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Exciting accounts of eight anthems spanning nearly two hundred years, with a welcome emphasis firmly on recent works.
Conceived on a similar scale, Give unto the Lord, Op 74, a setting of Psalm 29, was composed for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral and was dedicated to its organist Sir George Martin. This was a special annual service which always involved the use of an orchestra and a large choir of around 300 voices taken from the major choirs in London (St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s Westminster, All Saints Margaret Street, the Chapel Royal and the Temple Church), as well as singers at Eton College and at some of the cathedrals in southern England (Rochester, Canterbury and Winchester). There was also a tradition of commissioning services and anthems from prominent composers: Stanford had composed his Evening Service in A for the festival in 1880 and The Lord of might in 1903; Parry responded to his commission in 1913 with the elaborate God is our hope for double choir, solo bass and orchestra; and there were other novelties by Stainer, Harwood, Alcock, Bairstow and George Martin. Elgar’s anthem was first sung at the festival on 30 April 1914 under the direction of Martin. The composer’s setting of the psalm’s ‘Hymn to Yahweh’ reveals his own typical brand of sonata structure. The exposition in E flat major (a key which vividly recalls the ebullience of Elgar’s second symphony, of 1911) is characteristically full of individual and contrasting ideas: the opening idea bears the hallmarks of a slow march which merges effortlessly with the Schwung of ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’; other ideas such as the quicker ‘the God of glory thundereth’ and the expansive upward-moving ‘The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation’ provide a dramatic dimension. A secondary phase, in B minor, begins more turbulently (‘breaketh the cedars’), but its goal is a gentle prayer in which Elgar’s more affecting modal language comes to the fore (‘In his temple’). The recapitulation, considerably truncated and more firmly grounded in E flat, re-states the opening material before the work concludes in tranquil mood.
After his musical training as a chorister at the Chapel Royal, S S Wesley pursued a career in London, playing the organ at various London churches and working as a pianist for the English Opera House (now the Palace Theatre). In 1832, at the age of twenty-two, he secured his first cathedral post at Hereford—the first of numerous appointments which began with optimism but always ended in disillusionment, partly because of Wesley’s innate irascibility, but also because each position of employment failed to offer the kind of conditions he wanted in order to realize his aspirations for excellence in church music. During his first year at Hereford, he composed The wilderness, which set a new standard in various ways. One was the novel, intricate and independent organ part which makes full use of the pedals; another was the bold harmonic palette which would characterize so much of Wesley’s future sacred output. With his background in the theatre, Wesley also wanted to bring an element of drama to his texts, and this dimension was more than evident to those who heard this bold setting of verses from Isaiah 35. The anthem commences with a verse for solo quartet (‘The wilderness and the solitary place’) in E major (an unusual and adventurous key in a time when so many organs were tuned to just intonation), which is followed by a through-composed aria in A minor for solo bass (‘Say to them of a fearful heart’) that is cast in a neo-Bachian style with walking bass. A tenor recitative provides the conduit to an episode for solo quartet and choir (‘for in the wilderness’) which moves through a series of thirds-related modulations (E, A flat and C) before returning to E major. At this point, Wesley embarks on an even more arresting series of modulations in a dramatic recitative for lower voices (‘And a highway shall be there’) which reveals just how advanced his harmonic outlook was in the early 1830s. This is also true of the climactic passage at the end of the florid fugue (‘they shall obtain joy’), which leads to a serene concluding five-part verse (‘And sorrow and sighing shall flee away’)—arguably the most emotional part of the anthem in its use of melody and expressive harmony.
Herbert Howells’s The house of the mind, dating from 1954, was published in 1957 as the second of three motets for chorus and organ. This impressive, meditative essay sets a poem by the seventeenth-century poet Joseph Beaumont, royalist, Arminian, and master of Jesus College (Cambridge) and, later, of Peterhouse (where he was interred). The four verses of Beaumont’s introspective text, which urges man to look into his heart for communion with God, elicited a highly contemplative response from Howells which is borne out by the slow-moving amalgam of harmonies shaped by the composer’s numinous matrix of appoggiaturas, whole-tone chords, Lydian inflections, sonorous textures and sinewy contrapuntal contours of the vocal parts, all of which serve to intensify the semantic of each line. Throughout the motet, the tonality fails to settle (it is unclear at the opening whether E major or C sharp minor is operative) until we reach the final cadence (‘and with thy God’) in E major and the comforting tranquillity of the last seven bars.
