Nunc dimittis H127 [3'23]
Holst’s Two Psalms, for chorus, string orchestra and organ, H117, were written in 1912 at a time when the composer’s compositional style was undergoing a process of textural and structural refinement. He had recently completed the last of his Sanskrit works, The Cloud Messenger, which had been a complete failure, although his next major composition was to prove extremely successful—the symphonic picture ‘Mars’ for The Planets. Holst composed very little religious music as such, probably as a result of his somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the Church. He found the spiritual aspect enormously appealing, but felt stifled by regimented orthodoxy. Of the current two Psalm settings, that of Psalm 86 is the more striking with its greater textural variety and emotional range, though the beautiful setting of Psalm 148 has a compensating warmth of expression that is rarely found in Holst’s music.
The melody for Psalm 86 was composed, or at least adapted, by L Bourgeois in the Genevan Psalter (1543). The first text (‘To my humble supplication …’), sung by the chorus, is a metrical version of the words by Joseph Bryan (1620); the second (‘Bow down thine ear …’), sung by the tenor soloist, is taken from the Authorized Version of the Bible (Psalm 86: 1–6, 12).
The setting falls into three sections. The first (text 1, lines 1 to 8) is characterized by the chanting of the basses and altos intoning the Psalm melody over a low sustained pedal G. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the richly harmonized setting of the same music which follows in the string orchestra. The middle section (text 1, lines 1 to 8 with text 2) is announced by the tenor soloist who sings the Authorized Version with a rhythmic freedom denoted by the lack of bar lines (senza mesura) whilst the sopranos and altos reply with a harmonized version of the Psalm melody. All three lines poignantly interact at the words ‘And plenteous in mercy’. The line beginning ‘I will praise Thee’ is sung here according to Holst’s alternative instructions in the score: ‘Instead of one voice, a few chosen voices may be used if preferred.’ The rousing fortissimo final section (text 1, lines 9 to 16) brings all four parts together in unison for the first time, the chorus singing in canon with the orchestra. The ending unwinds swiftly from the massive organ-dominated climax, fading quietly away into silence.
Psalm 148 was written for Holst’s pupils at St Paul’s, hence the relative simplicity of the choral writing. It takes for its text the traditional Psalm words paraphrased by Francis Ralph Gray; the famous melody is taken from the Geistliche Kirchengesänge of 1623. Like its companion piece, the setting is in three sections. The first (lines 1 to 6) in C major begins with all voices in unison at the octave, followed by fifteen bars of Alleluias for the sopranos, altos and basses in a magical series of rising and falling sixths and thirds. The harmony is tonally conventional, especially by this composer’s standards, except for the interpolated B flats in the final Alleluia. The middle section (lines 7 to 18) moves to E major, starting with a setting for tenors and basses (7 to 12), followed by a further harmonization for the sopranos and altos (13 to 18). The final section (lines 19 to 24) returns to C major, and is contrapuntal in style, the interweaving and overlapping entries in total contrast to the chordal texture of the opening sections. Throughout this section, the basses sing the Psalm melody in augmented time to form a counter-melody to the other moving parts, creating a cantus firmus effect. The rousing final bars send the Alleluias soaring aloft, culminating in two exhilarating forte-fortissimo chords.
The Six Choruses for male voices and string orchestra, H186 (Op 53), were composed between 1931 and 1932 and represent both Holst’s last major creative utterance, and his final work to be awarded an opus number. The words are by Helen Waddell, from her book Medieval Latin Lyrics. Written just after the Choral Fantasia and Hammersmith, these pieces extend still further the refinement of detail and economy of expression which characterize all of Holst’s later music. His tendency in these works towards de-personalization and an adoption of a cerebral style has tended to alienate audiences who are inclined to react against their apparent emotional frigidity. However, observed as one might study, say, an intricate watch mechanism, these pieces reveal an unexpected and unique beauty all of their own.
The stark, cold severity of the opening section (stanzas 1 and 2) of Good Friday captures perfectly the paradox that is Mankind. On the one hand a compassionate being full of remorse for its own imperfections, on the other a mindless, vindictive organism capable of destroying its very own salvation. Throughout, Holst employs the heavy tread of a dominant-tonic ostinato, above which the vocal incantations are delivered with a beautifully crafted angularity. It is, however, with the arrival of the more optimistic mood of the fourth stanza that Holst plays his master stroke: he introduces into the vocal parts the emotionally potent orchestral prelude to stanzas one and three, thereby throwing the relentlessness of the rest of the setting into even bolder relief. When viewed in this context, the assertive final chords have a very hollow ring to them. The original Latin text is by Peter Abelard and the work is scored for TTBB. The score carries the instruction that the original string accompaniment recorded here may be undertaken by an organ or piano. It is dedicated to Dr Ernest Bullock and the Westminster Abbey Choir.
