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A new collection of sixteen anthems and canticles, specially selected from the daily live recordings made in the glorious Chapel of King's College Cambridge during the past year.
Evensong at King's College
Only the most jaded of observers fails to enjoy the sight of a crocodile of small boys in top hats and high white collars making their way through the grounds of King’s College. Known to us as ‘the croc’, this is the voyage made five days a week by the Choristers from our school half a kilometre up the road to Chapel. They come in all weathers during the 8-week University term, muffled up against the cold of winter in thick scarves, in good time to begin the rehearsal for Evensong.
Meanwhile the Choral Scholars, the students (usually undergraduates) who sing the alto, tenor and bass lines in the Choir, are making their own individual way to Chapel. Some will be hot-footing it from lectures, others from the library, others from their rooms where they might well have been learning the music to be sung that evening.
Preparation is absolutely essential, of course, and there is a lot of it. Every Evensong is preceded by an hour’s rehearsal. This requires a level of professional concentration and expertise that is unique to such institutions as ours. The Choral Scholars know that they need to ‘get it right’ straight away. There is usually about thirty minutes of music to rehearse in sixty, so time is of the essence. The idea is to rehearse the phrasing, shape and character of the music. Some are blessed with the capacity to read music at sight perfectly, some not quite perfectly—and the latter therefore come prepared. During a rehearsal if you see a hand go up, it will belong to a singer indicating to the conductor that he knows he has just made a mistake, so that the conductor doesn’t have to waste time pointing it out.
The Choristers, meanwhile, have been more proactively prepared. Five mornings a week they have a musical rehearsal, taken by the Director of Music with one of the Organ Scholars. The idea is that they too can begin the main afternoon rehearsal ‘on top’ of the notes.
I mentioned the Organ Scholars. These are two more students, whose role is to accompany the Choir and play music before and after the services. There is a complex allocation of these duties, and they sit at the awe-inspiring console of the newly restored grand organ with a byzantine array of musical possibilities at their finger (and toe) tips. They are connected to the choir by CCTV and to the Director of Music by radio mics: but these gizmos are only to assist (rather substantially!) their essential function. A significant proportion of the music has organ accompaniment, which has to be played perfectly and in perfect time with the Choir. Since they don’t hear the Choir sound instantaneously, nor does the organ speak instantaneously, this is no mean feat.
All this preparation is for the singing of Evensong, which has happened daily in term time since the mid-sixteenth century. Before that—before the Book of Common Prayer was established—there would have been the pre-Reformation monastic offices. But in both types of service, singing was and is absolutely fundamental. And it is universally recognised that King’s College Chapel has a remarkable—unique—acoustic for singing, especially choral singing. The particular combination of interior volume of space, stonework and wooden furniture gives a bloom to the choral sound that cannot be heard anywhere else. The greatest challenge for recording engineers is to capture this.
You may assume that the challenge has been met in these recordings. What is special about this collection, though, is the live aspect. What you will hear is a sequence of pieces taken from actual services of Evensong, just as they would have been heard by the hundreds of people there. About half way through the afternoon choir practice another line of folk is making its way towards the Chapel: this time the queue of visitors who have come to attend the service. This collection gives a glimpse of what they will have experienced, once in place and the service begun. Being live means that the music you hear will not always be heard in ideal conditions. There will be the occasional extraneous noise. Sometimes a sneeze or a cough or a dropped book just happens, however elevated the atmosphere. But this just highlights what is special about live recording. As we listen, we can share in the very act of singing, and of worshipping. Even without being physically present, we can get a taste of the real thing.
That real thing is what happens daily in our Chapel. It is simply a college chapel, begun by a visionary and holy king, Henry VI. But it is, obviously, a uniquely special place, and a place, before all else, of worship; and we take very seriously the duty of care—not least in finding as many ways as possible to share its wonders with the wider world. This ranges from the most austere of men’s-only voices on Wednesday evenings to the full panoply of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, heard across the world by millions on the radio. We hope that this collection gives just a tiny flavour of what we love doing: singing glory to God, in a glorious place, and sharing that with as many as possible.
Andrew Hammond, Chaplain
Parry I was glad
From Saxon times, coronations have generated specially written music, most of which has fallen by the wayside as musical tastes have moved on. In fact, few anthems written for a specific coronation have not been superseded by another setting of the same words the next time a monarch has been crowned. Parry’s own Te Deum, written for George V’s coronation in 1911, was replaced with William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum of 1953.
Nevertheless, a select number of coronation anthems have survived to be used at subsequent occasions. The most long-lived coronation anthem is, of course, Handel’s setting of the traditional coronation text Zadok the Priest, written for the coronation of George II in 1727, and its success has completely eclipsed all the previous settings and deterred future attempts at setting those words.
