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‘Evensong Live 2015’ offers a cross section of some of the daily music-making that happens at King’s, capturing the atmosphere and acoustic of the Chapel and presenting Evensong as a living and breathing part of both the College and national heritage. The recordings were made during services using a state-of-the-art recording system concealed in the roof, vestry and organ loft, with microphones suspended discreetly above the choir stalls.
At King’s, Evensong is sung by the Chapel Choir six times a week, with morning Eucharist or Matins every Sunday. Monday is the day off; after a very full day of singing on Sunday it offers just enough respite before the cycle begins again. It is a true phenomenon to think that, in this, King’s is hardly unique. In nearly all of Britain’s forty-four cathedrals there will be a choir, furnishing the liturgy with music on a daily basis. Between the hours of about 5:00 and 7:00pm the whole nation is positively awash with choral music.
As a result, the tradition of cathedral and collegiate music has fostered many of the greatest choirs and singers in the world. That these choirs sing together almost every day means that each group develops its own distinctive sound and style. Add to this organists and directors who have committed many years of their lives to the development of their choirs and one will find that the choral world of Britain in general (and Cambridge in particular) is not just one of great quality and quantity, but of variety also.
Evensong at King’s, however, does offer something special. Picture the scene: the dying light outside only just illuminating the great stained glass, the cavernous space extending almost infinitely upwards, lit only by the glow of candles, crowned by that famed fan vault. And, of course, the acoustic. It is here where the real magic happens. Perhaps a psalm which seemed to take wing and go in a completely spontaneous direction or a daring pianissimo, unobtained in rehearsal. Maybe the few moments of silence after the final amen or a powerful choral entry in a Howells “Gloria”. In this way, each one of the tracks on this recording represents a treasured memory, and a very specific snapshot of how the choir sounded, not just that year, but on that very day, and it is rather touching to have these humble tokens of our workmanship preserved.
The first track on this album, Tallis’ Loquebantur variis linguis was selected from a men’s voices Evensong in Long Vacation (a two week period of services after the Easter Term concludes). Men’s voices Evensong is sung every Wednesday at King’s, allowing the Choir to explore the rich seam of music written for lower voices. This particular piece presents difficulties in a men’s voices format: there are seven choral scholars each on decani and cantoris (the two geographical halves of the choir), and the piece is written in seven parts. Therefore, each choral scholar on each side is singing an entirely individual vocal line and must take care to match up with his partner across on the other side. This is already difficult enough, but with such a thick texture the task becomes even harder. In another sense, this is highly enjoyable music to perform, as the independence of line encourages an almost soloistic responsibility for your own part, and forces you to challenge yourself (“Can I manage this phrase in one breath?”).
Videte miraculum was new to nearly all of us, I think. Its relatively early style (slow-moving harmonies, thick textures, and a wide range) looks distinctively back to the choir books of the early Tudors, yet is quite unlike most of the other Tudor repertory we sing (a world away from the Latin motets of Byrd—Haec dies, say, or Vigilate). Again, singing this type of music requires really detailed attention to line and an awareness of what the other parts are doing. The temptation as a singer is to give in to the opulent sounds you are hearing and to sing it all rather loudly, but in reality the listener enjoys a far more meaningful experience if you are constantly bringing different levels of light and shade to your part to illuminate the other lines when they are introducing new melodic material.
Like Loquebantur, this piece is interspersed with plainsong verses, which need utter concentration to get together across the two sides. Here there is absolutely no place to hide—a single slip can shatter the atmosphere entirely. Uniquely amongst Anglican institutions, the Choir at King’s sings unaccompanied plainsong from the Latin Gradual on a weekly basis each Sunday (a tradition introduced by Stephen Cleobury after his years at Westminster Cathedral). There is usually an Introit, an Alleluia verse, and a Communion Antiphon, with the verse in the Alleluia being sung by a single choral scholar. Most cite their first Alleluia verse as being the most nerve-racking experience of their three-year tenure (trumping even the Christmas broadcast) but once you get past it things do become easier. Plainsong would have been sung regularly in the Chapel in its early years and it is excellent training in attaining razor sharp ensemble and evenness of tone.
