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Stanford and Howells Remembered

The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Collegium
Recording details: February 1992
Ely Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Jillian White
Engineered by Campbell Hughes & Simon Weir
Release date: July 2020
Total duration: 91 minutes 59 seconds

Cover artwork: A lane near Dedham (c1802) by John Constable (1776-1837)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, USA / Bridgeman Images
 

This newly remastered version of The Cambridge Singers' 1992 Stanford and Howells album has been expanded to include almost twenty minutes of previously unreleased material, including Stanford's resplendent Latin Magnificat. John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers are joined by star organist Wayne Marshall in the magnificent acoustic of Ely Cathedral.

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This recording is a choral tribute to the sacred music of two visionary composers who, among their other achievements, made distinctive, lasting and much-cherished contributions to the musical repertory of the English Church. There are many links between Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and Herbert Howells (1892-1983), the most obvious being that from 1912 to 1916 Howells was one of Stanford’s many composition students at the Royal College of Music in London, where Howells was himself later to teach composition for over fifty years. Both men were outstanding teachers, Stanford in particular being virtually father to a whole generation of British composers, including Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge, Moeran, Bliss, Ireland and Gurney. For a time, both held organist’s posts at Cambridge—Stanford at Trinity College and Howells as wartime replacement for Robin Orr at St John’s. Both were active in other areas of music, Stanford mainly as a conductor, Howells more as an adjudicator and examiner. Both were prolific and formidably accomplished composers in many genres, but are remembered chiefly for their vocal and choral music; and here perhaps lies the secret of their enduring appeal. In the best work of both composers there is an indefinable sense of poetry: the poetry of a text sensitively set to music, or simply the poetry of music itself, whether evoking the Irish landscape of Stanford’s youth, the gentle hills and soaring cathedral of Howells’s native Gloucestershire, or just the ‘other world’ of the imagination. Stanford and Howells were among music’s poets, and no doubt recognizing this quality in each other, quickly formed a relationship of mutual esteem and affection: Stanford referred to Howells as his ‘son in music’, and Howells, to his death, wore the signet ring that Stanford had bequeathed him. Much of the music heard on this recording was intended for use in church, in the context of the Anglican liturgy. As such, it is familiar and well-loved within Anglican circles but all too little-known elsewhere. It deserves to be more widely appreciated on its own considerable merits.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
1852—Born in Dublin. His father was a lawyer; both parents were musical. Early lessons in organ and musical theory from a teacher at Trinity College, Dublin.
1870—Goes to Queens’ College, Cambridge, as a choral scholar. Studies classics, becomes conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society.
1874—Appointed Organist of Trinity College, Cambridge (a post he held until 1892). Obtains leave of absence for a series of extended visits to Germany for further musical studies in Leipzig, Hamburg and Berlin. Meets a number of leading figures in German music; befriends Joachim. Attends opening of Bayreuth Festival Theatre. His early works start to gain recognition.
1879—First Symphony performed at Crystal Palace. Writes B Flat Service, which becomes widely popular.
1883—Appointed Professor of Composition and Orchestral Playing at the newly opened Royal College of Music in London.
1885—Appointed conductor of the Bach Choir in London (continued until 1902).
1887—Elected Professor of Music at Cambridge University (he held this post until his death).
1892—Moves to London (thereafter his full-time home).
1896Shamus O’Brien, his most successful opera, premiered in London.
1901—Appointed Conductor of the Leeds Triennial Festival.
1902—Knighted
1924—Dies in London. His health had declined under the stress of the Great War, though he had conducted until 1921 and composed until shortly before his death. Buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Purcell.

Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G
Stanford wrote six published sets of canticles for use in the Anglican liturgy. The G major set, dating from 1904, was inscribed to Sir George Martin, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. Its delicately radiant Magnificat (one of the two canticles proper to Evensong) is said to have been inspired by the legend that the Virgin Mary was seated at her spinning-wheel when surprised by the Angel Gabriel (though of course, according to St Luke, she did not utter the words of the Magnificat until she later visited her cousin Elisabeth). The decorative organ accompaniment to Mary’s solo certainly could be a depiction of the spinning-wheel, a nicely Schubertian touch. In his centenary tribute to Stanford delivered at the Royal Musical Association in 1952, Howells remarked of this lovely piece that Stanford ‘revealed afresh … that this Canticle is in essence feminine, that it is ecstasy without crisis’. By contrast, the Nunc dimittis (the song of Simeon, the old man who saw Christ in the temple) has a warmly valedictory solo for baritone, and a final page of serene and heart-melting beauty to the words ‘world without end, amen.’