Parry’s splendid setting of Psalm 122, I was glad, written in 1902 for Edward VII’s coronation, has rightly fared much better than most and provided an appropriately dramatic musical backdrop for all four coronations of the twentieth century. Whether it survives to be used on future such occasions remains to be seen, but given the present Prince of Wales’ partiality for Parry and the fact that it was used as a bridal processional at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, the odds must be very much in its favour.
Ley A Prayer of King Henry VI
Henry Ley’s exquisite setting of Henry VI’s prayer holds a special place in the affections both of the members of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and of those at its sister college at Eton; both colleges were founded in the 1440s by this most religious of kings. The simple model of devotion, ending with the words ‘fac de me secundum voluntatem tuam’ (‘do with me according to thy will’) takes on a tragic significance in the light of Henry VI’s death at the hands of his Yorkist enemies in the Tower of London in 1471. Henry Ley set the Founder’s Prayer during his time as Precentor of Eton (1926-1945).
Hadley My beloved spake
Patrick Hadley was born in Cambridge and returned to study at the University after serving in the First World War, in which he lost the lower part of his right leg. In Cambridge he studied with Charles Wood and Cyril Rootham and went on to the Royal College of Music, where he came under the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams before returning to Cambridge in 1938 as a lecturer and subsequently as Professor of Music. Here he promoted a broad range of musical activities, including the formation of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Former students still recall his supervisions, which were memorable in many respects, not least for the number of cigarettes he smoked during them. When the Organist of King’s, Boris Ord, left Cambridge to join the army during the Second World War, Hadley took over as Conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society (a post which Sir Stephen Cleobury was later to fill for many years).
My beloved spake, which sets words from chapter 2 of The Song of Solomon, was published the year he returned to Cambridge; written for the wedding of friends of Hadley’s, it builds to a remarkable climax. It has long been one of the most popular anthems in cathedral and collegiate repertoires throughout the world.
Weelkes Magnificat (The Short/Seventh Service)
Weelkes was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chichester Cathedral, where his relationship with the clergy can best be described as difficult, possibly arising from his frustration at never escaping the provinces to work at the Chapel Royal, for which a number of his large scale anthems seem to have been written.
William Byrd, at the Chapel Royal, set the standard for the writing of various types of canticle settings; while the general trend was towards more elaborate musical forms, the ‘Short’ service also thrived and may, indeed, have been written in response to clerical demands for brevity and clarity of text.
Every composer of this period after Byrd tried his hand at a Short Service, just as most of them also undertook one ‘Great’ Service. Brevity presented a stylistic challenge for composers, especially for Weelkes, who had to lay aside for this purpose the counterpoint so characteristic of his writing. The effectiveness of his Short Service is all the more admirable, since it is simplicity itself, employing short blocks of music with little rhythmic complexity.
Wood Nunc dimittis (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in E flat)
The Irish composer Charles Wood studied organ at Armagh Cathedral and then at the Royal College of Music from 1888. He was Organ Scholar at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge between 1889 and 1894, during which time he conducted the Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS). Like Stephen Cleobury, a future Conductor of CUMS, he taught harmony and counterpoint at Cambridge. Wood’s influence, like Stanford’s, extended widely in this field, and he ended his life as Professor of Music, in the great tradition of composer-professors which Cambridge boasted for much of the 20th century.
Wood wrote music for the Cambridge University Greek plays, three operas, three string quartets, not to mention part-songs and solo songs. He is known nowadays almost exclusively for his church music, however, and particularly the ever-popular double-choir anthem Hail gladdening light (1919); at King’s his setting of Ding! Dong! merrily on high has featured regularly in A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols since 1962. His Mag and Nunc settings in F, D, G and E-flat are a staple part of the repertoire of most cathedral and parish church choirs.
Weir Ascending into heaven
Judith Weir wrote this, her first piece of choral music (or, as a BBC Prom note writer put it, her ‘test flight’), in response to a commission from the St Albans International Organ Festival, which gained in the shape of Ascending into heaven a highly original work that expresses brilliantly the idea of bodily lift-off. As with Illuminare, Jerusalem, which she wrote for Stephen Cleobury two years later, Weir found inspiration in an ancient text, this time a Latin hymn by the French theologian Hildebert of Lavardin (1056-1133), who was first a reluctant Bishop of Le Mans in North West France and, later, an unwilling Archbishop of Tours. (He also travelled unwillingly to England in 1108, a prisoner of William II following the capture of Le Mans.)
The Archbishop’s poem, with its repetitions and rhyming lines, each of four trochaic feet (pairs of long-short syllables), typical of medieval hymns, suited a composer aiming for simplicity with a twist. Appropriately for a work produced for the St Albans festival, Weir employs a virtuosic organ accompaniment, which clearly recalls Messiaen in its use of an octatonic scale, in what the French composer called his ‘second mode of limited transposition’. Weir notes that ‘as an illustration of the title the music (especially the organ part) ascends frequently’.