Parsons’ stunning setting of the Ave Maria is, by quite a way, his most famous work, and it is loved by choirs in both the Anglican and Catholic traditions. When we came to sing this in the Easter Term, it was particularly dear in the affections of all the choral scholars, as we had just performed it in a very special concert at the Easter at King’s festival. This piece benefits from a careful attention to dynamics and the building of textures (the trebles rise by step in each successive entry they have: if managed properly the final “Amen” can be one of the most uplifting moments in the choral repertoire).
The Swayne Magnificat couldn’t be much more different. My most cherished memory of this piece goes back to my first year, when the Choir was invited to Leipzig for a celebration of the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the Thomanerchor (the choir of St Thomas’ Church, where Bach was famously cantor). Each choir had selected three or four pieces to showcase themselves, and we heard exemplary Bach, Brahms, and some very fine Frank Martin. Finally our turn came, and we stood up before the packed church as each of the other choirs had done. The starting note was hummed, the upbeat given, and we let out the raucous tribal cry which begins this fabulous piece. Some members of the audience were visibly shocked, others rudely roused out of their reveries, but after their initial surprise it was clear to see that they were enjoying this piece as much as we were. It has much the same effect in the Chapel, and is a wonderful example in music of how Evensong is far more than a museum piece. That this piece is now firmly established in the repertoires of many college and cathedral choirs is testament to a staggering rise in the technical abilities of choirs in the UK over the past half century or so. Rhythmically, it is one of the most complex works we do at King’s (each of the eight parts has its own independent rhythmic patterns, and if you get out it is very hard to find a way back in), and the coda to the “Gloria” requires enormous control from the trebles at the top of their registers whilst divided into three parts. The choristers liked this piece so much that they selected it for their final service in 2014, when Stephen Cleobury gives the leavers a chance to choose the music. The Swayne Magnificat has in fact been chosen by the boys for this occasion nearly every year of the last couple of decades; they relish its difficulties.
We performed Górecki’s Totus tuus alongside the Swayne Magnificat in a single Friday Evensong at King’s in Easter Term 2014. It is a tradition maintained at many churches that, as Friday was the day that Christ died, no organ is employed, as a kind of musical fast. Unaccompanied music must represent about half of the Choir’s work, but a whole service of a cappella singing is often something special, and a bit of a palette cleanser before the big-boned warhorses of the repertoire are paraded at Saturday and Sunday Evensong.
Totus tuus is very successful in the Chapel, with its simple texture unclouded by the acoustic. The difficulties it presents are mainly to do with the balance of the chords (the tenors and basses here need to take particular care, as they are in a high, resonant part of their voice for most of the duration of this motet, and could easily be rather overbearing). Attention is also required concerning the dynamic pacing of this piece—the final diminuendo takes place over several pages and needs careful gradation.
It is probably best for Evensong not to aspire to the condition of the concert—its rhythms and customs have a beauty of their own. However, on occasion it can be exciting and appropriate to present something a little more elaborate; indeed, a performance of a challenging Vespers service specially composed by Francis Grier (lit by holy fire) lingers in the memory as one of the greatest achievements of the Choir in my time. Poulenc’s Motets pour le temps de Noël are not quite as extended, but were thrilling to perform nonetheless. These four miniatures were prepared in the week approaching the Sunday on which they were performed in sequence, as these are challenging pieces which benefit enormously from familiarity.
Poulenc’s choral idiom is truly unlike any other. Where most composers prize smooth voice-leading and idiomatic balance, Poulenc irreverently rejoices in the reverse. His pieces are full of awkward intervals, bizarre chord spacings and voice-leading which often seems designed to provoke error. Admittedly, these traits are not as pronounced in the Christmas motets as they are in his mass (which we perform most years), but they are certainly present, and require focused rehearsal to negotiate. But far from being wilfully obtuse, these idiosyncrasies help create the unique sound world so particular to this composer. The final motet Hodie Christus natus est allows a joyful release from the very careful singing of the previous three motets, although one has to keep an eye out for the sudden and unexpected changes of dynamics.
