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Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow (1874-1946)

Choral Music

St John's College Choir Cambridge, David Hill (conductor) Detailed performer information
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: January 2007
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: July 2007
Total duration: 61 minutes 21 seconds

Another great disc from the dazzling Choir of St John’s College Cambridge under their Director of Music David Hill, collaborating with great musicians including Roderick Williams, Paul Provost and the Britten Sinfonia.

The music of Edward Bairstow (1874–1946) is an essential part of the British cathedral music tradition. He set his texts ‘with a beauty which makes one never able to think of the words without recalling the music’, as the Dean of York wrote on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Certainly the more well-known works on this disc eminently fulfill this criterion. St John’s’ inspired recordings of these classic numbers in the matchless acoustic of the chapel make this a disc to treasure on these grounds alone.

However it also includes some glorious rarities from different points in Bairstow’s career, which demonstrate his mastery of different styles and developing harmonic language. The Five Poems of the Spirit are a particular highlight: beautiful and unusual settings of metaphysical poetry for solo baritone, choir and orchestra, performed with passionate commitment by the wonderful Roderick Williams.


‘An excellent disc in regard both to the standard of performance and to the selection of Bairstow's music. And to that should be added straight away the quality of recorded sound … the recommendation for this new issue is confirmed most decisively by the inclusion of the Five Poems of the Spirit … Roderick Williams is the ideally suited soloist and the Britten Sinfonia do justice to a delightful score’ (Gramophone)

‘His anthems and services … are treasured within the church. Their touch is sure, and their word-setting is impeccable … Bairstow could hardly have finer advocates than David Hill's St John's Choir, beautiful in tone and balance, admirable clear in enunciation, well supported by rhythmic organ playing, and outstandingly well recorded’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘Sung with real conviction by the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge’ (The Daily Telegraph)

‘Bairstow was several notches above the typical organ loft composer. His best work shows a keen sense of drama and a secure grasp of musical architecture … his music has a warmth and grandeur that continues the best of the great tradition of English cathedral music … the performances here are first rate … the present recording amply demonstrates that St John's has one of the finest choirs in England. In addition, the quality of the recorded sound is delightful. It is a spacious and sumptuous sound with good presences. The Hyperion engineers manage again and again to find the formula that seems to elude so many others’ (American Record Guide)

‘Having praised David Hill and the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge in April 2007 for their disc of works by Jongen and Peeters, I find it a pleasure to give an emphatic nod to this new release as well … the choir's intense sound is spot-on for this repertoire; no doubt Bairstow himself would have approved’ (International Record Review)

‘This disc brings a most welcome surprise, the rarely heard late set for baritone, choir, and orchestra, Five Poems of the Spirit (1944). Written during the dark days of the war, these radiate the assurance we also hear in Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs … Roderick Williams sings the generous baritone solos clearly and with conviction and the Britten Sinfonia provides a solid support’ (Fanfare, USA)

‘The very first track on the disc for instance, 'Jesu, the very thought of thee' is quite beautifully written. The choice and use of texts was of paramount importance to Bairstow and he sets these with great care … 'Blessed city' is on a grander scale and has real passion … most surprising of all is the sheer harmonic austerity. To those expecting tedious old Anglican Church music: think again! … the real revelation is Five Poems of the Spirit … these are perhaps a close relation of the Five Mystical Songs of Vaughan Williams and inhabit the same sort of rather reflective, and, yes, mystical soundworld, setting texts by the Metaphysical Poets Richard Crashaw and George Herbert as well as a beautiful poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, 'Purse and Scrip'. Bairstow responds to this with music that is confident, bracing, imaginative, and, at times, quite magical … the wistful ending of the last setting makes one regret all the more that Bairstow didn't spend more time or have the confidence to set his mind to these larger projects. Anyone who loves English choral music will respond positively to every moment of these settings. As for the performances—the ever-reliable and versatile Roderick Williams is as eloquent as always and the Choir makes some wonderful sounds—the entry in the fourth part of Poems of the Spirit is alone worth the price of the CD alone. Warmly and enthusiastically recommended’ (Classical Source)
Edward Bairstow was born in Huddersfield. Even as a young child he showed interest in music and felt that he had been born with ‘a sense of message’. After some disjointed early music lessons, he was taught more formally by John Farmer, and later by Sir Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey. He also acknowledged a debt to Sir Walter Alcock, who was sub-organist at the time. The experience of being part of a major ecclesiastical institution was to stand him in good stead later on.