Mathias Magnificat (Jesus Service)
The jaunty rhythms and bright melodies of this setting of the Magnificat perfectly express this Welsh composer’s sparkling character. Mathias’s use of dissonances, his sprightly use of the organ and leaping treble lines is very characteristic of his writing, but here too there are wondrous moments of serenity, such as the berceuse-like setting of the words ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’, and ‘for he remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel’, which moves to a more urgent ‘for ever, for ever, ever, ever!’ But the biggest surprise is the Gloria, into which the music moves as a ship into calm waters.
Byrd Nunc dimittis (The Great Service)
Elizabethan and Jacobean composers provided service settings tailored to suit different liturgical occasions: modest, concise settings (‘short’ services), as in the setting by Weelkes earlier on this disc, would have seen everyday use by cathedral and collegiate choirs, while more elaborate, lavish settings would have been reserved for major feasts. Byrd’s ‘Short’ and ‘Third’ Services are both examples of the former type, while the ‘Great’ Service is his most brilliant and elaborate work for the new English rite. (One early source, indeed, calls it his ‘Long Service’.) It is likely that it was written in the 1580s, piecemeal, probably, because not all its movements would have been used in any one service, and must have been composed with the choir of the Chapel Royal in mind, since, in the puritan-dominated later years of the sixteenth century, this would probably have been the only choir in England capable of performing it.
The length of Byrd’s Great Service is attributable entirely to the elaboration of the counterpoint, justified in this post-Reformation context by repetition of words rather than melisma. This in turn is partly the result of conceiving each clause of a sentence separately, where earlier composers might have taken the whole half-verse as a unit. So, for example, in Byrd there are three distinct sections for ‘and his mercy is on them’ / ‘that fear him’ / ‘throughout all generations’. The last of these alone continues for 51 beats—an eloquent piece of word-painting in itself.
The scarcity of early copies of Byrd’s Great Service in cathedral libraries suggest that it was never widely used, though there is evidence that it was in regular use at Durham, York, Worcester and St George’s Chapel, Windsor (and probably in Cambridge, where the Decani alto part was discovered in Peterhouse library). But, possibly on account of its length, it seems to have dropped out of use everywhere for two and a half centuries, before being rediscovered by the musicologist Edmund Fellowes in 1924.
Walton A Litany
Phineas Fletcher, whose poem ‘Drop, drop slow tears’ has been set to music by many composers from Orlando Gibbons to Kenneth Leighton, entered King’s College, Cambridge in 1600. He graduated BA in 1604 and MA in 1608, and was ordained at some point before 1611, when he became a fellow of the College. His pastoral drama, Sicelides, was written to be performed before James I when the king visited Cambridge in 1615. In the event, the royal party left Cambridge before its premiere at King’s.
William Walton, originally from Oldham, arrived in Oxford at the age of nine to take up a choristership at Christ Church. There he was trained by the Organist, Henry Ley. To avoid having to return to Oldham when his voice broke, Walton decided to ‘make himself interesting’ by writing music. Parry, whilst in Oxford examining, saw some of the boy’s compositions; he told the Dean ‘There’s a lot in this chap. You must keep your eye on him’. Walton’s setting of Fletcher’s ‘Drop, drop slow tears’ may well have been among these manuscripts, since he was 15 when he wrote it. The piece shows a precocious assurance in the part writing and there are harmonic touches that are later echoed in Psalm 137 from Belshazzar’s Feast. This is not surprising, because the version that is performed today is actually Walton’s revision dating from 1930, when he was engaged on his large-scale masterpiece.
Rubbra Magnificat (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A flat, Op 65)
Rubbra’s personal commitment to his religion was rare amongst composers of his day; he converted to Catholicism in 1947 and wrote a Mass to mark the occasion. His religious choral music includes motets, anthems, carols and cantatas ranging from large-scale works, such as the Festival Te Deum he wrote for the Festival of Britain, to smaller scale works of a practical use, such as his canticles in A flat, which are very much part of the repertoire in Anglican cathedrals and collegiate churches.
Two childhood experiences found expression in his music: the first was the reversed reflection of light in his bedroom the morning after a fall of snow overnight, which Rubbra later translated into his music in what he called ‘topsy-turveydom’ (short bits of melody which can be reversed to sound equally good); the second was the memory of the sound of distant church bells, ‘downward drifting sounds’, which found expression in his composition in repeated descending scales. Both can be heard in this Magnificat, especially in the interplay between choir and organ.
