'This is one of the most impressive discs I can recall from this choir' (Fanfare, USA)
This sequence of music for Lent, Passiontide and Easter represents a journey through perhaps the most dramatic part of the Church's year. It is a season which has inspired many composers to write some of their most potent pieces, and contrasts the seriousness of intent and poignancy found in, say, Lotti's Crucifixus with the exuberance of music such as Philips's Ecce vicit Leo.
Other favourites in this anthology include Mendelssohn's I waited for the Lord, Bruckner's Christus factus est, and the beautiful Gibbons setting of Drop, drop, slow tears with the soloist Anthony Way (who caused such a stir in television's The Choir). There are also two important new works, by John Sanders and Brian Chapple.
A celebration both of Easter and of exceptional singing.
Other recommended albums
This sequence of music for Lent, Passiontide and Easter represents a journey through perhaps the most dramatic part of the Church’s year. It is a season which has inspired many composers to write some of their most potent pieces, and contrasts the seriousness of intent and poignancy found in, say, Lotti’s Crucifixus with the exuberance of music such as Philips’s Ecce vicit Leo.
The texts are taken from a variety of sources. Of the Lenten anthems, Farrant’s text is from Psalm 25, and Mendelssohn’s from Psalm 40. Bairstow uses a text selected from the Lamentations of Jeremiah; the setting was intended to be sung as an alternative to the Benedicite at Matins in Lent.
The texts of the Passiontide music presented here are mostly liturgical: the Reproaches are sung during the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and Ecce lignum Crucis is an invitation to that veneration. Christus factus est is the gradual for Maunday Thursday and is contrasted with the hymn Drop, drop, slow tears by Phineas Fletcher (1582–1650). The text of the Crucifixus is from the central section of the Credo—the statement of faith for all Christians.
Of the Easter texts, This joyful Eastertide is a hymn by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1849–1934) and is now often used as an introit on Easter Day, whilst Psalm 114 is sung at Vespers. The words Ecce vicit Leo are taken from the Book of Revelation and are used as the responsory for Matins in Easter week, whilst the Te Deum is the triumphant Matins canticle sung on Easter morning (here to a setting by Britten) in tonus solemnis when in plainsong.
The first piece heard on this recording is the plainsong responsory Hear us, O Lord (Attende Domine) which is traditionally sung during Lent and known in the English liturgy as the ‘Lent Prose’. It is to be found in the Liber usualis (in its Latin version) as one of the cantus varii, and appears in an English translation in the English Hymnal (1906), having been adapted by W J Birkbeck.
In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2), Rosencrantz says to Hamlet: ‘There is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapp’d for’t. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages—so they call them—that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills and dare scarce come thither.’ The ‘little eyases’ to which Shakespeare (1564–1616) alludes are in all probability the choirboys of St Paul’s, the Chapel Royal and St George’s Chapel in Windsor. Richard Farrant (?1525–1580) leased a building in 1564 of ‘six upper chambers, loftes, lodgynges or Romes lyinge together within the precinct of the late dissolved house or priory of the Black ffryers’. Here he ‘rehearsed’ the boys in public, effectively staging musical and theatrical events.
Farrant became a wealthy man through this venture and the boys were much in demand at the court of Elizabeth I. He was one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in the 1550s and sang there during the reign of Mary Tudor, taking up the post of Master of the Choristers at St George’s Chapel in 1564. In 1569 he became Master of the Choristers of the Chapel Royal. Each winter from 1567 he presented them to the Queen and produced a play.
