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O magnum misterium

Twentieth-century carols
Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor) Detailed performer information
Download only
Previously issued on CDH55216
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: August 1996
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Lucas
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: October 1996
Total duration: 76 minutes 31 seconds

This disc brings together some of the best examples from the English carol revival, a genre which had largely fallen from favour in the three centuries before our own. Works by Warlock, Howells and their contemporaries sit ideally alongside contemplative chant from the medieval tradition at Salisbury, in its time as quintessentially English as the twenty-two twentieth-century carols here so crisply performed by the exciting group Polyphony.


‘A gloriously sung collection … captures the tranquil pastoral mood of Christmas Eve. The recording could hardly be bettered’ (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

‘Polyphony is superb … the most completely recommendable new issue for Christmas I've found so far’ (The Independent on Sunday)

‘The choir conveys Warlock's genius quite irresistibly. These are superlative performances, beautifully recorded. A first-rate production’ (Organists' Review)
In an age when communal singing has become less than fashionable, the tendency to discharge large amounts of voice around a municipal Christmas tree or during a rare visit to church makes the singing of seasonal carols a generous exception. So it is surprising that such a break from this great British singing hang-up is attached to a literature of music that has had so patchy a history.

In the three centuries following the medieval period the magnificent corpus of British carols, which incorporated liturgical propriety, celebration, sincerity, mass appeal and the form’s dance origins, suffered an inglorious and almost complete demise. The virtual ban on Christmas celebration (in church at least) imposed during the Civil War by parliament between 1644 and 1660 can hardly have helped these carols’ cause. Even in Restoration England, when Christmas was again deemed not overly Popish or indulgent, changes in musical and religious taste caused the carol to be slowly transmuted into homophonic chordal hymns, or hardly disguised convivial songs full of gluttony and figgy pudding.

In the nineteenth century a number of elements conspired to bring about the revival of the ‘traditional’ carol. These included the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, an emerging scholarly interest in early music – including plainchant – and the growing Victorian enthusiasm for pseudo-medievalism and the sentimental recreation of an idealized, antique yuletide. In 1836 Thomas Wright printed an initial set of Songs and Carols from the fifteenth-century Sloane Manuscript (a number of whose texts are represented on this disc). In 1853 a collection of plainchant hymns and carols from the Swedish–Finnish Piae Cantiones of 1582 was issued as Carols for Christmas-tide by the Anglo-Catholic cleric J M Neale (he of ‘Good King Wenceslas’) and the pioneer of the plainchant revival, Rev Thomas Helmore. A further edition, 42 Christmas Carols New and Old, was published in 1871 by the chaplain and organist pairing from Magdalen College, Oxford, Rev H R Bramley and John Stainer.

And so it was that in the latter half of the last century the production and singing of carols became widespread. As great a number of new carols was written as old texts and/or tunes were resuscitated – and it is to this body of work that Percy Dearmer doubtless referred in the preface to the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. The carol he said, had been ‘in jeopardy’ only fifty years before, and he lamented further that ‘our churches were flooded with music inspired by the sham Gothic of their renovated interiors’. Then he quotes from Sir Henry Hadow’s ‘little book’ Church Music (1926): ‘There has probably been no form of art in the history of the world which has been so overrun by the unqualified amateur as English church music from about 1850 to about 1900 … and it is only during comparatively recent years that any serious attempts have been made to eradicate it.’ Needless to say the music on this disc comes from this time of new, improved revival (as it were). The chant, of course, is ancient: all ‘gothic’ without the ‘sham’.

The plainchant used comes from the English Sarum rite, a medieval modification of the Roman liturgy in use at Salisbury Cathedral, and increasingly in other English dioceses, between the thirteenth century and the Reformation. Notated plainsong is the codification of an aural tradition, and the process of ‘Chinese whispers’ – the passing down the line of this chant from Rome to Wessex – has caused subtle, piquant variations of melodic content (the Sarum is generally more melismatic) and text (take, for example, the title ‘O magnum misterium’, representing the preference of the clerics of Salisbury for the letter ‘i’ over the more usual ‘y’). Notational procedure is different too, Sarum being more restrained in its indication of note-lengthenings. This is not to say that medieval English singers necessarily took fewer temporal liberties than their counterparts on the Continent; the provision of a straighter, unadorned musical text would perhaps have allowed them greater improvisatory freedom.

