of these works from a range of composers.
Included is most of the liturgical output of Sir Michael Tippett, whose joyful, extroverted compositional style and powerful sense of drama is perfect for the atmosphere of this festival. Langlais’ tremendous Messe solennelle is unquestionably his finest piece of church music; radiant and impassioned, using the organ particularly brilliantly to create colour and emotional depth. Herbert Howells’s A Sequence for St Michael is an excellent example of the mature style of the composer, an extended and substantial setting in which the Archangel’s intercession is movingly invoked. These and more established favourites and rarities of the repertoire are performed here with characteristic verve and impeccable musicality in the luminous acoustic of the Abbey.
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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 other historic 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 the present Abbey church in the Gothic style, incorporating a new shrine for the remains of Saint Edward, which had become a significant focus 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 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 for the first time. 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 works, not least those composed specially for coronations and other great occasions by such figures as Handel, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Walton and many others.
This disc contains music you might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, commonly called Michaelmas, which falls on 29 September. The programme broadly reflects the structure of the three major choral services of a great feast day, all of which can in turn be traced back to the worship familiar in the monastic era: Matins (or Morning Prayer); Eucharist (or Mass); and Evensong (or Evening Prayer).
The Preces and Responses are by Kenneth Leighton, who spent much of his working life as lecturer and, later, Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh. Leighton composed much excellent choral music for the Anglican liturgy. His style combines astringent harmonic language with taut rhythms. Most importantly, he has a sure instinct for liturgical scale and practicality. These responses have gained a firm place in the repertory of many choirs, and include a particularly fine and expressive setting of The Lord’s Prayer.
In monastic tradition the Psalter formed 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. Here Psalm 148, which includes reference to Angels, is sung to an uplifting chant by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. As is traditional, the two sides of the choir, decani and cantoris, sing much of the Psalm in alternation.
The Te Deum follows. This great hymn of praise is one of the canticles prescribed for Matins and has attracted the attentions of many composers. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s setting in G was composed for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury in December 1928. It starts with the choir in muscular unison against a propulsive, driving organ part. At ‘To thee Cherubin’ the choir divides into two, at first still in unison, but gradually enriching in texture. Thereafter the composer makes increasing and effective use of antiphonal exchanges between the two choirs, underscored by telling organ interjections, and then uniting again into one choir. The final section (‘O Lord, save thy people’) is simply set in a lilting metre and the canticle ends reflectively with one last, telling use of antiphony (‘let me never be confounded’).
By contrast, Benjamin Britten’s Jubilate in C is a light-hearted, almost whimsical setting. It was composed in 1961 for the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor at the instigation of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. A jolly and naive organ motif, perhaps reminiscent of Papageno’s flute, is heard at the outset and appears throughout. The choral writing is direct and almost entirely limited to short, punchy phrases, very often pairing the treble with the tenor, and the alto with the bass.
Langlais’ distinctive harmonic language is rooted in modality, often underlined by the use of bare fifths and organum-like parallel movement, but also enriched by astringent, more dissonant chords and modes. His choral writing is effective; he sometimes writes in severe fugal style (as in the opening sections of the Gloria and Agnus Dei), and at other times in massive homophonic blocks of sound (the Sanctus), or in delicately sinuous and supple lines (such as the Benedictus and parts of the Kyrie). The organ adds colour and dramatic impact, and generally sets the mood and tone for each movement except the Gloria, in which Langlais achieves a spine-tingling coup de théâtre by reserving the first entry of the full organ until the end of the apparently academic, opening fugal section. The Sanctus begins excitingly with a driving organ introduction that builds up to the first thrilling cry of ‘Sanctus’. The Benedictus shows Langlais at his atmospheric best. The undulating organ part provides a shimmering, mystical backdrop for the otherwordly lines sung in parallel octaves by soprano and alto. In the liturgical context for which this music was conceived, this is an intensely effective and moving moment. The final Agnus Dei is dark and severe in mood until it reaches the final ‘dona nobis pacem’, which begins softly and then builds rapidly into an impassioned, blazing cry for peace as the grand organ brings the Mass to its radiant conclusion.
Sir Michael Tippett’s output of liturgical music is small, and indeed most of it appears on this disc. The anthem Plebs angelica occupies a unique place in the English choral repertoire. It was composed for the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in 1943. Tippett chose to set this striking poetic text in the original Latin (an unusual, even bold choice at the time for a work written for an Anglican cathedral choir), and the musical language makes obvious reference to Tudor choral music in its imitative, polyphonic style and the choice of unaccompanied double-choir scoring. But it is no pastiche: Tippett is revisiting and reimagining his Tudor inspiration, and this music sounds at once fresh and unmistakably modern, while also having a strong flavour of older music. The composer’s sense of drama and responsiveness to the text is everywhere evident, not least at ‘Vos, o Michael’ and the following three phrases where each Archangel is given a distinct musical ‘personality’. The closing word ‘Paradisicolas’ is serenely set, bringing this superb miniature to a richly luminous conclusion.
Herbert Howells was acting Organist of St John’s during the Second World War, having previously been a pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, and of Stanford at the Royal College of Music, where Howells later taught. He was a prolific composer in many genres, although only his organ and church music is regularly performed and widely known. A Sequence for St Michael, also composed for the 450th anniversary of St John’s College, is a substantial setting of a dramatic, originally Latin, poem in which the Archangel’s intercession is passionately invoked. Although it is rarely performed, it is an excellent example of the music of the mature Howells, foreshadowing such works as Take him, earth, for cherishing in its confident command of harmonic tension and fluidity, control of choral texture, and evocative word-setting. A brief central tenor solo vividly paints the image of St Michael the mystical, priestly figure, ministering in the Temple of God. There is also a captivating but momentary treble solo towards the end of the work, adding radiance as it soars above the final repetition of the words ‘Hear us, Michael’.
The disc comes to a conclusion with Jonathan Harvey’s Laus Deo for organ. The composer relates that the work was written after ‘a vivid dream in which a shimmering Cinquecento Angel played an organ. What he played formed the main substance of Laus Deo’. Alongside the Angel, whose trumpet fanfare is the centrepiece of Harvey’s vision, a fellow composer hovers about the piece like a kind of patron. Messiaen’s influence is heard both in the opening paragraph (later repeated whole and in fragments) with its angular, incantatory motif, and in the progressively shorter phrases of ethereal, spooky calm: the opulent psychedelia of Turangalîla compressed into four minutes of astonishing energy and power.
James O'Donnell © 2007
Other albums in this series