Farrant exercised an important influence on church music. His association with the stage (using his choristers) must have led him to compose anthems in a new idiom—now known as the ‘verse’ style. He may well have been the first to introduce soloists to sing the verses. Few of his compositions survive, and the anthem Call to remembrance—although written in quite the opposite of the verse style—shows considerable sensitivity in the setting of the words. This, too, betrays his association with the stage. Consider, for example, the restrained trumpet calls of the opening of this anthem, and the changes of style at ‘thy tender mercies’, ‘which hath been ever of old’, ‘O remember not the sins’ and ‘but according to thy mercy’. These all reveal the hand of a skilful composer and musician.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote a substantial number of Psalm settings and sacred cantatas. He was born into a Jewish family, but his father, Abraham, took his brother’s advice and had his children baptized in 1816. One reason for this lies in the quest for social equality which the Jewish people of Germany sought after the French Revolution. Mendelssohn’s grandfather Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) was ‘the philosopher of the Enlightenment’ and his views helped formulate Felix’s own. The civil rights which went with that revolution were slow in coming to members of the Jewish community. A quick way to enjoy the fruits of the developing social structure, therefore, was simply to convert to Christianity. It was at this stage in his life that Felix added ‘Bartholdy’ to his surname. In his case the conversion was highly significant and a large number of religious works flowed from his pen.
The anthem recorded here forms part of the composer’s Symphony No 2, Op 52. This symphony-cantata is known as Lobgesang or the ‘Hymn of Praise’. Mendelssohn almost certainly attempted to emulate the effect of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. It is the choral section of Mendelsohn’s work which has kept it in the repertoire. The sixth principal section is the delightful duet ‘I waited for the Lord’. The work was commissioned by the town council of Leipzig and first performed on 24 June 1840. That year was the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing, and Leipzig was the centre of the German book trade. Mendelssohn was one of the most well known ‘Leipzigers’ and hence the commission was made. The first performance was in the open air to mark the unveiling of a statue to Johann Gutenburg who was considered the inventor of movable type.
Dr Francis Jackson’s book (Blessed City, York, 1996) on Sir Edward Bairstow (1874–1946) contains the five chapters of Bairstow’s incomplete autobiography together with letters to Jackson during the Second World War. One letter, dated 6 August 1942, reads as follows: ‘I have just done a “Lamentation”, the words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah selected by the Dean [of York, the Very Reverend E M Milner-White]. It is just a few chants of irregular pattern, and a refrain; but it is effective.’
It is interesting that this approach to composition is quite different to the complexities of his earlier pieces (If the Lord had not helped me, for example, written in 1910). An extract from his autobiography in the days when he was articled to Sir Frederick Bridge at Westminster Abbey in the 1890s records the funeral of Gladstone held there in 1898: ‘Gladstone’s funeral gave me a grand opportunity of seeing a host of celebrated personages. The choir was a union of all the most celebrated London choirs, together with St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The wonderfully solemn yet simple burial sentences of William Croft (1678–1727) sung unaccompanied by that great choir impressed me very deeply.’
Could it be that, subconciously, Bairstow was seeking something of the simplicity of Croft’s burial sentences in The Lamentation? Certainly this straightforward approach has a strong effect.
After completing his studies at the Royal College of Music and Cambridge University, John Sanders (1933–2003) was appointed Assistant Organist at Gloucester Cathedral and Director of Music at the King’s School in 1958. Five years later he became Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chester Cathedral where he also revived the city’s Music Festival. He returned to Gloucester in 1967 to direct the Cathedral’s music and the Three Choirs Festival. He was awarded a Lambeth DMus in 1990, the FRSM in 1991 and the OBE in 1994. He retired from his cathedral post in that year to concentrate mainly on composition and directing the music at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
The Reproaches was written in 1984 when part of the revised liturgy for Good Friday was introduced at Gloucester Cathedral. The work received its first broadcast performance on Good Friday 1987 on BBC Radio 4 and was recorded in the same year. The form and atmosphere take as a point of reference Allegri’s Miserere, with its use of plainsong contrasted with harmony in the verses, although the harmonies used perhaps have more in common with Gesualdo, which the composer said ‘gives the music a sense of timelessness’.