Performing the solo in Hear my prayer must be an ambition of many a chorister. The piece, in its emotional range, seems akin almost to an operatic scena, and the varied demands of the solo part mean that it is often sung by a senior boy in his last year—an experience he is unlikely to forget. It is easy to sentimentalise, but the evolution of a boy’s voice is certainly something to muse on. The average chorister will apply at around seven years of age, when usually he has little mastery over his instrument. He will spend the next year or two training as a probationer before becoming a full chorister. With the best young singers, the voice will bloom at around twelve or thirteen years of age, after five years of hard work. This season, however, lasts for a tragically short while. The exact age varies enormously, but at around fourteen the voice breaks as the boy enters puberty, and vocally, things go back to square one. A fine treble voice offers no guarantee of a comparably good instrument as a young adult, and the process of coming to terms with this is different for every chorister.
One memory I have of this piece was finding, written in my copy, a remark from one of my predecessors about a boy who had sung the solo well:
10/2004—Chambers comes good
Underneath, evidently written shortly afterwards:
voice goes two weeks later
It just so happens that the very same ‘Chambers’ mentioned in the copy was standing next to me at that moment as a choral scholar, having returned to the choir some six years later, one of a number of choristers who have returned to the Choir as choral scholar undergraduates.
The final cantilena is, of course, famously beautiful, but equally touching is how the piece (in the context of its performance by British cathedral and chapel choirs) celebrates the treble voice on the cusp of being lost.
Hear my words, ye people is one of the great warhorses of the Anglican repertoire, and is the sort of fare you might expect to hear on a Sunday afternoon at King’s. It is an ideal showcase for the Choir, having a virtuosic organ introduction, extended operatic solos, and a rousing hymn at the close. The Choir toured this piece to Australia in the summer of 2014, so I have many memories of performing this in the Sydney Opera House, and the Melbourne Hamer Hall, to mention two of the venues we visited. We also sang this piece at the joint Evensong with St John’s Choir in 2014, held in the chapel at St Johns College, a few hundred yards down the road. This is always a most enjoyable service, and I’m certain that the decibel level in the chapel during the final hymn must have exceeded healthy levels. The service usually occurs each year in the weeks following our exams in the Easter term, and is followed by a dinner somewhere nearby, with the famous choir football match often taking place the day afterwards. I am proud to say that over my three years King’s remained undefeated!
The programme draws to a close with Vaughan Williams’ Antiphon, from his Five Mystical Songs. Again, this was a piece with which the Choir toured (this time to China), and memories of visiting the Great Wall and being caught in a rainstorm abound. This is also a favourite for our Easter television broadcasts—we recorded the work twice for BBC2 between 2012 and 2014, and must have performed it as an anthem at Evensong many more times. For a relatively short piece it is very draining, sitting predominantly in the upper range of all the voices. However, it is probably more challenging for the organ scholar accompanying it, with its rapid passagework in both hands.
It is perhaps somewhat unfair that the organ scholars have not yet been mentioned and given their full due. At any one time at King’s there are two organ scholars, who have to balance studying for a degree with a professional level of commitment, including the preparation and performance of accompanied repertoire, assisting in the training of the boys, conducting services in the absence of the Director of Music, and the presentation of one solo recital a term in the series of Saturday post-evensong recitals inaugurated at King’s by Harold Darke in the 1940s. This recording of Litanies by Alain was taken from such a recital, in this case by Tom Etheridge, the then junior organ scholar. A litany is a repeated series of petitions used in prayer, and the piece joyously plays out this idea to the full—transforming its core theme into impressively grand statements and intimate supplications by turns, ending with a thunderous climax. Several of the choral scholars are occasional organists themselves, so it is not an uncommon sight to see a couple sitting outside the vestry after a Sunday Evensong to admire the finishing strains of the organ recessional. The choristers are also very much encouraged to attend the recitals if they wish, and both the current organ scholars (2015) were choristers in the Choir. Indeed, it is quite a testament to the experience of being a chorister at King’s that many of the boys aspire to return as choral scholars and organists some five years later.
Eighty minutes of music could never hope to provide more than a cross section of some of the everyday music making that happens at King’s, and of course the experience of a recording could never hope to approach that of being inside the Chapel, listening first hand. I strongly hope that, having heard this CD, newcomers to the world of Evensong might be tempted to sample the service for themselves—if not at King’s, then certainly at their local cathedral. They will undoubtedly find it to be one of the jewels of our national heritage, but also, and more importantly, very much alive.
Henry Hawkesworth © 2015