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This is the sixth release in the ever-popular series of English Anthems from St Paul's Cathedral in London. Alongside favourites such as Stanford's For lo, I raise up and Elgar's Ave verum this volume includes new works by Jonathan Harvey and John Tavener commissioned by the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral and here recorded for the first time.
Stanford’s sense of the dramatic is, perhaps, at its best in For lo, I raise up, Op 145, written in 1914. In his B flat Service (1879), the role of the organ assumed a new importance and heralded the end of the sentimentality which had been a characteristic of Barnby and others. But perhaps it is the marriage of an almost operatic sense of the dramatic and a precision of formal construction distilled from larger forms which makes Stanford enduringly successful in his church music.
Like John Tavener, Jonathan Harvey (b1939) has drawn compositional inspiration from religious material. Harvey has also been inspired by many composers and theorists: Erwin Stein, Hans Keller, Schoenberg, Babbit, Schenke, Britten, Tippett and others. In his early years, Harvey deliberately cultivated an eclectic outlook in his own music, although many of the works from this period were withdrawn. He is also an enthusiastic electro-acoustic composer, and has worked at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. Perhaps it is these multifarious influences which contribute to Harvey’s rich and varied compositional output.
Dum transisset sabbatum was commissioned for the 1995 City of London Festival Service and first performed by the choir at St Paul’s Cathedral conducted by John Scott on 2 July 1995. The composer has kindly provided the following note for this recording:
The motet takes a seemingly simple moment from the Gospel, significant because it is a very feminine moment in a masculine doctrine and a moment of great mystical power, on the verge of Christianity as a supernatural force. The ‘virtuosic vocality’ is a celebration of the florid, ecstatic atmosphere of Easter morning. The exuberant lines—usually one fast, one medium speed and one slow—are woven through eight modes which recur in order with ever shorter time-spans until they are crunched into chords at the end.
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was born in Broadheath beyond the River Severn in Worcestershire. His mother and father had left Worcester to live in the country away from the town. Psychologically Elgar probably never quite shook off his humble beginnings as the son of a piano tuner. In 1889 he married Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts, KCB—a person of some social stature. (The ramifications of marrying ‘above one’s station’ are satirically noted in several of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas—think, for example, of HMS Pinafore.) In 1890 Edward and Alice Elgar moved to lodgings in Norwood, close by the Crystal Palace. Shortly afterwards they moved to Kensington but in June 1891 they were forced back to the West. Elgar almost certainly felt humiliated—a spell in the capital failed to seal his bid to become a successful composer and he had to return to the provinces. In addition, he was a Roman Catholic in Protestant London, and this had not helped his cause.
Ave verum corpus comes from Elgar’s opus 2 of 1887, its companions being Ave Maria and Ave maris stella. How remarkable it is that such an early work has become so well known. Its appeal surely lies in its simple yet enchanting melody allied with clarity of formal construction. It is fascinating to compare miniatures such as Ave verum and the well-known Salut d’amour with the more confident works on a broader canvas from the late 1890s. This neatly charts the composer’s psychological growth from provincial composer and successful miniaturist to established national prominence and fame.
Sir Michael Tippett was born in London on 2 January 1905 and spent his childhood in Suffolk, Italy and the South of France. Remarkably, Tippett knew he wanted to become a composer from an early age and entered the Royal College of Music in 1923 to study composition with Charles Wood (and later with Charles Kitson) and conducting with Sargent and Boult.
Tippett’s earliest works were withdrawn from publication and by 1930 he was studying again at the Royal College of Music with R O Morris. Apart from a spell in North Yorkshire, the 1930s were spent centred around the South London (Morley College) Orchestra. In 1934, having given up school teaching he conducted a number of amateur choirs and in 1940 was appointed a director at Morley College, a post he was to hold until 1951. 1943 saw a period in Wormwood Scrubs for failure to undertake non-combat military duties as a conscientious objector during the Second World War.
From 1951 Tippett was able to devote more time to composition, and today he enjoys a reputation as one of this country’s most important composers. He was knighted in 1966 and became a Companion of Honour in 1979. By the end of 1983 he had been awarded the Order of Merit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He has numerous honorary doctorates from British universities and has membership of the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 1976 saw the award of a gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society and 1984 the Prix de Composition Musicale from the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco. In 1988 the French government created him Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
The unaccompanied double-choir anthem Plebs angelica dates from 1943. Tippett visited Canterbury to hear Alfred Deller who was at that time a lay clerk at the Cathedral there. The canon precentor, the Reverend Joseph Poole, encouraged the composer to write this work which was first heard in the crypt (where services were held during the war) of Canterbury Cathedral performed by the Fleet Street Choir conducted by T B Lawrence on 16 September 1994.
Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) is represented on Volumes 1, 2 and 4 of this series of ‘The English Anthem’ with Blessed City, heavenly Salem and Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Volume 1), Save us, O Lord (Volume 2) and Jesu, grant me this I pray (Volume 4). The anthem recorded here, If the Lord had not helped me, is less well known than the others, but is perhaps the most beautifully crafted of all of his choral pieces. As with some of Stanford’s anthems and services, the organ’s role is significantly more than mere accompaniment. From Stanford emerged forms which broke away from the ‘full’ and ‘verse’ anthem structures which had characterised much of the repertoire. With Bairstow the relationship between the choir and organ is taken a step further than in Stanford’s music. In this piece the organ begins in the dark key of E flat minor, and presents a variety of ideas: a descending pattern in the right hand with a rising and falling accompanient. This initial pattern is repeated on a clarinet stop together with a chromatic descent. The third and fourth bars develop these two ideas: an elaborated right-hand part and reply on a clarinet stop, together with rising phrases giving way to further chromaticism. The reason for pointing out these features is that much of the material of the anthem is contained in these first bars; the choral parts enjoy a degree of independence from the figures which sustain the texture of the organ part. The beauty and skill of the construction of this work is evidenced further by the almost continuous contrary motion of the parts in the imitative entries at ‘in the multitude of the sorrows that I had in my heart’.
As with all great music, the technical construction of a work is subservient to the music. This music feels as if it is almost continuously unfolding and expanding on a vast canvas. Although this feeling is born of enviable technical control on the composer’s part, the listener is left aware only of the skill of matching the sentiment of the words to the music.
Christopher Dearnley (b1930) was educated at Worcester College in Oxford before becoming Assistant Organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1954. From 1954 he was Organist at Salisbury, moving to become Organist and Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1968 and 1990 when he retired on his sixtieth birthday and emigrated to Australia. Since then he has been working on a locum basis at a number of cathedrals and churches there. He was Acting Director of Music, Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney, (1990-91), Organist Locum Tenens, St David’s Cathedral, Hobart (1991), Director of Music at Trinity College, University of Melbourne (1992-93), and Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral, Perth, from 1993.
Let thy hand be strengthened is a setting of verses 14 and 15 from Psalm 89. It was written for and first sung at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Service held at St Paul’s Cathedral in July 1977.
Sir William Harris (1883-1973) is represented on Volume 3 of ‘The English Anthem’ with the double-choir work Faire is the Heaven, on Volume 4 with Bring us, O Lord God and on Volume 5 with O what their joy and their glory must be.
Harris was a pupil of Sir Walter Parratt, Charles Wood and Sir Walford Davies at the Royal College of Music, holding posts at New College and Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford and at the Royal College of Music before moving to St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in 1933. Harris could hardly be described as a prolific composer, but his music is well planned and carefully executed. Kenneth Long describes his anthems—and, in particular, Strengthen ye the weak hands—as ‘some of the last roses of a very long summer’, and correctly notes that they are in the same vein, and have similar formularies and outlook to examples by Stanford.
This anthem opens with a recitative for tenor. Particularly noticeable is Harris’s attention to the detail of word-setting—take for example the music and rhythms at ‘then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing’. From this point the organ has an important part—a characteristic of Harris’s work also demonstrated in O what their joy. The music was written in Canterbury Cathedral and first sung there at the opening service commemorating the Science and Art of Healing at the Canterbury Festival, 25 June 1949, and is generally used on St Luke’s Day.
John Tavener (b1944) is an English composer who, in eschewing novelty, intellectualism and unnecessary complexity, has created for himself a distinctly individual voice in contemporary music. Tavener on the one hand uses note rows, and canonic and palindromic devices associated with Anton Webern, and on the other 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 when 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 Tavener has laid out his most significant musical ideas. 'Art', he says, 'cannot renew the sacred, but it can be a vehicle for the sacred.’
Characteristic of Tavener’s music is a tendency towards 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.
The Three Antiphons for unaccompanied choir were completed on 25 January 1995 in response to a commission by the World War II Commemorations Team and St Paul’s Cathedral. The work was first performed on 7 May that year at St Paul’s, on the occasion of the Service of Thanksgiving, Reconciliation and Hope to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. The composer has provided the following note with this work:
The texts of these Three Antiphons are taken from the Psalms and from Isaiah. The music should be performed soberly and with dignity, without any triumphalism. In the first, a small group of tenors and basses should be positioned at a distance from the main choir. In the last, which represents the Prophet's vision of 'the new Jerusalem' (something beyond our comprehension), a small group of sopranos and altos singing Alleluia represents angels. If possible, these singers should be placed in a high gallery so that their sound seems to come from the heavens.
