The Canticles are the crowning glory of the Anglican liturgy and have afforded the greatest opportunity for musical development within the Anglican rite. Thousands of people daily hear the world-famous St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and organist Simon Johnson under their director of music Andrew Carwood singing these settings. Here these forces present a satisfying collection including nineteenth-century masterpieces by Stanford and Charles Wood, and from the twentieth century Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and Tippett’s monumental work for St John’s College Cambridge.
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The rhythm of the services of the Church is the heart of its prayer life. This rhythm is achieved in a number of ways: by meeting together at set times of the day, through the regular reading or singing of Psalms, through the listening to portions of the Old and New Testaments and through the recitation of various texts which remain the same every day. One set of unchanging texts is referred to as ‘canticles’—literally ‘something to be sung’ (from the Latin ‘canticum’—a song) and these are drawn mostly from the Bible. Scope is made for some variation and often in the Anglican church the alternatives are used during certain liturgical seasons, most usually Advent and Lent. There are three canticles at Mattins (the morning service)—the Venite, Te Deum laudamus (with the Benedicite as an alternative) and Benedictus (or Jubilate)—and two at Evensong (the evening service)—the Magnificat (with the Cantate Domino as an alternative) and the Nunc dimittis (or Deus misereatur). In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions there are now many more canticles but the Church of England has essentially preserved the tradition established in the early centuries, re-organized by Archbishop Cranmer in the sixteenth-century Reformation and codified in the Book of Common Prayer.
These canticles put into words the praise and prayer of God throughout the course of a day. On waking there is an imperative to praise God in the Venite (Psalm 95, ‘O come let us sing unto the Lord’) which is also a song of triumph over the darkness of the night. The Te Deum laudamus (‘We praise thee, O God’) is a hymn of the early church and is a statement of faith much like a Creed. Its alternative, the Benedicite (the Song of the Three Children from the Book of Daniel—‘O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord’) sees the whole of creation giving praise to the Almighty. One of the most beautiful texts in the whole of the Bible is the promise of redemption found in the Benedictus (Luke 1: 68–79, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel’) which sends us out into the day full of hope for the future. The Jubilate (Psalm 100, ‘O be joyful in the Lord’) continues praise and commits us to God (‘We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’). In the evening the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46–55, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’) is a celebratory and revolutionary text spoken by the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. It is clear in its statements about what God has done. He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’; he has ‘put down the mighty from their seat’ and ‘exalted the humble and meek’. The Cantate Domino (Psalm 98, ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’) also talks of God promising righteousness and equity. The final canticle, the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2: 29–32, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’), is the old man Simeon’s song of fulfilment on seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple and recognizing him as the Messiah. It is also our prayer for peace and protection. The Deus misereatur (Psalm 67, ‘God be merciful unto us and bless us’) is a prayer of benediction.
Composers have responded to these texts in a variety of ways often reflecting the pre-occupations of their own times, both historical and musical. When Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814–1856) wrote his Service in D minor church music in England was in a parlous state. Insufficient care was being taken over the execution of services and the standard of cathedral choirs was deplored by those who cared about such things, chief amongst them being Samuel Sebastian Wesley.
Walmisley was born in London but spent most of his working life in Cambridge where he was Organist of both St John’s and Trinity Colleges and became Professor of Music in 1836. Stanford (his successor at Trinity) wrote that Walmisley:
… was a victim of four o’clock dinners in Hall, and long symposiums in the Combination Room after; and being a somewhat lonely bachelor, the excellent port of the College cellars was, at times, more his master than his servant (Pages from an Unwritten Diary, London, 1914, p12).
He wrote twenty-two anthems and nine settings of service music of which the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in D minor (1855) is his most famous. Watkins Shaw noted (in ‘Thomas Attwood Walmisley’, English Church Music, February 1957, xxxvii, 1: 5) that this was the first to have a fully independent organ part where it does more than simply support the harmonies of the singers (although he ignores the fact that Wesley’s Evening Service was published in 1845). In fact Walmisley does both, using the organ to great dramatic effect in the tenor and bass sections and as a simple support for the trebles and altos. These contrasting sections are reminiscent of the style adopted by Henry Purcell and his contemporaries where verses for upper and then lower voices are set against full-choir writing. Walmisley shows his interest in music of the past by incorporating two themes by the organist-composer Henri Dumont (1610–1684): a melody from an Agnus Dei in the Gloria of the Magnificat and an Amen in the Gloria to the Nunc dimittis, both referred to in a footnote. Rather curiously the Nunc dimittis ends in A major rather than D minor, something which allegedly upset the musicians at King’s College, Cambridge, sufficiently for them to reverse the Glorias, thus ending in the tonic (Bumpus, John S, A History of English Cathedral Music, London, 1908, p471).