When Mary thro’ the garden went
Stanford, in common with most of his English contemporaries, wrote numerous partsongs, of which The blue bird (1910) is the most renowned. The same poet, Mary Coleridge, inspired his Op 127 set, written in the same year; When Mary thro’ the garden went is No 3. The Mary of the title is Mary Magdalene, and Stanford’s setting of this devotional poem perfectly evokes the still, rapt atmosphere of the first Easter morning.

I heard a voice from heaven
This simple, dignified anthem for unaccompanied choir dates from 1910, but is in fact an extended version of Stanford’s earlier anthem Blessed are the dead, written for the funeral in King’s College Chapel in 1886 of a Cambridge friend, Henry Bradshaw who, according to the composer, acquainted him with the medieval carol Angelus ad virginem, part of the melody of which appears in the anthem.

Latin Magnificat
The Magnificat, Op 164, was written in 1918. It was Stanford’s only Latin setting of a text he had set several times on a more concise scale in English for Anglican liturgical use. His intention appears to have been to offer it as a tribute to Parry (with whom, it must be said, his relationship had not always been easy), but Parry died in that year, and Stanford’s impressive and finely-wrought work instead became a memorial. The score bears the inscription ‘Huic operi quod mors vetuit ne Carolo Huberto Hastings Parry vivo traderem nomen moerens praescribo’ ('Because death has prevented me from handing this work to the living Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, I dedicate it to his name in grief'). Stanford’s generosity to his erstwhile rival was the more poignant as his own health was already failing by this time, and six years later he too was dead.

Among Stanford’s shorter choral compositions (many of them fine) the Latin Magnificat stands out as a masterpiece. Like the Brahms motets, it should be viewed as the response of a Romantic artist to Bach’s motets, yet the Irishman Stanford’s temperament was quite unlike Brahms’s: he was more spontaneous, impulsive and energetic, more inclined to concision and clarity than was the mellow, elegiac German. If Brahms’s motets tend towards an autumnal mood, Stanford’s Magnificat is more like a bright, fresh spring day—with a passing thunderstorm in the ‘Fecit potentiam’ section. Unlike Brahms and Bach, Stanford makes no reference to any chorale melody, but in other aspects his Magnificat is modelled freely after the multi-sectional structure of the Bach and Brahms motets. The opening and closing sections are rather pointedly cast in the same key and metre as the opening of Bach’s Singet dem Herrn, with some affinity of theme and texture. The a cappella double choir medium also recalls Singet dem Herrn (in Stanford‘s time the Bach motets were believed to be a cappella works). Yet after no more than a page or two Stanford takes off in his own direction, with a gracious and gentle ‘Quia respexit’ followed by some magically Schubertian harmonic shifts (‘ex hoc beatam me dicent’) which place the motet clearly in the Romantic tradition rather than the Baroque. Also essentially Romantic is Stanford’s use of double choir, more for harmonic and textural richness and for antiphonal effects than for contrapuntal complexity: there are no fugues in the Magnificat. As a matter of fact, there are not many places where all eight voices are heard at once, which makes such places the more effective.

This is the work of a master, in the quality of its musical thinking as much in the tuneful freshness and vigour of its invention (springing, we must recall, from a physically tired and ailing 66-year-old). Its craftsmanship is first-rate; and its ever-fluent, grateful voice-writing makes it a true delight to sing.

Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B flat
In his centenary address already referred to, Howells said of this, the earliest (1879) and most popular of Stanford’s canticle settings that he ‘achieved three triumphs in that early and astonishing work. First, he swept aside the pretentious, empty gaudiness of the Victorian organist-composer … Second, he brought the first-fruits of his near symphonic formal instincts to the setting of canticles that had for so long been dismembered by the earnest, lustreless treatment of countless mid- and late-Victorians. Third, to the vast and costly church organs he assigned a significant, vital, highly disciplined part’. Howells might have added that in both canticles Stanford showed his gift for warm, flowing melody, one of the secrets of this music’s enduring appeal. The Nunc dimittis is for tenors and basses only (except for its liturgical Gloria), a reminder that its words are those of Simeon.