In the context of this disc, achieving definitive, musicologically correct answers is not a principal goal. Chant does not feature in the sequence of music to add any kind of liturgical authenticity or academic backbone, nor is it included because this five-letter ‘c’ word has prompted the recording industry’s most startling sales orgy in recent years. Instead, the aims of its inclusion are more purely musical: to act as intermittent palate-cleansers amidst the harmonically lush environment of twentieth-century polyphony; to offer subtle associations of melodic character between the new and the old; and perhaps even to blur the distinction between harmony and monophony. In the same way that many single lines could be drawn from the Warlock or Howells pieces and be revamped into quasi-chant, so too the listener’s imagination may conjure harmony from the solitary course of the plainchant. And of course the chant’s home-grown status, from middle England rather than high Rome, keeps it free from modern Solesmes-style accretion and allies it to the essential Englishness of the disc’s core repertoire.

Over half a century separates the earliest and most recent works: from Warlock and Howells at the end of the Great War to Leighton and Walton in 1970. But the most significant unifying feature of these carols is that they are eminently singable. Broadly, they all stem from the English lyric tradition whose folk-song and plainchant influences are strong enough to manufacture vocal lines which are rarely angular, and a harmonic idiom with is hardly astringent. This is music which almost always successfully negotiates the tricky territory between stark modernism and adventureless diatonics: here, indeed, is a collection of art-music carols which will neither be found in the netherland of rarely performed essays in avant-gardism, nor amongst the legion of super-pop, bring-a-teddy-bear-and-parent Christmas concerts.

The links between the composers on this recording are many: Walton was the first President of the Peter Warlock Society founded in 1963, and Richard Rodney Bennett is the current one; Warlock and Howells found themselves submitting their own Balulalow settings to the Copyright Office within weeks of each other in 1923 – a coincidence remarkable if only because there were no other known settings of this sixteenth-century poem before this time; and one of Warlock’s legendary corpus of unprintable limericks begins, ‘Do not ask to your house Herbert Howells …’, the concluding rhyme requiring little conjecture.

The three gems by Herbert Howells featured here were written between 1918 and 1920 and printed as a set of Carol-Anthems by Stainer & Bell. The young composer’s immensely adroit work was strongly influenced by Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and his early orchestral output expertly fused wistful, lyrical elements with more grandiose and pompous ones. It is the gentler side which is so exquisitely present in these choral works – the side which asserted itself more and more following the death of his son Michael in 1935. There is the expert lilt of Sing Lullaby, the easy ebb and flow of A Spotless Rose, and the surprising expansiveness coming from unassuming beginnings in Here is the little door (to words by Frances Chesterton which Howells dedicated to her husband G K). All are touched by Howells’s magical wand of lyricism and an ability to craft the most telling cadences. The closing ravishment of A Spotless Rose, for example, is a particularly eloquent paradox of warmth and chill.

In an letter to his publisher in 1965 William Walton mentioned that he was working on the commission from Coventry Cathedral for a Missa Brevis: ‘I doubt if there will be more than 8 to 10 mins. of it. Remembering the boredom I suffered as a dear little choirboy, I’ve made it or am making it as brevissima as poss.’. Despite this comment on his time at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Walton’s output of church music was steady, and often distinguished, throughout his life – and the handful of carols is no exception. What cheer? was written in 1961 for the collection Carols for Choirs edited by David Willcocks and Reginald Jacques – an enterprise which has continued through the years in various follow-ups and revamps to become the sine qua non of choirs around the carolling world. The text is taken from Richard Hill’s Commonplace Book (16th century) and the setting is infused with syncopated bounce and a harmonic texture of compounded thirds.

