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.
from notes by William McVicker © 1996