In 1899 Bairstow was appointed organist and choirmaster at Wigan Parish Church. In addition he became chorus master of several choral societies in the North-West. He moved to Leeds Parish Church in 1906, securing the post there from among 320 applications. In July 1913 he succeeded Noble as organist and Master of the Music at York Minster. In 1929 he became professor of music at Durham University, a post he was able to combine with his York duties. He was a highly respected teacher with several of his students making their names in the musical world. Among the most distinguished are Elsie Suddaby (one of the sixteen soloists for whom Vaughan Williams composed Serenade to Music), Dr Francis Jackson, his successor at York Minster, Sir Ernest Bullock and Gerald Finzi. Bairstow’s direct manner and passion for truth were not universally admired; but for those who could take his direct honesty he was an inspiration.

His other passions were for words, and for the pursuit of beauty in all its forms, whether in music, art or architecture. It is these ideals that are seen most clearly in his compositions, which occupy a unique place in the history of English church music. He was of a later generation than Parry and Stanford, and although their influence can be detected in matters of form and structure, Bairstow forged a far more personal and distinctive style than any of his contemporaries. His music shows a clear progression from the language of his early works, such as the Evening Service in D, written in 1906, to the Five Poems of the Spirit, written forty years later. His youthful compositions are confident, exuberant and sometimes grandiloquent. There are occasional excursions into over-ripe, Victorian chromatic harmony, about which he eventually became highly critical.

His mature harmonic language contains skilful use of added notes, augmented and diminished chords and cadences of great beauty and originality. It is in his accompaniments, his imaginative use of contrasting keys and above all in his word-setting that his talent for composition is at its height. He uses melisma sparingly but when employed the result is arresting. There is a sense that he takes into account the exact weight, stress and rhythm of each word and phrase.

On the occasion of his seventieth birthday the Dean of York, Eric Milner-White, paid tribute to Bairstow’s gifts as a composer: ‘There can be few churches who do not use his music to enrich their services. His writing never panders to laziness, spiritual or musical, and is taut with sinew and bone: his texts are always Christian, never merely theistic, and he adorns them with a beauty which makes one never able to think of the words without recalling the music.’

Save us, O Lord was written in 1900 and contains broad and flowing lines. There is contrast between high and low voices at ‘Save us waking, Guard us sleeping’, reminiscent of a passage in Let all mortal flesh keep silence. The central section, fugal in structure, is followed by an atmospheric return to the opening material.

The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in D were written in 1906. They have energy, grandeur and an architectural control that give stature to the music. The organ accompaniment is full blooded and rich and much use is made of imitation between voices. The Gloria of the Nunc dimittis has an extended fugal finale leading to a joyful conclusion. Bairstow related how on one occasion the priest conducting the service was so overcome with excitement that for a while he was unable to start the Creed.

The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G were written and published in 1940. Dr H K Andrews had written a boisterous set of evening canticles that Bairstow considered foreign to the spirit of the words. The G major Service, meditative and prayerful, was Bairstow’s reaction to Andrews’ setting. The key signature of one flat gives an accurate hint of modal harmony and melody.

Commentators often assume that Let all mortal flesh keep silence was written with the vast spaces of York Minster in mind. In fact it was composed in 1906, the same year as the composition of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in D. It is the only work of the period that is unaccompanied and shows a restraint not apparent in other works from the same time. It was not published until 1925. Bairstow made two significant alterations when the work eventually appeared in print. In the second chord of the second Alleluia, the tenors originally sang an E sharp. Bairstow later changed this to an E, in order to remove any hint of sentimental chromaticism, which he loathed. The original manuscript of this piece is in F, not F sharp minor. The music captures the words perfectly with the sombre opening in octaves, followed by high voices lifting the mind ‘above all earthly thought’. The use of octaves increases a sense of mystery and awe. There is a massive build up through the ‘choirs of angels’ to the Alleluias, and the music eventually subsides with a magical harmonized version of the opening, complete with a cadence of unusual power.