Writing about Philip Heseltine / Peter Warlock, Osbert Sitwell recalls in his memoirs: ‘William [Walton] entertained a high regard for him and greatly enjoyed his conversation, and, together with Constant [Lambert], would go down to spend convivial evenings with him in Kent, where Heseltine was living: whence the two young composers would return very late, with footsteps faltering through the now uncertain immensity of night …’

So they were youthful drinking chums; but musical admiration was only one-way, it seems. Whilst Heseltine once observed to the composer and critic (and his future biographer) Cecil Gray that ‘this youth will go a long way’, Walton’s retrospective view of Heseltine in 1967 was less generous: ‘On thinking about the Van Dieren and the Warlock lot, I don’t think they were a very savoury lot or really produced anything in particular. Warlock is either ‘Elizabethan hearty’ or nondescript wanderings in the Van Dieren and Delian styles’ (interesting words from the then-President of the Peter Warlock Society!). Whatever the extent of Warlock’s limitations – and compared to a body of work as varied as Walton’s this was considerable – his carol and song output stands up to any comparison.

In the recent film Carrington, it appears that any person of artistic and intellectual brilliance in the first decades of this century knew everyone else of their kind; a terrain of acquaintance that traversed many creative and academic disciplines, a congregation of bright and beautiful young things, and an important meeting of minds (and, as Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington show variously in the film, bodies too). Viewed from the closing years of the century it seems like a fabulously rich and interesting period – not only debauched and chaotic, but of immense creative product too. Pluck out the names of central importance at random – Sitwell, Morrell, Bloomsbury, the Café Royal ‘bohèmerie’ – and Philip Heseltine will doubtless tap into their worlds in some way; for his place in the orbit of these interlocking circles was by no means remote. Being a man of letters as well as music, he was well suited to this environment. In addition to close ties with fellow musicians such as Delius, Van Dieren, Moeran, Beecham, Walton, Lambert, and Elizabeth Poston, Heseltine’s cronies and partners-in-carousal included the writer Aldous Huxley, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, and the artist Augustus John, through whom there is a posthumous link to another renowned pub-crawler, Dylan Thomas, in that both men married models used by him (Caitlin Macnamara-Thomas and Bobby ‘Puma’ Channing, the one official, and estranged, Mrs Heseltine).

And in 1915 Warlock met D H Lawrence. A friendship was forged at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell (Garsington Manor, now the home of summertime semi-alfresco opera) and in the same year they had an extended stay at Lawrence’s Cornwall retreat in Portcothan. Warlock’s fascination with the Cornish language – then seeing some revival from virtual extinction – began at this time. In 1917, his relationship with Lawrence already somewhat soured, a second Cornish visit prior to a draft-dodging time in Ireland found him staying in The Tinners Arms in Zennor and, subsequently, in a rented cottage nearby. Heseltine’s literary interests had drawn him to the magazine Celtia, and it was from here that he drew two carol texts, in Cornish, by Henry Jenner. The more expansive of the two is featured here; a thirteen-page carol-anthem whose text was translated into English by Trelawney Dayrell Reed for its publication in 1924 by Boosey & Co. The text is intriguing because, whilst it is conventional in its material at the outset (shepherds, angels, stables, guiding stars, etc.), a certain Celtic flavour is hinted at when the ‘Three wise men, kings’ are declared to be ‘druids’ also. And then, after a quadruple piano cadence mid-way, God is implored to defend Cornwall ‘From Tamar river to far Land’s-End’. This brief moment of regional bias then reverts to neutral yuletide sentiment until the end.

The dedicatee of all three versions of Warlock’s suite Capriol, the French composer Paul Ladmirault, wrote an appreciation of Warlock for a French publication in 1927. As a Breton, he was evidently fascinated by Warlock’s connection with an ancient language, and by this carol in particular. To satisfy linguistic curiosity for himself and his readers, he isolated one particular line from the carol and gave its Breton equivalent. Let us go one step further, giving the Welsh too:

The Blessing of Christmas be upon you (English)
Bednath Nadelek genough re bo (Cornish)
Bennoz Nedelek ganeoc’h ra vo (Breton)
Boed bendith y Nadolig arnoch (Welsh)

One last note on this Cornish carol. Warlock’s opening instruction has an informality and verbosity about it that is positively Graingeresque (or does it suggest the influence of the Priest of Love in full Rainbow flow?): ‘To be sung fairly fast, with sudden alternations of hardness and sweetness, of rude heartiness and tenderness touched with awe’. During their 1915 Portcothan sojourn Lawrence and Heseltine amused themselves at night writing a play, a symbolic comedy about Heseltine and his then-girlfriend ‘Puma’. Later Heseltine was to be less amused when he found himself thinly disguised in Women in Love as ‘Halliday’ (and ‘Puma’ as ‘Pussum’, a name changed in later editions to ‘Minette’). Threats of legal action resulted in an out-of-court settlement from Lawrence’s publishers, Secker.