Brian Chapple (b1945) studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Henry Isaacs and Sir Lennox Berkeley, winning several major prizes for composition and musicianship. Chapple’s compositional output is varied: he has experimented with minimalism, serialism, neo-classicism and electroacoustic textures. His list of works includes a Piano Concerto (1977), a number of other important piano works, the Little Symphony (1982) and some substantial works for chorus and orchestra, including Cantica (1978) and Magnificat (1986).
Chapple was a chorister at Highgate School and has never lost touch with liturgical choral music. A renewed interest in the Church and church music followed the death of his parents in the 1980s which he has described as ‘a rekindled awareness of mortality’. This led to two works, the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1984) in memory of his father, and In Memoriam (1989) in memory of his mother. Beneath Chapple’s experiments with avant-garde forms lies a conservatism which has had further expression in recent sacred choral works. The most recent of these pieces are the Evening Canticles, the St Paul’s Service written for St Paul’s Tercentenary celebrations in 1997.
The composer has kindly supplied the following note for this recording:
Ecce lignum Crucis was first performed on Good Friday (during the Three Hours Devotion), 9 April 1993 in St Paul’s Cathedral by the choir conducted by John Scott and has been performed there on subsequent Good Fridays. John Scott had earlier (in 1991) commissioned my Missa Brevis for male voices and Ecce lignum was written with both the choir of St Paul’s and the acoustic of the building in mind. It was intended to be part of a larger Holy Week work which never came to fruition. The other remnants of that project are Miserere Mei and Ubi Caritas (both associated with Maundy Thursday) which became numbers 1 and 2 of Three Motets (1992). Ecce lignum uses the simple refrain-chorus repetition technique which I employed in Ubi Caritas. The threefold repetition gives the effect of a step-by-step closer approach to the Cross. This is achieved by progressively adding doublings in thirds, sixths and octaves, and also by lengthening the phrases and pauses of the final choral adoration.
The first piece of mine to be inspired by my rediscovery of Renaissance church music was Lamentations of Jeremiah (1984): Ecce lignum and Three Motets are more influenced by the intensity and colour of Victoria and Byrd (than Palestrina).
Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) is well known as one of the greatest symphonic composers to have lived. Born in Upper Austria, he was acquainted with the organ and church music at an early age. He was a chorister at the Augustinian monastery of St Florian after his father’s death (returning there in 1845 as first assistant teacher) and left in 1855 to study with Simon Sechter (1788–1867). Bruckner unsuccessfully applied to be organist of St Florian and was appointed organist of Linz Cathedral in the same year, staying for thirteen years. In 1868 he moved to Vienna as teacher of counterpoint and organ at the Conservatory and provisional organist of the Imperial Chapel. It was in this period that Bruckner achieved widespread fame as an organ recitalist. He visited London in 1871 to play at the Royal Albert Hall and gave five organ recitals at the Crystal Palace. In 1870 he became teacher of theory, organ and piano at the teacher training college of St Anna, resigned in 1874 and was appointed lecturer in harmony and counterpoint at the University of Vienna.
Bruckner continued to write church music amidst the varying degrees of success of his symphonic works. Interestingly, it was only with the Seventh Symphony in 1884 that he achieved real public recognition, and this was the year, after a visit to Prague, that the composer wrote his third and finest setting of the motet Christus factus est.
This gradual moves through a number of keys with apparent ease. The key of D minor gives way to D flat major in a mere nineteen bars. The exploitation of the expressive range of the voices shows a mature composer at work; of particular interest is the magnificent handling of the dominant (and later, tonic) pedal note at the words ‘quod est super’, as the complex harmonies move above it. Bruckner’s ability to enliven a texture through polyphony, colour and sense of forward tread enabled the late Arthur Hutchings to pronounce this composer ‘the greatest church composer of the romantic century … if this description is misapplied, who is Bruckner’s rival?’
Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) is one of the giants of early church music. He sang in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, between 1596 and 1598 at the same time that his brother Edward was Master of the Choristers. He became a student at the University in 1599 and by 1603 was singing in the Chapel Royal in the reign of James I. By 1615 he was an organist there; by 1625 he had become the main organist (his assistant being Tomkins) and was listed as such at the funeral of James I in that year. He was also noted as being organist at Westminster Abbey, having succeeded Parsons in 1623.
On 1 May 1625 Charles I married Henrietta Maria by proxy—this had happened in Paris and the King had been in London. Once married, Henrietta set sail for England with four thousand courtiers and servants. James, not wishing to appear to meet her on anything less than an equal footing moved his whole court to Canterbury where the two courts were to meet. The court included all the choir, vestments, books and ornaments from the Chapel Royal. Whilst waiting for Henrietta and James I to arrive back from Dover, Gibbons died of ‘an apoplectic seizure’. His death is recorded in the Chapel Royal cheque-book as follows: ‘Mr Orlando Gibbons organist, died the 5th of June, being then Whitsunday at Canterbury, where the King was then to receive Queen Mary, who was then to come out of France and Thomas Warwick was sworn in his place organist the first day of July following.’ Gibbons was buried in Canterbury Cathedral the next day. It was rumoured that he had died of the plague—a story denied by the doctors, but which was quite likely, the denial probably being to protect the retinue from desertion in the face of a major state event.
The hymn Drop, drop, slow tears is the first strain of the tune known as ‘Song 46’, the beautiful words being by Phineas Fletcher.
One might be forgiven, when listening to the church music of Antonio Lotti (c1667–1740), for thinking that he was a Venetian composer contemporary with Palestrina in the High Renaissance. His music sounds as if he were writing in the late 1600s when he was, in fact, a contemporary of J S Bach. Lotti may even have been born in Hanover; his father had been Kapellmeister there. Antonio Lotti studied in Venice with Legrenzi (1626–1690)—who was maestro di capella at St Mark’s church—sang in the choir there and by 1689 was regularly singing alto; he became an assistant to the second organist a year later. By 1704 he had become first organist and in 1736 maestro di capella, a position he held until his death. Thus Lotti lived and breathed the life at St Mark’s and its music. He must have absorbed the style of the Renaissance composers through his exposure to the music through the choir of St Mark’s.
Lotti also composed twenty-eight stage works. He was granted leave in 1717 to go to Dresden to write an opera, completing three in a period of two years. When he returned after his final trip to that city in 1719, he kept the carriage and horses given to him for his return trip to remind him of his success. After this he remained in Venice. As composer he was clearly able to adapt to the stylistic demands placed upon him. He wrote in the Baroque idiom of the late seventeenth century, adjusting his style to the new, leaner harmony of the approaching Classical era. Above all, his love and mastery of contrapuntal and imitative writing dominates in his later years, and the composer became very highly regarded. Burney was moved to tears on hearing his music at St Mark’s in 1770, and reported that ‘Hasse regarded Lotti’s compositions as the most perfect of their kind’. That ‘kind’ is perhaps best regarded as a stile antico in which the composer imitated the style of a bygone age.
Lotti wrote many versions of the Crucifixus, for 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-part choirs. This version is written in 8 parts; the basses begin and the music unfolds organically towards an impressive cadence. The pungency of the music is obtained through the suspension, dissonance and resolution of the long slow lines. This gives way to quaver movement before moving back to the slow sustained harmonies of the opening.
The compositions of Charles Wood (1866–1926) have firmly held their place in the music lists of cathedrals and parishes in England; a considerable number of his pieces have become standard repertoire. Much of his work was published posthumously and his string quartets are awaiting revival.
Wood was Irish and having studied at the Royal College of Music took up residence at Selwyn College, Cambridge, prior to being elected to a fellowship. A portion of his church music was written for the excellent college choirs and this explains the profusion of pieces for double choir.
Wood’s harmonization of the tune Hoe groot de vrugten zijn (from David’s Psalmen, Amsterdam, 1685) is sung as the anthem or hymn This joyful Eastertide.