In 1910 the Vicar of Leeds was away for some months with a serious illness. The first service he attended after recovering was one Friday evening, when the choir sang Psalm 94, unaccompanied. In his autobiography Bairstow describes what happened when the choir reached verses 17 and 18: ‘Dr Bickersteth was overcome; he sat down and wept. It struck me that I should like to set these words to music. But, thought I, the Psalms have been combed out by composers for many generations, they must have been set already. However, I looked through Novello’s anthem book and not a soul had tackled them.’ The result was If the Lord had not helped me. It has strong claims to being one of Bairstow’s most powerful anthems with its dark and brooding E flat minor opening. The themes are wide-ranging and dramatic. There is imitation in the section beginning ‘In the multitude of the sorrows’, in which the interval of a seventh features strongly. There is a sudden change of mood at the appearance of ‘For the Lord is my refuge’. The strong and confident middle section, ending in massive organ chords and unison writing, is in complete contrast to the opening of the anthem. The opening material appears again in C minor, and the work finishes, quietly confident, in E flat major.

Blessed city, heavenly Salem is one of Bairstow’s best-known works and was written shortly after he moved to York. It was composed for the churches in Heaton, Bradford and sets words from a seventh-century hymn, Urbs beata Hierusalem. The composer bases the work on the plainsong melody proper to the words. The music is in effect a series of variations in which the melody appears in a wide variety of different guises. There are especially fine passages for trebles only, and for tenors and basses accompanied by arpeggiated organ chords, a telling device but rarely used in organ-writing. There are two significant organ passages, one a massive crescendo leading to ‘Many a blow’, and the other a gradual descent to the final section that begins in D flat major. Here the melody is gently harmonized by lower voices, over which solo trebles sing a jewel-encrusted descant that almost sounds improvized. The home key of B flat major is eventually established shortly before the rapt and tranquil final cadence.

Lord, thou hast been our refuge was composed in 1916 for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy. It is one of Bairstow’s most extended anthems and was orchestrated for the occasion. The accompaniment is powerful and ingenious. The words, from Psalms 90, 102 and 144, are set with great imagination. Moments such as ‘Man is like a thing of nought’ are given vividly descriptive phrases. Another of the composer’s unique gestures is the way in which soft treble lines emerge from powerful climaxes. Bairstow makes particular use of motives and phrases to build a varied yet unified structure. At the opening, the trebles’ melisma on the word ‘refuge’ is a basis for the octave passages on the organ at ‘thou art God’. The same phrase reappears as a countermelody to ‘Comfort us again, now’. Keys are contrasted to great effect.

Jesu, the very thought of thee is one of three unaccompanied anthems written in 1925. There are some telling tenutos at the word ‘thought’ and some warm harmonies as the work progresses. The strongest moment, using the chord of a seventh, comes at ‘thy face to see’, after which there is a gradual diminuendo towards peace and repose. There is copious use of rests.

The Five Poems of the Spirit were completed in 1944. In a letter to Dr Francis Jackson dated 17 August 1943 Bairstow writes that ‘the Dean has chosen a set of religious poems which he wants me to set en suite for solo and chorus’. Later he writes that ‘I have been working at “Six Songs of the Spirit” … I have set them for Baritone Solo and chorus. One has women’s chorus, one none at all, one is all chorus and two are mixed. I sweated at them to get them out in my 70th year, but alas! No publisher will take things on that scale now.’ With the assistance of Sir Ernest Bullock, who orchestrated the last three movements, they were published eight years after Bairstow’s death. It was Bullock who felt that a setting of Francis Thompson’s poem The Veteran of Heaven should not be included because he considered the words, written more than two hundred years after the other poems, to be incompatible with the rest of the work. The first performance of the Five Poems was given by the York Musical Society in York Minster on 9 November 1955.

Come, lovely Name has a gentle and flowing accompaniment and is for upper voices and soloist. There are moments where the composer uses melodies and harmonies based on the whole tone scale. O Lord, in me there lieth naught, a paraphrase of Psalm 139, is for soloist only. The music is thoughtful and pensive. Praise, the third movement, is for chorus alone and has a fine sense of energy and forward movement. The fourth, Purse and Scrip, begins with a wistful and atmospheric chordal accompaniment, possibly suggesting the weary tread of a traveller. The melodic lines of the soloist are full of invention, and contain a rare and remarkable melisma on the word ‘glory’. The chorus enters only towards the end of the movement and the music subsides to a quiet and reflective close. The final movement, L’Envoy, is also contemplative in nature with memorable use of the chords of G and B flat major in close proximity. The accompaniment contains plangent and wistful melodies and the work finishes on a D that fades almost to nothing.

Philip Moore © 2007

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