There must have been some kind of ‘rude heartiness’ about Heseltine and his friend Bruce Blunt at Christmastide in 1927. Recollections by the latter in correspondence to a friend in 1943 reveal a certain earthy pragmatism in the business of celebrating, through words and music, the birth of the Christ-child: ‘In December 1927 we were both extremely hard up, and in the hopes of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol which should be published in a daily paper. So, walking on a moonlit night between The Plough at Bishop’s Sutton and The Anchor at Ropley, I thought of the words of Bethlehem Down. I sent them off to Philip in London, the carol was completed in a few days and was published (words and music) in The Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves ‘Carols Consolidated’.’

Whatever its between-pub origins and future-pubs motivation, Bethlehem Down is an exquisite creation, far removed from Warlock’s bawdy, drinking-song, filthy-limericked side. With gossamer tenderness, the taut weave of chromatic sideslips perfectly complements the text. Its affect is remarkable.

So too are the settings of texts from the fifteen-century Sloane Manuscript, As dew in Aprylle and I saw a fair maiden, both of which benefit from the same masterful part-writing and harmonic sophistication. These two principal aspects of Warlock’s work spring from his relationship with the music of Delius on the one hand, and with sixteenth-century polyphony on the other. Despite, or because of, changes of time-signature in virtually every bar, there is a smoothness to As dew in Aprylle which would surely have pleased Delius (whom Heseltine had first met in 1910 through his uncle who lived close to Grez-sur-Loing). One particular subject of Heseltine-the-biographer, Don Carlo Gesualdo, would no doubt have been titillated by the more deviant, cadential chromaticisms found both in this work and Bethlehem Down.

The deliciously limpid symphony of parallel triads in the refrain of I saw a fair maiden is closely matched by a refrain of similar wording and melodic shape in Lullaby my Jesus. This is a transcription from Capriol made by Andrew Carter and set to, in his words, a ‘pastiche rock-a-bye-baby’ text in 1976.

The third text used by Warlock to come from the Sloane Manuscript (now housed in the British Library) is that of Benedicamus Domino. This was the medieval liturgy’s closing versicle and, as befits a text which signals the end of a spell in church or chapel for someone who may have been more interested in ‘opening time’, Warlock sets it in a suitably extrovert, lively C major manner.

Sadly, it appears that such upbeat thoughts were far from Warlock’s mind in the run-up to his last Christmas in 1930. In a telling letter to his mother, Mrs Buckley Jones, on 15 November Heseltine wrote: ‘I would very much rather come and visit you at some time other than Christmas. It is a season of the year that I dislike more and more as time goes on, and the Christmas atmosphere and festivities induce for me an extremity of gloom and melancholy which makes me very poor company at such a time. I find it very much better to remain more or less alone and devote myself to some quiet work’.

That ‘quiet work’ turned out on the night of 17 December to be an act of self-extinction in his Chelsea flat when, in the eerily potent words of Augustus John, he ‘put the cat out, locked the door, and turned on the gas’.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Five Carols were written for Michael Nicholas and the Choir of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, and received their premiere there on 23 September 1967 as part of the St Matthew’s Festival. As a commissioned set it was in good company: the same church had already witnessed premieres of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, his Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria for organ, and Finzi’s Lo, the full final sacrifice; other composers commissioned by St Matthew’s at other times have included Arnold, Burrell, Crosse, Dyson, Howells, Mathias, McCabe and Tavener – a formidable list. Bennett’s profile has since spread into more diverse territories – including that of self-accompanying cabaret crooner and film-score composer par excellence – but in the swinging ’60s he was definitely one of the decade’s most fashionable ‘serious’ composers. An indication of this, perhaps, is the fact that these five carols were performed in London by the John Alldis Choir in Wigmore Hall the day after their first performance, and two of the five went on to be sung at the King’s College Christmas Eve service in Cambridge three months later.