O for a closer walk
Stanford wrote anthems throughout his career, around two dozen in total. O for a closer walk (1909) is one of a set of six short hymn-anthems, each written to follow a sacred solo song with organ (the Six Bible Songs). It is based on a familiar melody from the Scottish Psalter of 1635, imaginatively transformed into triple time and a reflective mood appropriate to the spiritual longing expressed in the text.

Te Deum in C
The Te Deum text, although optionally used as a canticle at Mattins and also traditionally on great national occasions, is technically a hymn (which is why it is not concluded with a Gloria). Stanford’s C major setting, part of his C major Service of 1909, is concise, fast-moving and effective, appropriately grand without being grandiose. As with all his work, it shows a convincing sense of structure: Howells remarked that Stanford ‘made … a noble unity of its trinity of poems’.

Herbert Howells
1892—Born in Lydney, Gloucestershire. His father was a local builder and amateur organist.
1910—His precocious musical gifts recognized: becomes a pupil of Herbert Brewer, Organist of Gloucester Cathedral (along with the composer and poet Ivor Gurney, an influential friend). Hears first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, a formative experience.
1912—Wins a scholarship to study composition at the Royal College of Music; Stanford was his principal teacher. (Remains at RCM until 1916). His Mass in the Dorian Mode performed at Westminster Cathedral under R R Terry. 1914 Stanford conducts première of Howells’s first piano concerto (written in 1913).
1916—Piano quartet published under auspices of the Carnegie Trust.
1917—Appointed Sub-organist of Salisbury Cathedral, but ill-health for the next two years cuts this short.
1918-19—During period of recuperation, composes prolifically, including Three Carol-Anthems.
1920—Appointed to teaching staff of Royal College of Music (where he remains until the late 1970s). Becomes active as adjudicator and examiner.
1922—Writes Sine nomine (for soloists, chorus and orchestra) for the Three Choirs Festival at the instigation of Elgar. His reputation grows in the years following.
1935—His son Michael dies, aged nine. Plans and begins to write Hymnus Paradisi (completed in 1938).
1936—Appointed Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London, in succession to Holst (remains until 1962).
1941—Appointed acting Organist and Choirmaster of St John’s College, Cambridge (until the end of the war, 1945).
1944—Writes Collegium Regale canticles for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, marking the start of a renewed interest in church music.
1950Hymnus Paradisi premiered at the Three Choirs Festival. Appointed Professor of Music at London University.
1964—Motet on the death of President Kennedy premiered in Washington National Cathedral. Stabat mater premiered by the Bach Choir in London.
1983—Dies in London. He had continued to compose and teach until the late 1970s.

Requiem
This haunting and beautiful work for unaccompanied double choir only became known in 1980 when the composer released it for publication. It was at first believed that Howells began work on it after the sudden death of his nine-year-old son Michael from spinal meningitis in 1935, but later research by Christopher Palmer (See his book Herbert Howells: a centenary celebration, Thames Publishing, 1992) established that the earliest sketches predate this loss by some three years. If Howells had been contemplating the composition of a Requiem before his son’s death, it nevertheless must have gained new and personal relevance after it; but, as it turned out, his memorial to Michael eventually took the form of the much larger Hymnus Paradisi for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This was completed in 1938 but, in Howells’s words, it remained ‘a personal, private document’ until Herbert Sumsion (the organist of Gloucester Cathedral) persuaded him to allow its performance at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival. It was quickly recognized as a masterpiece, and came to be the most widely-known of Howells’s larger works. Much of the music of the earlier Requiem found its way into the Hymnus Paradisi, some unaltered, some transformed and expanded. The Requiem could thus be regarded as a kind of sketchbook for the Hymnus, and that is probably why Howells felt, until 1980, that there was no reason to publish it. Thanks to his reversal of this decision, the Requiem has emerged as a work that stands on its own feet, partaking of the material of the Hymnus but in more concise and intimate form.