Frank Howes neatly summarised the influence of Sir C Hubert H Parry (1848-1918) in his book The English Musical Renaissance as follows:
To Hubert Parry must go the chief credit for the awakening of English music from the complacent lethargy that had been growing on it for the best part of two centuries. He more than anyone, except Stanford, pulled it out of the rut of sentimentality, easy-going standards and disregard of literary values in vocal music; he raised the intellectual status of the musical profession and with that its place in public regard; he infused new life into musical education, set up higher standards and established worthier ideals; he gave to the arts as practised in Britain an integrity, moral, social ethic that it had not possessed since the time of Byrd and Gibbons.
Parry’s music has featured in Volumes 3, 4 and 5 of this series of recordings. Here we hear another of the Songs of Farewell written in 1916: My soul, there is a country. The music is an unaccompanied setting of a most exquisite poem by the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1622-1695). Vaughan’s reputation as one of the poetic masters of his period is due to an amazing outburst of creative activity following a spiritual regeneration which effectively turned him into a religious poet in his twenties and thirties. There is a most satisfactory parallel between Vaughan’s spiritual awakening and his creativity and Parry’s creative and catalytic effect on English music.
Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814-1856) was sent by his father to study with Thomas Attwood (1765-1838) who in turn had been a pupil of Mozart. Walmisley went to Cambridge and must go down in history as one of the busiest organists of all time. During term time he played at no fewer than eight services in Cambridge as follows: St John’s College 7.15am; Trinity College 8.00am; King’s College 9.30am; Great St Mary’s 10.30am; Great St Mary’s 2.00pm; King’s College 3.15pm; St John’s College 5.00pm; and finally Trinity College at 6.15pm.
Walmisley became Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1836, although at that time the post was so low-ranking that entry to the Senate House was barred. He elevated the chair by his own high academic abilities, on his own initiative instigated lectures on the subject of music for the university as a whole, and championed Johann Sebastian Bach of whom an English public knew virtually nothing. Walmisley died at an early age, suffering from depression and alcoholism. One curiosity is the tale of his well-known D minor Service which the composer threw into the wastepaper basket. It was rescued by the Reverend A R Ward of St John’s College, Cambridge, and has gone on to be one of the most popular settings of the Evening canticles.
Walmisley’s Lenten anthem Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us (1838) is unusual on account of the opening sarabande for organ which is followed by a dark but effective male-voice quartet. There are solo parts for a bass and a treble, the former a recitative and the latter one of Walmisley’s best treble solos. The final stages of the sturdy fugue which concludes the anthem (‘Thou, O Lord, remainest for ever’) contains an entry of the fugue subject in augmentation in the bass—that is to say, in note values twice as long as found in the initial subject; surely homage to the German master.
The music of Charles Wood (1886-1926) has featured on all discs except Volume 2 of this series, and biographical material on him may be found in other volumes. Here, a claim is made for Wood to be the most important educationalist after Stanford and Parry. Like R O Morris, Wood’s influence on English music was widely felt through his pupils both at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge. Time and time again one finds that Wood was a teacher of a noted composer, his pupils ranging from Vaughan Williams to Armstrong Gibbs, taking in Thomas Beecham, Sir William Harris and Sir Michael Tippett.
Wood appears not to have been an ambitious man and much of his music, including his string quartets, was published posthumously. Some of his anthems are well beyond the abilities of most parish choirs, and Tis the day of Resurrection is one such work. This is a setting of J M Neale’s translation of an ancient Greek Ode by St John Damascene. The work is in two principal sections headed heirmos and troparia which correspond to the two sections of an ode. The heirmos contains some impressive writing with canonic motifs debated between parts and between the two choirs. The second section, or troparia, is marked ‘Andante’ and opens with one choir singing the Genevan tune Au fond de ma pensée in a version by Goudimel (used also in his anthem Out of the deep). The second choir replies with elaborate imitative writing in direct contrast to the block harmonies of the hymn. This sort of writing can be found in German organ music in particular in the first half of the nineteenth century, the most well-known example being found in Mendelssohn’s first Organ Sonata (1844). The final section of Wood’s joyful Easter anthem is a recapitulation of the opening material, now set to new words. This strong ternary form gives the music a firm structure, often a characteristic of the most successful anthems.
William McVicker © 1996