If Warlock’s As dew in Aprylle is most characterized by its shifting metres, then Bennett exploits further the possibility for metrical disjunction in at least three of the five carols. Out of your sleep, There is no rose, and, to a lesser extent, Susanni all manage a jazzy, mixed-metre swing – influenced perhaps by the medieval texts which in their original settings would not themselves have been subject to the ‘tyranny of the barline’. Bennett’s style here is relatively straightforward, creating spare textures through duo passages at the octave, two-part unison canons and the like, and maintaining prescribed melodic patterns of thirds, fourths and fifths in each piece for unifying effect. Two carols appear to be anonymous and sourceless – That younge child and Susanni. (‘Susanni’ comes from an old German word for ‘lullaby’: from ‘sausen’, the verb ‘to hum or sing in a low voice’, and ‘ninne’, an obsolete word for ‘baby’.) The text for Sweet was the song is attributed to William Ballett’s Lute Book, copied in about 1590 and now found in the library of Trinity College, Dublin; that of There is no rose comes from a roll of manuscript in another Trinity College, that in Cambridge; Out of your sleep comes from the Selden Manuscript, dated c1450 and found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Just as a number of these texts find themselves housed in universities, so were Kenneth Leighton and Peter Wishart firmly attached to academic establishments for much of their careers – the former as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University until his death in 1988, the latter as a composition academic in Birmingham, London, and, until his death in 1984, Reading. Wishart’s Alleluya, A new Work is come on Hand is a thoroughly accomplished, lively work, written in 1952 for the Birmingham Singers’ Club. Its swaying 9/8 tempo provides the framework for contrasting, clearly stated and well-worked musical ideas: the two-on-two dialogue of the verses; a unison six-part tutti which shifts the harmonic centre from E to E flat; and the carol’s most distinctive feature, the tumbling cascades of the ‘Alleluya’ refrain – a joyous peal of bells.

All five Leighton works on this disc feature soprano solo and SATB choir, a combination clearly dear to the composer. The Star-song, An ode of the birth of our Saviour, and Lully, lulla form his Op 25 set, written in his mid-twenties and published in 1956. The first two are settings of poems by Robert Herrick, and the third, justly popular for its lyrical, expressive control, comes from the sixteenth-century ‘Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors’. This latter carol – one that is known in its medieval incarnation better perhaps than any of its contemporaries – comes from the conclusion of the mystery play performed in Coventry each year on the Feast of Corpus Christi (hence the familiar dubbing ‘The Coventry Carol’). The Pageant proceeds from the Annunciation and Nativity to the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. This beautiful lullaby text is sung by the women at this concluding point of the play in order to put their children to sleep before Herod’s soldiers might locate them by their crying. (Subsequently in the play the soldiers do burst in and, after some stout resistance – one mother brandishing her cooking implements – a soldier utters the chilling words, ‘Who heard eyver soche a cry of women thatt there chyldur have lost?’)

Of a rose is all my song sets a fifteenth-century anonymous text dealing, like the Howells and Bennett, with the Virgin Mary compared to a rose, and ten years earlier, in 1960, Leighton had composed A Hymn of the Nativity, a similar setting of a text by Richard Crashaw (who also wrote the words used by Finzi in Lo, the full final sacrifice). In this piece a solo soprano starts out alone, proceeding to weave a lyrical line above the flowing choral accompaniment. In these two later works Leighton’s distinctive use of compound triadic harmony – thirds piled high – is most apparent, and Of a rose evokes a chant-like serenity within a consistently whole-tone environment.

In John Byrt’s All and some, a setting from 1961 of another Selden Manuscript text, a similar narrowness of melodic contour to that in the Bennett carols is employed. An A minor-ish tune is distributed verse-by-verse through the different voices, sometimes at the octave in two parts, and the piece eventually breaks out of this tonality for a relatively saucy tri-tonal conclusion. Stephen Layton describes the work as ‘a magnificent evocation of a medieval pageant, one which has the revellers gradually dispersing and fading into the distance’. Both all and some, no doubt.

Meurig Bowen © 1996

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