This recording features St Paul’s Cathedral Choir at the peak of their power, performing a yearning sequence of liturgical works that includes some of the best-loved choral works of all time: Mendelssohn’s Hear my prayer (‘O for the wings of a dove’), an excerpt from Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, and Allegri’s Miserere. Twentieth-century ‘mystics’ Jonathan Harvey and Sir John Tavener are both represented, and the album reaches a crescendo through the expansive writing of Stanford in G and the joyously declamatory Te Deum by Benjamin Britten.
When Friedrich Wilhelm IV succeeded his father as King of Prussia in 1840, many reforms and changes were anticipated. One such reform was the reconstitution of The Berlin Academy of Arts which was expanded to include a new section for music. The king wanted Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) to take charge of this enterprise, and the composer was asked to go to Berlin for a year. His duties, however, were unclear, and it was only in 1843 that they came into focus. As one of his tasks, Mendelssohn was to direct the newly formed cathedral choir which consisted of male voices, although his duties were seriously impeded by the choir authorities. Mendelssohn wrote a series of cantatas based on Psalm texts at this time, and it seems that his work with the cathedral choir put the composer in the right frame of mind for writing shorter choral pieces. William Bartholomew of Walcot Place, Hackney, and adaptor of many of Mendelssohn’s English texts, wrote to the composer in 1843 requesting ‘one or two sacred solos with an organ accompaniment for some concerts we are to give at Crosby Hall, a renovated Gothic Structure which was once the palace of Richard the Third’. The concerts were those of Ann Sheppard Mounsey, whom Bartholomew married in 1853. The texts submitted were Judges 16: 23–31 (the ‘Death Prayer of Samson’) and a version of the opening of Psalm 55. The latter text was accepted by Mendelssohn, and this became Hear my prayer which was first performed on 25 January 1844. The original manuscript bears the heading ‘a paraphrasic version of Ps. 1v.’.
The work, scored for soprano solo, organ and chorus, was destined to become one of Mendelssohn’s most popular choral pieces, containing, as it does, the famous solo ‘O for the wings of a dove!’.
Dr Bernard Rose (1916–1996) was, until 1981, Informator choristarum at Magdalen College in Oxford. He was appointed to that post in 1957 and had been associated with Oxford University after leaving Cambridge in 1939 having taken his music degees there. As well as being a composer, Dr Rose was also a scholar in his own right, having concentrated his research in the early 1960s on the choral music of Thomas Tomkins. Under Dr Rose’s direction, the choir of Magdalen College quickly established a reputation as one of the finest college choirs in this country. Rose made many recordings with this choir, notably of music by less well-known early English composers.
As a composer, Rose’s output has been concerned with liturgical music, and many of his compositions have become standard cathedral repertory. The Feast Song for Saint Cecilia, with words by Gregory Rose, the composer’s son, was composed for the 1975 Festival of Saint Cecilia which was held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in London. With its refrain, set for treble soloist by the composer, the poem is reminsiscent of Auden’s ‘Hymn to Saint Cecilia’ set by Britten, whose Festival Te Deum in E concludes this recording. Here Rose sets the words carefully, drawing out the natural rhythms and painting the text in the most captivating manner.
Ye now are sorrowful is the fifth movement of Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Op 45. Eric Blom suggested that a better translation of this title would be ‘A Protestant Requiem’ rather than the more usual ‘A German Requiem’, for this is not a liturgical work. It is written in seven sections which distinguishes it from the five-part Roman Catholic Requiem. Brahms (1833–1897) selected the words for this work from Luther’s own translation of the Bible. The composer took an interest in polyphonic vocal music and this influence, coupled with the undoubted use of Handel as a model for his chorus-writing, is probably what makes the Requiem so complex in places. This is perhaps less true of the movement Ye now are sorrowful, where a soprano soloist—sung by a treble here—is accompanied by the chorus.
Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) is perhaps best known for his nine-part setting of Il salmo Miserere mei Deus (Psalm 51) and for his connection with the papal choir where he became a singer (probably a tenor) under Pope Urban VIII. The Miserere has traditionally been sung in Holy Week every year by the papal choir. The music was a closely guarded secret and, prior to Dr Burney’s publication of the work in La musica della Settimana Santa in 1790, there were only three copies of the work outside the papal chapel. These were in the possession of Emperor Leopold I, the King of Portugal and the composer Padre Martini. Although there is no evidence to substantiate the claim, it is said that excommunication would be the fate awaiting anyone who made an unauthorized copy of the music. Mozart heard the piece at the age of fourteen and either made a copy of the work during or after an actual performance. Although there is no doubt that Mozart was a genius, such a feat of aural dictation might not be quite as difficult as may be imagined: structurally the piece is fairly simple, being a falsobordone chant in five parts. A second four-part choir sing abbellimenti which contains the famous top C, certainly something of a rarity in the seventeenth century. The musical material is repeated five times to different verses of the Psalm, and the final verse is sung in nine parts. The edition used on this recording was prepared by Dr George Guest.
Like John Tavener, Jonathan Harvey (1939–2012) was an English composer who drew much of his compositional inspiration from religious material. Harvey was also inspired by many composers and theorists: Erwin Stein, Hans Keller and so Schoenberg; Babbit and so Schenke; Britten, Tippet and Maxwell Davies; Fauré, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen. In his early years, Harvey deliberately cultivated an eclectic outlook in his own music, although many of his early works were withdrawn. Harvey was also an enthusiastic electro-acoustic composer, and worked at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. Perhaps it is these multifarious influences which contributed to Harvey’s rich and varied compositional output.
Come, Holy Ghost was commissioned by the Southern Cathedrals Festival, with funds provided by the Southern Arts Association. The first performance was given by Winchester Cathedral Choir, conducted by Martin Neary, on 26 July 1984 in Winchester Cathedral as part of the Southern Cathedrals Festival of that year. The work takes as its theme the plainsong Veni Sancte Spiritus, which burgeons into a complex section derived from fragments of the material. The work ends with a statement of the doxology in plainsong.
Sir John Tavener (b1944) is an English composer who, in eschewing novelty, intellectualism and unnecessary complexity in his music, has created for himself a distinctly individual voice in contemporary music. Tavener on the one hand uses note rows, canonic and palindromic devices associated with Anton Webern, and on the other he exhibits what has been called ‘a taste for Romantic harmony [which] betrays the influence of Victorian hymn tunes’. Many composers would find this kind of harmonic discrepancy a difficult compositional medium to reconcile and in which to work, but Tavener clearly sees no such dichotomy.
Tavener’s inspiration has been religious texts and the writings of religious mystics. For many years he was organist at a Presbyterian Church, although his interest lay in Roman Catholicism. The year 1977 was a turning point for the composer for he converted to the Orthodox Church. He described this conversion as having the sensation of ‘coming home’. It is in the field of sacred music that this composer has laid out his most significant musical ideas. ‘Art’, says the composer, ‘cannot renew the sacred, but it can be a vehicle for the sacred.’ Characteristic of Tavener’s music is a tendency to inner stillness through sustained chords, and a preoccupation with aspects of religious ritual—such as a solemn procession. The ecstatic nature of his music has inevitably led to comparisons with the music of Olivier Messiaen.
I will lift up mine eyes was completed on 9 November 1989. For unaccompanied choir, it was commissioned by the 1990 City of London Festival. The first performance was given in St Paul’s Cathedral on July 8 of that year, by the choir of St Paul’s conducted by John Scott. The words of Psalm 121 are set homophonically in a series of simple harmonies, scored in such a way as to achieve a rich choral sonority. The mood changes in intensity between sections, some of which are sung over a sustained B in the bass part.
Following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the king took steps to re-establish the Chapel Royal. Amongst the choristers who sang there in the years immediately following the Restoration were Pelham Humphrey, Robert Smith, Michael Wise, John Blow, Daniel Roseingrave, Thomas Tudway, William Turner, Henry Hall and Henry Purcell. These composers form what is generally referred to as the ‘Restoration School’. They were certainly influenced by Charles II’s appointment of ‘four and-twenty violins’ to the Chapel Royal. Pepys recorded this event on 14 September 1662 as follows: ‘This the first day of having vialls and other instruments to play a symphony between every verse of the anthem; but the musique more full than it was last Sunday, and very fine it is.’ The diarist Evelyn records the date (probably incorrectly) as being 21 September and not the 14th as Pepys indicates. Evelyn noted: ‘Instead of the antient, grave and solemn wind musiq accompanying the organ, was introduc’d a concert of 24 violins between every pause after the French fantastical light way, better suiting a tavern or playhouse than a church. This was the first time of change, and now we no more heard the cornet which gave life to the organ, that instrument quite left off in which the English were so skilful.’ Evelyn is partly responsible for the fallacy that the liturgical music of the Restoration was inappropriate for church use. Christopher Dearnley (John Scott’s predecessor as Organist at St Paul’s, whose performing edition is used on this recording) has noted that Restoration composers ‘did not need much encouragement from a merry monarch after the Puritan years of goody-goody high-mindedness’.