Intercession is, if anything, even more severe in tone than Good Friday. There is a similar processional feel to this music with its regular ostinato tread of a rising scale figure. Holst was always fond of unusual rhythmic metres and the 5/4 chosen here was one of his favourites (for example, ‘Mars’). In an explanatory note Holst points out that ‘the normal rhythm is a bar of 2+3 alternating with one of 3+2’, thereby shifting the subsidiary beat of the bar from the third to the fourth crotchet and back again. Bars of 4/4 and 7/4 also appear, but Holst consistently uses these changes of metre to draw attention to the natural emphasis of the words, rather than straightjacketing the assymetrical text into a rigid rhythmical framework. The setting divides into two balanced halves of three stanzas each, stanzas three and six being set at a faster più mosso tempo to lend urgency of expression to these crucial parts of the text. The morendo ending chillingly conveys the pervading sense of helplessness. The original Latin text is by Sedulius Scottus. Once again Holst provides organ and piano alternatives to the string orchestra accompaniment of the TTBB voices. ‘Intercession’ is dedicated to Irving Silverwood and the Holme Valley Choir.
The original Latin text for How mighty are the Sabbaths is by Peter Abelard and Holst dedicated the work to Archibald T Davison and the Harvard Glee Club. This setting, again for TTBB, is described in the score as a ‘Chorus for male voices and an ad lib chorus for treble voices in unison, with accompaniment for full orchestra or strings or organ’. The accompaniment recorded here is for strings only, with treble voices used as indicated from the twelfth stanza onward. Holst further suggests that in the event of a treble choir not being available, a solo trumpet may be used instead!
Once again, Holst’s concentration on the natural rhythm of the words leads to a sequence of changes of metre based this time on 7/4, but moving on occasion through 6/4, 3/2, and 5/4. This poem, the longest of the set, also embraces the greatest variety of emotional mood and expression. Once again, the setting opens with a scalic ostinato in the bass, this time in the form of a melodic descent (the opposite of the climbing figure that opened ‘Intercession’). The opening two stanzas are characterized by a forward-marching confidence and stoicism, in total contrast to the contemplative inwardness of expression at the mention of the Holy City. This sense of self-communion is further enhanced at the words ‘There all vexation ended’, marked parlante in the score, directing the singers to adjust their vocal production to resemble normal speech characteristics. The celebratory final section (più mosso ma non troppo) begins at the twelfth stanza where the treble choir sings the words of the opening two stanzas as a rousing counterpoint to the joyous celebration expressed by the faster-moving men’s voices underneath.
Described by Holst as a canon for male voices (TB), A Love Song is dedicated to Archibald T Davison and the Harvard Glee Club. The short setting carries Holst’s emotionally detached style to extremes, with relentless pizzicati underpinning the intellectual conceit of a two-part canon. Even the more expressive 3/4 setting of the words ‘Love the deceiver’ seems strangely remote. It is as though Holst succeeds in making all the right gestures, but fails to imbue the musical tissue with the necessary vitality for it to rise above mere enervation. Holst himself was painfully aware of this tendency in some of his music, often citing the slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet as the emotionally expressive ideal. The original Latin text comes from the manuscript of Benedictbeuren.
Taking another text from the Benedictbeuren manuscript, the hilarious Drinking Song shows Holst to have possessed a rare ability to handle a humorous subject in a musical context. The unbuttoned vulgarity and earthiness of mood are perfectly reflected in the mock-guitar accompaniment at the opening, and the dismissive, throw-away gesture at the words ‘Sobriety’ and ‘Emasculate’ which makes its effect most pointedly. This lively setting for TTBB is dedicated to Bernard Naylor and the Winnipeg Male Voice Choir.