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) was born in Dublin and, having been an undergraduate at Queen’s College, Cambridge, was appointed Organist of Trinity College in February 1874. He received the MusDoc degree from both Cambridge (1883) and Oxford (1888) and in 1887 became Professor of Music at Cambridge. He was a founding professor of the Royal College of Music (from 1882) where he taught for the rest of his life and was an idiosyncratic teacher, as Edgar Bainton remarked:
Stanford’s teaching seemed to be without method or plan. His criticism consisted for the most part of, ‘I like it, my boy’ or ‘It’s damned ugly, my boy’ (the latter in most cases). In this, perhaps, lay its value. For in spite of his conservatism, and he was intensely and passionately conservative in music as in politics, his amazingly comprehensive knowledge of musical literature of all nations and ages made one feel that his opinions, however irritating, had weight (Davies, Walford et al ‘Charles Villiers Stanford, by some of his pupils’, Music & Letters, July 1924, Vol 5, No 3, pp193–207).
Stanford’s output is large, including seven symphonies, chamber works, operas and a substantial amount of music for the church. His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B flat is part of a complete set (Op 10) of music for the whole day, including Mattins and Communion, and was first sung in Trinity College Chapel on 24 August 1879. The whole cycle is a substantial leap forward in terms of quality of music and integrity. Stanford (who had also studied in Leipzig and Berlin and whose great hero was Johannes Brahms) was thoroughly immersed in the German tradition and writes with great attention to melody and form whilst at the same time preserving the textual clarity so important to earlier writers. The Magnificat, in a breezy triple time, is rather reminiscent of a scherzo with a slower duple section at the words ‘And his mercy is on them’ before a return to the first section at the Gloria. The Nunc dimittis is a superbly romantic and lyrical setting for the tenors and basses before a noble Gloria culminating in a quotation of the famous Dresden Amen.
Stanford resigned from Trinity after disagreements about his attendance in May 1892 and was succeeded in 1893 by Alan Gray (1855–1935). Originally a very tall lawyer (he stood over 6'6"), he turned his attention to music, including study with EG Monk of York Minster, and became Director of Music at Wellington College in 1883. During 1892 his main rival for the Trinity post was Thomas Tertius Noble who was frustrated by Gray’s appointment which he attributed to Stanford changing his initial enthusiasm.
Gray wrote a number of canticle settings and anthems as well as some orchestral cantatas, including Easter Ode (1892), Arethusa (1892), The Legend of the Rock Buoy Bell (1896) and A Song of Redemption (1898). The ultra-critical Edward Elgar did not hold back on his view of Gray’s attempts at large-scale writing:
I had a good rehearsal at Leeds with the chorus but it makes me, an artist, sick to see that fool Gray allowed as long to rehearse his blasted rot as I am who produce with all its many faults an attempt at something like a ‘work’ … (Letter Edward Elgar to A J Jaeger, 29 August 1898)
His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F minor (published in 1912) is, however, a masterpiece. Scored for double SATB choir it is a dramatic work with, at times, remarkable quasi-orchestral gestures. It is also one of the very few canticle settings both to start and end in a minor key.
Like Stanford, Charles Wood (1866–1926) was born in Ireland and, after early training at Armagh Cathedral, moved to the Royal College of Music in London and then to Selwyn College, Cambridge. He became the first Organist and Director of Music at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1894 and succeeded Stanford as Professor of Music in 1924. He is mostly remembered for his church music but, like his colleagues, he also produced larger-scale works, including the Ode to the West Wind (1890), Music (1892/3), A Ballade of Dundee (1904), A Dirge for Two Veterans (1901) and a chamber opera, The Pickwick Papers (1921) based on Charles Dickens’ work, six string quartets and a large body of secular music. His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F was written in 1915 for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and is a bold statement in double-choir writing with particularly dramatic moments at ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’ and ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat’. The Nunc dimittis quotes a tune from the French Psalter of 1549 (reminiscent of Walmisley’s use of Dumont’s themes) sung both by the tenors of the first choir and the basses of the second choir with the other voices of the first choir providing harmony. In reply the second choir (minus the basses) responds with a rather ghostly echo of the first choir’s music. This touching setting may have been prompted by the dreadful loss of young lives which was decimating the Great Powers and their allies in World War I.