The dramatic anthem Come out, Lazar was commissioned from Paul Spicer, a pupil of Howells at the Royal College of Music, for Ralph Allwood and the 1984 Uppingham Choral Course. The anonymous medieval poem, in Middle English, tells of the miracle of the raising of Lazarus by Jesus, and of how this act broke the tyrannical bonds of death. The exclamation ‘Come out’ punctuates the poem, and this also helps to shape Spicer’s musical structure. The anthem begins with a strident gesture from organ and choir. This yields to a more reflective, slower section (‘“Come out” is now a wonder soun’) which depicts a sense of awe. A re-statement of the opening, now as a more demonic scherzo, evokes the fleeing of the devil, and this more energetic mood, briefly interrupted by a further contemplative interlude (‘Why stoppest thou not, fiend?’), becomes ever more clamorous towards the end, preparing the way for the final exuberant cry of ‘Come out’ at the conclusion.
Patrick Gowers composed his anthem Viri Galilaei, for double choir, soloists and two organs, for the consecration of Richard Harries as Bishop of Oxford at St Paul’s Cathedral on 28 May 1987. Based on the words of the Proper of the Mass on Ascension Day and a hymn text by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, the anthem consists of three epic sections. The first is a glittering impression of the Ascension itself, replete with ‘Alleluias’ for the double choir; while the alleluias continue to interject, a second section, quoting from Acts, narrates the Ascension with multiple divisions within the choirs. Their continually upward phrases culminate in the joyful sound of the trumpet (a recurrent thematic idea from the outset of the anthem), ecstatic alleluias and the familiar words from Psalm 47, ‘God is gone up with a merry noise’. Almost in the manner of late Victorian anthems such as Parry’s Hear my words, ye people (not to mention others by Stainer, Stanford and Charles Wood), which ends with the composer’s famous tune Laudate Dominum (‘O praise ye the Lord’), Gowers’s anthem concludes with ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’, using the first verse of Bishop Wordsworth’s Ascension hymn from The Holy Year (1862).
The first five verses of Psalm 105 provide the main frame for James MacMillan’s anthem O give thanks unto the Lord for choir and organ (or string orchestra), completed and published in 2016. In accordance with its effusive title, this virtuoso choral work is rhythmically highly frenetic for both organ and choir. For the central choral paragraph, couched in B flat minor (a tritone’s distance from the anthem’s principal key of E major), MacMillan chose to set Robert Herrick’s poem To Music: A song—a text which offers a vision of stillness. Almost Baroque in its elaborately decorated and freely expressive line for sopranos, this section attempts to calm the ‘affections’ through its use of poignant 4-3 suspensions, though, as the succeeding organ interlude divulges, the animated, irrepressible spirit of the first section, which returns to re-state E major, cannot be tamed.
Francis Pott’s Toccata, dating from 1991, is a somewhat shorter essay than his epic Passion symphony for organ, Christus, of over two hours and completed in 1990. Written under pressure for a wedding and a limited instrument, the toccata was later expanded to reflect the expressive possibilities of a larger organ. This can be felt in the declamatory character of the twenty-bar ‘Introduzione’ which the composer added before the toccata ‘proper’ embarks. The irregular, unsettled ambience of the work’s opening material is generated by the 14/16 metre (or its 7/8 relation) anticipated by the introduction, and while this is continued in the secondary subject, the sense of dynamism, typical of the toccata’s moto perpetuo character, is tempered by a more lyrical disposition (also drawn from the introduction). The developmental phase, consisting of a series of highly rhythmic paragraphs and punctuating moments of silence, leads to a vigorous recapitulation in which the second subject appears in the pedals. A precipitous coda, which recalls the improvisatory demeanour of the opening, increases the sense of drama and tension—an impression underlined by the conclusion in F sharp major, which counteracts the movement’s prevailing tonality of B minor. Dedicated to Gerard Brooks and Jeremy Filsell, the Toccata was premiered in London by Brooks; it has received numerous performances in the UK, the USA and the Czech Republic by Filsell, Graham Barber, Robert Quinney and Matthew Martin.
Everyone sang, by David Bednall, Choral Director at Clifton Cathedral and Sub-Organist at Bristol Cathedral, was composed for the wedding blessing of Stephen Foulkes (a one-time lay clerk at Bristol Cathedral) and the operatic mezzo-soprano Louise Tucker, which took place on 26 May 2007. The poem, by Siegfried Sassoon, was written on learning of the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918. Sassoon’s verses are therefore very much about a new sense of freedom, but in the context for which the anthem was written (where the congregation was full of singers from the operatic world), the text is also about the joy of singing. The anthem, like the poem, falls into two distinct parts: the first is a cry of ecstasy in F major (‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing’) which subsides to a pianissimo half close; the second builds on a series of imitative entries (‘Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted’) which culminates in a major climax, marked by a return to F on its dominant, a dynamic of fff and a top C for sopranos, before it too recedes in volume. This time, however, the unequivocal return to F is accompanied by a modified and hushed reiteration of the opening material (‘the singing will never be done’), marked by the composer: ‘Very slow—as if timeless’. This is further illustrated by a fluctuating harmonic progression, which, to evoke the sense of infinity, concludes quizzically on the supertonic.
Jeremy Dibble © 2023