The final setting, Before Sleep, is also the most beautiful, much of the music being held in suspension over pedal points in the bass. The rising and falling scale figurations that have been such a strong feature of the cycle as a whole are here resolved into legato phrases of gossamer simplicity and purity. By setting the two vocal lines in two different keys (although these are hardly adhered to), Holst is able with infinite subtlety to demonstrate his masterly control of harmonic tension and dissonance. Holst’s musical sensitivity here is never in doubt, being supported throughout by a technique of rare scope and imagination. This, the second of the canons for two-part male chorus (TB), is dedicated to Archibald T Davison and the Harvard Glee Club. The text is from the Latin of Prudentius.
The Evening Watch, H159 (Op 43 No 1), based on A Dialogue by the English metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1622–1695), is a beautiful setting for mezzo soprano and tenor solos and unaccompanied eight-part mixed choir; it was written in 1924. The ‘body’ is represented in turn by tenor and mezzo soprano soloists, the ‘soul’ by the full choir. The piece belongs to Holst’s neo-classical phase, typified by such large-scale works as the Fugal Overture and Fugal Concerto, the Choral Symphony, and the opera At the Boar’s Head. Works of this period tend towards a certain cerebral mode of expression as has already been noted in connection with the somewhat later Waddell translations. In this work much use is made of harmonies based on the superimposition of the interval of a fourth, often moving in ‘forbidden’ consecutives and parallel motion.
Holst includes a short footnote which states that ‘there should be no variation from sempre pp until near the end’, thereby ensuring that the music sustains a detached purity throughout. However, despite this apparently cool exterior, the composer consistently succeeds in illuminating the text in a manner that readily demonstrates his considerable musical insights and enviable technical skill. When, at the very end, the music gradually rises towards a final, emphatic fortissimo chord, the effect is one of a blaze of colour transforming a world of monochrome half-light. Throughout the motet the music representing the ‘body’ is unbarred and marked senza mesura, indicating that it is to be sung in a rhythmically free style.
In total contrast to the Six Choruses, the Seven Partsongs for female voices and string orchestra, H162 (Op 44), to words by Robert Bridges (1844–1930), possess a refreshing sense of spontaneity that readily communicates itself. Bridges, Poet Laureate, was a close friend of the composer’s and inspired a large number of vocal settings by him. There can be no doubt that Holst’s personal sense of involvement coupled with his usual technical skill combined in these settings to produce an unjustifiably neglected masterpiece.
The elusive and mystical quality of these poems appealed instinctively to Holst. He later recalled: ‘I did the first of the Bridges poems the moment I caught sight of the words, since when I’ve been wondering what they mean.’ The pivotal tonal centre of the cycle is E, enriched by the composer’s highly personal brand of modal harmony, with its hypersensitive response to the changing moods of the text.
Say who is this, along with the second and third songs of the set, is dedicated to Dr J E Wallace and the Liverpool Bach Choir and scored for SSA chorus. The poem about a sinister, mystical figure would have particularly appealed to Holst, given the composer’s interest in the supernatural. The community’s sense of anxiety is wonderfully evoked in this quiet setting, the musical dynamic never rising above piano. The sense of an ever-present being from whom nothing can be concealed is suggested by a long-held dominant pedal B (28 bars) in the violas, only interrupted by the cellos’ entry at the mention of the stranger’s ‘eyes’. The mysterious origins of this visitor (‘Whence came he hither … ?’) is chillingly evoked by the pizzicato violins doubling the sinister unison murmurings of the choir. The chilling final verse is sung by a solo soprano (senza mesura) accompanied by a low E tonic pedal. This musically resolves the sustained dominant opening, perfectly mirroring the text which suggests that the burial of the stranger will finally bring its own resolution of sorts.
O Love, I complain is more detached in expression, recalling the remote neo-classical style of much of Holst’s work at this time. Emotion is intentionally held at arm’s length, mirroring the somewhat whimsical nature of the poem. Following the natural rhythm of the words, Holst employs a series of constantly changing time signatures; the first two verses alone move through 2/4, 3/8, 2/4, 3/4 and then into 4/4 for verse 3. Holst employs greater textural variety in this setting, the first two and fifth stanzas being set for soprano semi-chorus, the rest being in three parts. The imposing unison at ‘My heart I could fashion to sternness’, marked con largezza in the score, is not only the focal point of the text, but in its directness of expression seems to suggest something essential to Holst’s own creative character.