From Wood to Sir William Walton (1902–1983) is a quantum leap, highlighting the end of comfortable Victorian writing and the rise of modernism. Walton hailed from Oldham in Lancashire and was both a chorister and an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, before being taken under the wing of the literary Sitwell family. From the mid-1950s he made his permanent home on the Italian island of Ischia. He is unusual in that he did not teach at a conservatoire nor had he any pupils: he wrote no essays nor gave any talks about music. His compositions are wide-ranging, from the witty Façade to the monumental Symphony No 1 and the popular Belshazzar’s Feast.
Walton’s dramatic Te Deum was written for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. He had in fact been working on a Te Deum setting for the First Night of the Proms in 1944 but had become side-tracked by the incidental music for Henry V. Walton seemed pleased with his work:
I’ve got cracking on the Te Deum. You will like it, I think, and I hope he will too. Lots of counter-tenors and little boys Holy-holying, not to mention all the Queen’s Trumpeters and sidedrum (Letter William Walton to Christopher Hassall, 28 November 1952).
It is a magnificent work which not only captures the pomp and power of the ceremony but also has a film-like, rather cosmic quality. Full of antiphonal effects and punctuated by brass writing, it makes use of some ideas from sonata form with both a first and second subject (‘We praise thee, O God’ and ‘To thee Cherubin and Seraphin’) and a recapitulation.
Walton and Sir Michael Tippett (1905–1998) are part of an illustrious line of English composers who, whilst admiring the legacy and music of the church, were at best agnostic, and in some cases out-and-out atheists. Unlike Benjamin Britten, Tippett’s evolving musical genius was on a slow burn. He was thirty before any pieces were published and he could be fiercely self-critical about his work, destroying many of his earliest compositions. Tippett was born in Eastcote in Middlesex but the family soon moved to Suffolk and Tippett was sent off to boarding school, first at Swanage in Dorset, then at Fettes College in Edinburgh and finally at Stamford School in Lincolnshire. In 1923 he began studies at the Royal College of Music. Tippett’s output includes five operas, alongside significant orchestral, chamber and choral works: his cantata A Child of our Time is one of his best-known works.
In 1962, St John’s College, Cambridge, was celebrating its 450th anniversary and Tippett was commissioned to write a liturgical work in celebration. Tippett himself decided to set the evening canticles and the first performance was given in the Chapel by the College Choir under George Guest on 13 March 1962. Controversial at the time and controversial to this day, the setting underlines the revolutionary nature of the text (he ‘hath exalted the humble and meek … and the rich he hath sent empty away’). Tippett was particularly interested in the Trompetta Real stop which had recently been added to the St John’s organ and which, with its trumpets protruding at a 45-degree angle from the casework, was an inspiration from the organs George Guest had discovered on trips to Spain. The Magnificat starts with an ecstatic flourish from the Trompetta and can be a rude awakening to those used to the comfortable and comforting settings of the previous ages. The Nunc dimittis is particularly affecting. Ian Kemp describes the low organ chords as ‘the thumping in Simeon’s heart as he is about to meet his Creator’ and goes on to say that ‘Simeon is too old to voice his own thoughts. All he can do is say “Lord”. An angel plucks the words out of his thoughts and sings them for him’ (Kemp, Ian Tippett The Composer and his Music, OUP, 1987, p374).
Malcolm Archer (b1952) is much in demand as a conductor and composer. He was educated in Lytham before studying at the Royal College of Music and Jesus College, Cambridge. He held posts at Bristol and Norwich Cathedrals before being appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Wells Cathedral in 1996. In 2004 he became Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral before moving to Winchester College in 2007 where he is Director of Chapel Music and Organist. His setting of the Benedicite was written for the 2004 Southern Cathedrals Festival. A gently undulating opening leads to an energetic middle section which uses an ostinato figure in the pedal part of the organ before a return to the opening material and a gentle end.
Alec Roth (b1948) was born near Manchester and is of German-Irish descent. He studied music at the University of Durham, and gamelan at the Academy of Indonesian Performing Arts in Surakarta, Central Java. He was the Founder and Artistic Director of the Royal Festival Hall Gamelan Programme and Southbank Gamelan Players, Music Director of the Baylis Programme at English National Opera and Composer in Association at Opera North before moving entirely to freelance work.
His Jubilate was commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund for the annual St Cecilia Service and first performed by the combined Choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, under the direction of Andrew Carwood, in St Paul’s Cathedral on 21 November 2012. The text uses both Latin and English and the music is celebratory in character. It is particularly written with the resonant acoustics of St Paul’s in mind and makes use of frequent rests to punctuate the music. The Latin text is set first, followed by a contrasting section in which the trebles trumpet out the English text over a dancing accompaniment in the lower voices; the opening music returns briefly to end the work on a joyful note.
Andrew Carwood © 2014