One of the choristers who sang during this period, Michael Wise (c1647–1687), returned to the Chapel Royal at Whitehall in 1676 having been a lay clerk at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Eton College, and organist and instructor of the choristers at Salisbury Cathedral. On the recommendation of James II, Wise was appointed almoner and master of the choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral in January 1687 once the musical life was re-establishsed at the Cathedral following the Fire of London in 1666. This appointment would have required his resignation from his post at Salisbury Cathedral, but the sequence events which followed is unclear. Wise evidently remained in Salisbury; one Anthony Wood recorded that on 24 August 1687 (St Bartholomew’s night), ‘he was knocked on the head and killed downright by the night watch at Salisbury for giving stubborn and refractory language to them’. Wise was replaced at St Paul’s by fellow chorister John Blow.
Wise’s anthem The ways of Zion do mourn is considered to be his masterpiece. Some of the sources mark ‘Ritornello’ at two points in the score as do some later manuscripts of this piece. This suggets that the anthem may originally have been intended to have instrumental interludes—as had been introduced at the Chapel Royal. None of these instrumental passages is extant, although this is hardly surprising as such string accompaniments were short-lived and later taste was to omit or shorten such passages.
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wrote many settings of the Evening Canticles and much church music. Of all of his settings, perhaps the most attractive is the Evening Service in G, Op 81. The rippling, arpeggiated organ accompaniment in the Magnificat is almost as important as the solo treble line which floats above it. The choir provides a sustained harmonic backcloth against which and with which the soloist interacts. Written in October 1902 and published two years later, the Magnificat is a delicately woven minature, of which it has been written: ‘It is intended to portray the Virgin Mary as a young girl rapturously singing to the accompaniment of her own spinning wheel.’ This over-romanticized view may have roots in Stanford’s upbringing in Dublin; the composer took a great interest in Irish folk music and Irish folklore may well have shaped such a vision. Stanford certainly had a tremendous feel for vocal melody; the seeds of such melodic sensitivity must certainly have been sown by the time he became a Choral Scholar at Queen’s College in Oxford in 1870.
Stanford’s Nunc dimittis or the ‘Song of Symeon’ is written for bass soloist; the choir has a similar role to that in the Magnificat although the music is more restful. The Gloria is in unison with the exception of the words ‘world without end. Amen’ where the parts melt imitatively out of each other into the coda.
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) made a significant contribution to church music. His Festival Te Deum in E, Op 32, was written for the Centenary Festival of St Mark’s, Swindon, and was first performed on 24 April 1945. It dates from a period of considerable musical success for Britten. Many of his works from the 1940s have become well established in their own repertoires: Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Op 27, A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28, Prelude and Fugue for string orchestra, Op 29, Rejoice in the Lamb, Op 30, Serenade for tenor, horn and string orchestra Op 31, Peter Grimes, Op 33, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op 34.
It was during this period in Britten’s life that he discovered the riches of Purcell’s music, perhaps best illustrated in Rejoice in the Lamb where the Purcellian ‘Halleluia’ bears some affinity to a verse anthem. Britten developed for himself a declamatory style which is quite clear in the Festival Te Deum. The score of this Te Deum is marked ‘quasi senza misura’ and the music is written out in an unorthodox manner. The organ part maintains a strict three-in-a-bar with appoggiaturas played on the beat. The choral part is barred in a variety of ways over the organ part, sometimes with five quavers in a bar, sometimes with seven. Britten allows the rhythm of the words to dictate the flow of the chorus parts. A new section begins at the words ‘Thou art the king of glory, O Christ’, before the opening material, now developed, returns once more at the words ‘O Lord save thy people’, this time sung by a treble soloist.
William McVicker © 1991