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 the Ascension. Ascension Day is a particular moment of celebration within the annual round of Easter praise and is celebrated in glorious and triumphal language. The works recorded here represent a wide range of the best of liturgical music, starting from the intricate and joyful writing of the sixteenth-century composer Peter Philips and ending with fascinating and appealing pieces by living composers. Along the way are works from the great flowering of English cathedral music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
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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 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, 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 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 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 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).
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 (1669–70 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 the Ascension of the Lord, one of the most important ‘red letter’ days in the Christian calendar, which falls on the Thursday after the sixth Sunday of Eastertide. The programme broadly reflects the structure of the three major choral services of the Anglican tradition, 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 Bernard Rose, who for many years was Informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford. In addition to his influential work as a choir trainer, he was a scholar and editor of Tudor church music. His tuneful and attractive responses are a mainstay of the Anglican choral repertory. The treble line of the choral response ‘And make thy chosen people joyful’ quotes the chimes of the Magdalen College clock.
In monastic tradition the Psalter formed the core of the daily Offices and the monks sang all 150 Psalms during the course of every week. The Anglican reformers spread the Psalter over a monthly cycle, although ‘proper’ Psalms are allocated to certain festivals. For this occasion Psalm 24 is sung to a strong chant by Sir Joseph Barnby, sometime Precentor of Eton College and finally Principal of the Guildhall School of Music. As is traditional, the two sides of the choir, decani and cantoris, sing much of the Psalm in alternation. In this instance the trebles alone pose the rhetorical question ‘Who is the King of glory’, giving greater effect to the response.
The Te Deum follows. This great hymn of praise is one of the four canticles prescribed (two are sung at any given Matins), and has attracted the imagination of many composers. Benjamin Britten wrote two settings. This Festival Te Deum was composed in 1944 for the choir of St Mark’s Church, Swindon. The opening section ‘We praise thee, O God’ creates an almost trance-like, unworldly effect as the unison voices sing in apparently free time against strictly regular organ chords decorated with pseudo-Baroque ornaments. At ‘Thou art the King of glory’ the music abruptly changes character; now it is driving and rhythmic and the organ part kinetic. The trebles reach a climactic high B at ‘in glory everlasting’, and then the music quickly subsides into the dreamy atmosphere of the opening. The next few lines of the text are taken by a treble soloist, who briefly re-emerges at the very end (‘let me never be confounded’) to bring the canticle to a serene conclusion.
Psalm 100, Jubilate Deo, forms the usual companion to Te Deum. This recording presents Heinrich Schütz’s German setting from his great collection Psalmen Davids (published in 1619), scored for two four-voice choirs and continuo. The joyfulness of the text comes over in playful exchanges between the two choirs, although the calmer central section shows something of the range of the composer’s more expressive powers and responsiveness to text.
The Office of Matins concludes with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Psalm-anthem O clap your hands. The composer writes for the voices as he might for brass ensemble; the opening trumpet call is imitated exactly in the first treble phrase, and the choir typically sings homophonically in rhythmic double triads. A moment of stillness and mysticism comes at ‘For God is the King of all the earth’, after which the music takes off and accelerates back to, and then beyond, its opening tempo, ending thrillingly.
Gerald Finzi’s God is gone up brings the Eucharist for Ascension Day to an exhilarating conclusion. It was composed in 1951 for the annual Festival of St Cecilia Service in London, and members of The Choir of Westminster Abbey took part in its first performance. The composer matches Edward Taylor’s vividly poetic text with suitably dramatic and evocative music, ranging from the magisterial power of the opening trumpet fanfares to the swirling celestial fantasy of the gentler central passage (‘Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly’).
Following Psalm 93, sung to a strong single chant by Sir George Macfarren, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are William Walton’s settings composed in 1974 for Dean Walter Hussey in celebration of Chichester Cathedral’s 900th anniversary. Walton wrote that he had had trouble finding much inspiration in these famous texts (apparently a common problem for him when it came to composing church music). However, he managed to produce a strong and attractive setting of characteristic rhythmic energy and rhetorical effect. There are some strikingly dramatic moments, such as the daring ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ in which Walton’s bold treatment of the word ‘scattered’ and the unexpected, almost theatrical rest before the word ‘hearts’ perhaps reveal a composer anxious to bring familiar words into new and exciting life. The Nunc dimittis begins with a bass solo, perhaps representing the aged Simeon in the Temple in its world-weary, sarabande-like tread; after this, the entry of the full choir at ‘To be a light’ is electrifying.
The contemporary English composer Patrick Gowers is best known for his music for television and films, but his large output also contains several sacred choral works, of which the Ascensiontide anthem Viri Galilaei is the best known. Gowers paints a vividly dramatic and emotional picture of the Ascension of Jesus: one can almost visualize the scene as the dumbfounded apostles gaze up in amazement while high-pitched swirling organ figurations and ethereal overlapping choral ‘Alleluias’ convey the literal other-worldliness of what they are witnessing. Gradually the chordal writing for the choir assumes a more solid, less disembodied character, and the music becomes punchier and more rhythmic (‘God is gone up with a merry noise’). The build-up continues inexorably, leading to a thrilling glissando on the full organ and an elated verse of Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascension hymn ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’, underpinned by a jazzy, propulsive organ part and dramatically interspersed with forceful ‘Alleluias’ and the swirling organ figurations heard at the start, but now louder and more prominent. After this, the music gradually subsides into the mystical mood of the opening and eventually disappears into nothing.
Francis Pott’s Toccata was written shortly after the completion of his giant Passion Symphony for organ, Christus, with which it shares certain features. As in many sections of the (much) longer work, Pott’s characteristic use of additive rhythms and primary-colour harmony is very much in evidence. The Toccata begins after a brief introduction in which the lyrical second theme is first heard. Later, after an initially hesitant recapitulation of the main figure, the lyrical theme is transferred, fortissimo, to the pedals as the piece reaches its climax. The opening flourish returns and settles, after a triumphant fanfare, onto a blazing chord of F sharp major.
James O'Donnell © 2008
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