In the twentieth century, the title ‘Requiem’ has come to be treated with considerable freedom, and Howells set only one of the texts from the Requiem Mass itself, the ‘Requiem aeternam’, but, unusually, set it twice. These settings, the third and fifth movements of the Requiem, are the most intense and sombre moments of the work, its core, in fact; interestingly, he fuses them into one in the Hymnus Paradisi. His other texts are drawn from the Burial Service according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (a conservative revision of the 1662 book, never officially adopted by the Church). Although we cannot be sure that Howells originally intended the music of his Requiem to be heard in exactly the form it has come down to us, it does make a most satisfactory whole, with the airy, transparent psalm settings acting as points of relief in a texture of sustained intensity that speaks eloquently of loss and eventual consolation.

Gloucester Service
Howells composed over twenty sets of Anglican canticles—probably more than any other composer, and a tribute to his ability to draw varied inspiration from the same texts. In his own words: ‘In all my music for the church, people and places have been a dual influence. The Collegium Regale [1944] is the original source of the series of canticle-settings made for certain cathedrals and Collegiate chapels’. The Gloucester Service of 1946 came next, and is considered by some to be his finest. Its title page bears the inscription ‘for the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester’. Like most of Howells’s Magnificat settings, this one establishes the feminine character of the text by beginning just with the soprano voices of the choir, building up only reticently from the sarabande-like opening to a full texture and eventually subsiding into a softly exquisite ‘amen’ that reminds us of Howells’s affinity with Debussy and Ravel. The contemplative Nunc dimittis, according to custom in Anglican settings, repeats the music of the ‘Gloria’ section, but with subtle transformations that are very much Howells’s own.

The fear of the Lord
This highly charged anthem, filled with life and energy, was written by the 83-year-old Howells for John Rutter and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, on the occasion of the college’s 650th anniversary in 1976. It neatly encompasses two familiar sides of Howells’s musical personality: the bounding, exultant rhapsodist and the tranquil visionary (the latter appearing at the words ‘whoso feareth the Lord’). Those who were present at the final rehearsal for the premiere will never forget the silvery-haired and benign figure of the composer in the college chapel, offering his gentle encouragement to the anxious performers. ‘My dear,’ he called at one point to the organist, who was heroically attempting to transform his severely Classical von Beckerath tracker instrument into something like the Romantic cathedral instrument envisaged by the composer, ‘Have you got anything a little less aggressive?’

Like as the hart
The poetic theme of this, perhaps Howells’s best-loved anthem, is not so very different from O for a closer walk, but expressed in musical terms that are quintessentially Howellsian: long, flowing vocal lines that recall the Tudor polyphonists, underpinned by subtle and impressionistic organ harmonies that seem to create ever-changing effects of light and shade. Howells wrote the piece in a single day in 1941 when he and his wife were ‘mewed up by snow in a cottage in Gloucestershire’; it is No 3 of a set of four anthems dedicated to (later Sir) Thomas Armstrong, then organist of Christ Church, Oxford.

Long, long ago
This is one of a pair of unaccompanied pieces Howells wrote in 1950 for the Lady Margaret Singers of Cambridge, a select student choir conducted by George Guest, later Organist and Choirmaster of St John’s College. The composer described it as ‘carol-anthem’, the same designation he had given to his early and celebrated A spotless Rose. The music, in Howells's most characteristic vein, does indeed have elements both of a carol, with its refrain-like use of the opening verse, and of an anthem, the music having a freer and more continuous structure than a carol, with richly-spiced harmony and ever-changing vocal textures.

All my hope on God is founded
This, the best-known of Howells’s seven hymn-tunes, was composed to Bridges’s text in the early 1930s for Charterhouse School at the request of its Director of Music and first published in the Clarendon Hymn Book in 1936. The tune is called Michael after the composer’s son—though it is not commemorative, having been written some time before the boy’s tragic death. Warmly melodic and richly harmonized, it represents the last and possibly the finest flowering of the English Romantic hymn-tune of the school of Parry’s Repton, Harwood’s Thornbury and, of course, Stanford’s Engelberg. The descant to the last verse was added by John Rutter in 1977, receiving the composer’s warm approval.

John Rutter © 2020

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