Bairstow’s music has been recorded on several of the discs in this series of The English Anthem – a testament to the esteem in which his work is still held. Scarcely a month in the life of any choral foundation will go by without Bairstow’s music appearing on the music lists. He seems able to create an atmosphere in his music and to evoke the great spaces of a cathedral by dramatic or intimate musical gestures that reflect the detailed attention he paid to the text he was working on. This contrasts well with the work of Stanford, who frequently produces a straightforward musical structure and a singable tune that one could whistle on the way home. Bairstow, by contrast, is interested in the relationship of the organ part to the choral parts, building great climaxes in the music and contrasting them with simple yet dramatic ideas. The technical construction of the work is subservient to the music which often feels as if it is almost continuously unfolding on a vast canvas. His approach is scholarly and meticulous, showing the influence of Bach and Brahms.
The comparison with Stanford is interesting, because it was the latter who helped church music move away from the ‘full’ and ‘verse’ anthem structures which characterize not only the music of the Georgian composers, but which hung over through much of the nineteenth century and which can be readily identified in the musical structures of, say, Attwood, Goss and S S Wesley. Ouseley and Crotch were both formidable and influential figures in church music of the mid-Victorian period. Ouseley, strongly associated with the Oxford Movement, offered the view that liturgical music should be sober and avoid the frivolity which had characterized the musical efforts of the Georgians – particularly organists who improvised on themes from the latest opera – whilst Crotch expressed the view that S S Wesley’s anthem The Wilderness was effectively degenerate art because it stepped outside the recognized boundaries of what was acceptable ‘church fayre’. Stanford broke away from this mould and, while we do not think of him as an iconoclast, he opened the way for perfection as a miniaturist which is difficult to better. Stanford and Parry both allowed their organ parts to be freed from becoming mere accompaniments and effectively paved the way for Bairstow to unfold his own musical genius in a less inhibited way.
Francis Jackson, in his book Blessed City: the Life and Works of Edward C. Bairstow, notes that the orchestral oboe stop introduced towards the end of Lord, I call upon thee in the organ accompaniment ‘accompanied by Debussyan chords, magically ushers in the words “I will lay me down in peace and take my rest: for it is thou, Lord, only that makest me dwell in safety” conveying exactly the feeling of deep relaxation when the eyes swivel as sleep approaches’. The work dates from 1916 – a time when both Debussy and Ravel were in full creative flow. Bairstow was a follower of contemporary music and is known to have had copies of the music of these composers almost as soon as it was published.
from notes by William McVicker © 2005