The same straightforward approach seen in The Lamentation can be found in Bairstow’s setting of Psalm 114 In Exitu Israel, where the conventional Anglican psalm-chant undergoes modification with dramatic results. In this case a single chant undergoes a series of variants. These include the dramatic fortissimo at the words ‘Tremble, thou earth’, together with a 32-foot pedal reed stop and the unusual treatment of the words ‘springing well’. This psalm-chant first appeared in the York Minster chant book in 1929. One of Bairstow’s favourite devices is employed to good effect in both The Lamentation and Psalm 114—that of a sudden excursion into the flats: in The Lamentation the key of A flat major was used at the words ‘Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us’, and in Psalm 114 this takes the form of an unexpected harmonic shift at the words ‘What ailest thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest’.
Another composer working in the early seventeenth century was Peter Philips (c1561–1628). Philips was English, although he fled abroad in 1582. He was a chorister at St Paul’s in 1574 and is mentioned in the will of Sebastian Westcote, who was Almoner there. Westcote died in 1582, had been appointed to this post in the reign of Queen Mary and enjoyed ‘a measure of royal protection’. His will left £5 to each of four boys (including Philips); perhaps he had been protected by Westcote who was an ardent Roman Catholic. Philips was also a Catholic, and his certificate of residence in Brussels states that he fled ‘pour la foy Catholique’.
Philips went to Rome and studied with Anerio. In 1585 Lord Thomas Paget stayed at the English College in Rome where Philips was organist, leaving with Paget on 19 March of that year, now in his employ. With Paget, Philips toured Europe, settling in Brussels in 1589, later moving to Antwerp after his lord’s death. Roger Walton, discovering the composer to be in Amsterdam in 1593, announced to the Dutch authorities that Philips had been involved in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth. Philips was arrested, imprisoned and subsequently acquitted. In 1597 he was employed in the household of Archduke Albert (who married Isabella of Spain) and went on to spend the rest of his life working in the Spanish Netherlands. Until recently it had been assumed that Philips had been ordained priest, but this seems now to be untrue. He did, however, devote his life after 1603 almost exclusively to sacred music. Certainly, apart from William Byrd, Philips was the most published composer of the age, and he too became well known and highly regarded.
The anthem Ecce vicit Leo comes from the collection Cantiones Sacrae of 1613, a collection of thirty double-choir motets. It is said of Philips that he deliberately cultivated the stile antico of his forebears. If this is true, then his assimilation of the style must have been thorough as his mastery of the double-choir idiom is so complete. Some of the effects are quite breathtaking, for example at the words ‘accipere virtutem’ where the vigorous exchange of material reaches a climax.
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) made a small but highly significant contribution to liturgical music. His two settings of the Te Deum could not be more different. The earlier setting in C major is the one recorded here. It was written for Maurice Vinden and the choir of St Mark’s, North Audley Street, in London in 1934 and was first performed on 27 January 1936. It is usually paired with the setting of the Jubilate Deo in the same key, but these works are separated by some thirty-three years.
The energy-laden opening is effectively a dialogue between the détaché pedal part and the choir. This builds up to an impressive climax at the words ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth’. This dialogue continues as bass, tenor, alto and treble in turn join the organ’s response to the three-part chorus. After another climax the mood changes and a treble soloist sings in dialogue with the chorus (at the words ‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ’). This substantial solo occupies almost a third of the piece before the opening mood returns at ‘O Lord, save thy people’; the initial material is reworked with a new word underlay and moves to a new climax at ‘And we worship thy name’. A section marked ‘animato’ recalls the energy of the opening of the work. The final section marked ‘più lento’ brings to a close a work which is remarkable for its tight thematic integrity. The role of the organ is reminiscent of Stanford’s great Te Deum in B flat, which, it should be recalled, was significant for the substantial organ part which enters into a dialogue—as Britten’s does here—with the choral parts.
William McVicker © 1997