There is a sense of far greater emotional involvement in Angel spirits of sleep which possesses a genuine warmth rare in Holst’s music whilst still exhibiting exemplary technical control. The opening stanzas are set to music of surpassing beauty and relatively simple means, the chain of ostinato fourths in the muted violins and violas supported by another tonic E pedal. The poignant change of harmony at the word ‘weep’ at the end of the first stanza, emphasized by its suspension across the strong beat of the next bar, is a masterstroke. The dreamlike atmosphere is further enhanced by the total avoidance of rhythmic counterpoint between the voices and the employment of extended passages of unison singing. The increased tonal stability allows Holst to colour the ethereal third stanza with a move into C major before returning to E for the remainder of the setting. The closing pizzicato on an open-ended dominant perfectly creates the sensation of drifting slowly away.
When first we met is dedicated, along with the fifth and sixth songs of the set, to Harold Brooke. It divides into six main sections as follows: (1) the theme is announced in the first sopranos followed closely by the first violins; (2) begins at the entry of the second sopranos with ‘When first we met’ answered this time by the second violins; (3) starts at the altos’ first entry (‘When first …’) with violas and cellos in unison, who sing an augmented version of the original while the second sopranos steal their thunder by singing the original round simultaneously; (4) is contrapuntally the most complex (‘Who could foretell …’), with the second sopranos weaving in and out of the string parts; (5) consists of an augmented version of the theme in the first sopranos (‘When first …’); (6) sees the altos finally get to sing the original version of the round!
Sorrow and joy, a short allegretto setting, is cast in Holst’s beloved 7/4 time, the rhythmic subdivision indicated in the score as 3+4. The whole piece is based on a scalic ostinato accompaniment first heard at the beginning in the violas marked ‘staccato, pizzicato’, joined alternately by the second sopranos and altos. The second stanza is highlighted by the unison singing of the choir, the remainder of this setting reverting to the opening ostinatos.
The whole of the brief, evocative setting Love on my heart is derived from a pattern of falling and rising scales, imbued with a generous warmth of expression. This delightful miniature falls into three sections corresponding to the stanzas of the original text. The first is announced by an ethereal soprano solo, perfectly evoking the purity and simplicity of the opening lines. The second stanza is set for unaccompanied chorus, characterized by flowing overlapping entries, before the orchestra returns for the glorious third stanza, supporting the opening melody, now transformed by the choir in unison.
The setting of Assemble, all ye maidens, dedicated to Frank Duckworth, is not only the most extended of the partsongs, but also a supreme masterpiece and one of Holst’s most profound compositions. The atmosphere created by the opening soprano solo supported by a cold, lifeless E pedal in the first violins is quite unforgettable. The warm sound of the tutti choir then enters, the pedal point gradually rising to A flat for the third stanza, set once again for solo soprano, only this time accompanied by an open fifth drone (A flat / E flat). The choir then calls for the ‘flute and tabor’, the orchestra entering dutifully in response to the word ‘music’. At the words ‘sinking semi-tone’, Holst cannot resist allowing the first sopranos and altos to illustrate the point with the appropriate musical response. The processional tread of the fifth stanza is familiar from earlier settings, but is soon replaced by the urgency of the choir’s ‘’Twas at this sheltering hour’, over another chilling pedal point (F natural changing to an F sharp / B natural drone for ‘As scarce she dared’). The introspective seventh stanza recalls the lonely, distant sound of the soprano once more (A flat / E flat drone). The last two stanzas flow into one another in a final musical utterance of breathtaking nobility.
The unaccompanied Nunc dimittis, H127, was written in 1915 and remained in manuscript form until 1979 when a published edition appeared, revised by the composer’s daughter, Imogen Holst. For soprano and tenor soloists and unaccompanied eight-part choir, the piece was written for Richard Terry, then organist of Westminster Cathedral. It was first performed liturgically on Easter Sunday, 1915, after which it was totally forgotten. The first performance of the revised version was given by the BBC Singers under Stephen Wilkinson on 11 June 1974 in Framlington Church.
Holst was passionate about the music of Byrd and Palestrina, which is clearly shown here in the modal writing, and the way the male and female voices of the choir answer each other antiphonally as, for example, at the words ‘Lumen ad revelationem gentium’. The piece was originally composed in B flat, although for the revised version recorded here the music was transposed down a semitone to A. It makes a fitting conclusion to this recital of wonderful but little-known music whose current neglect is as baffling as it is inexcusable.
Julian Haylock © 1989