Stanford Nunc dimittis (Morning, Communion and Evening Services in G, Op 81)
The Irish composer C V Stanford was a significant musical figure in Cambridge from the 1870s to the 1890s; appointed Organist of Trinity College soon after he had graduated, he was Professor of Music by the time he was 35. He was an irascible figure and his capacity for quarrelling with his closest friends made him a difficult colleague. (He fell out with Parry and Elgar, to name but two.)
His ten operas and seven symphonies are hardly ever performed nowadays, but his lovely part-song The blue bird remains popular and, in cathedrals and college chapels, his Three Latin Motets of 1892 remain regular fare, as do many of his settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. His Mag and Nunc in G feature two of the most famous solos in church music—the Magnificat begins with a soaring treble solo and the Nunc dimittis, which we hear here, begins with a fine bass solo.
Wood Oculi omnium
Charles Wood’s short anthem Oculi omnium is often sung at King’s by the College Choir as a grace prior to a College feast, the words (‘The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord: and thou givest them their meat in due season’) being appropriate to such a use. Like much of his writing for choirs, this piece was written while he was in Cambridge. It is the second of two easy, short, four-part introits published in 1927.
Parry Magnificat (Great Service)
Parry’s Evening Service in D was written in 1882, around the time that Parry was beginning to gain public notice as a composer. The piece was promised to Stanford, at that time Organist at Trinity College, Cambridge, but was in fact dedicated to Sir John Stainer, who conducted the first performance at St Paul’s Cathedral. Parry, like other composers of the period who professed no religious faith, found great inspiration in the words of the King James Bible and the poetry of seventeenth century English literature, both of which he drew upon for his motets, and, in this case, the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. The work remained unpublished until 1925 and Jeremy Dibble brought out an authoritative edition in 1984.
Stanford Nunc dimittis (Morning, Communion and Evening Services in B flat, Op 10)
Stanford employed very different approaches to each of his settings of the Evening Service. His Mag and Nunc in G each open with a solo voice. His Nunc dimittis in B flat is written entirely for tenors and basses, who sing the words of Simeon in unison until gloriously breaking into harmony with the words ‘the glory of thy people Israel’; the trebles and altos only join in for the Gloria.
Maw One foot in Eden still, I stand
The English composer Nicholas Maw studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Lennox Berkeley and Paul Steinitz and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Max Deutsch before settling in the USA. In the long-running battle between those composers who advocate a radical new start in music (epitomised, perhaps, by Stockhausen), and those who, though highly original, insist on rooting their music in the tradition we have inherited (a point of view expressed once by Dallapiccola, who likened the great corpus of music we have inherited to a great tree trunk, with new pieces representing the new shoots), Maw falls very much into the latter category, his own individual musical voice blending the familiar with the unfamiliar. As he expressed it in 1999:
It’s one of the arrogances of the 20th century that art has to contain only the new. Previously it contained something people knew and something they didn’t know—and I suppose that’s what I’m aiming at.
Maw’s highly individual musical voice is basically tonal, blending the familiar with the unfamiliar, and characterised by a natural lyricism and a sometimes Brucknerian expansiveness. He explains what he is trying to do in terms of recovering a lost inheritance:
I’m becoming more and more concerned with what music has lost, with the things a composer can’t do any more. I want to be able to do them again … There was a break in the natural tradition around 1914, for obvious social and political reasons … It seems that I am trying to regain that tradition.
One foot in Eden (which once came out in a programme note as ‘On Foot in Eden’ (!)) was commissioned by Stephen Cleobury and King’s College to mark the 550th anniversary of the founding of the College in 1441. Its remarkable words, written by Edwin Muir (1887-1959), articulate an interesting idea that those familiar with Boris Ord’s setting of the medieval carol Adam lay ybounden will recognise. That carol states that ‘Ne had the apple taken been / Ne had never our lady / Abeen heavenè queen’, seeming to suggest that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden had consequences so great as to render the Fall itself ultimately a good thing. Muir, in a very twentieth-century way, expresses a similar view—that a perfect Eden in which there had been no Fall would necessarily have been a world in which the many wonderful human qualities which arose in response to suffering would never have seen the light of day: ‘What had Eden ever to say / Of hope and faith and pity and love …? / Strange blessings never in Paradise / Fell from these beclouded skies.’
Finzi Lo, the full, final sacrifice Op 26
The Revd Walter Hussey, Vicar from 1936-55 of St Matthew’s, Northampton, where Stephen Cleobury was to spend three years as Director of Music in the 1970s, and subsequently Dean of Chichester, was consumed by a lifelong mission ‘to help re-forge the ancient link between the Church and the Arts’. His friend Kenneth, Lord Clark, described him as an ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’, and these gifts he put to effect so successfully that he must be counted as one of the great patrons of the 20th century. During his years at St Matthew’s he commissioned some ten pieces of music from leading composers, including Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Edmund Rubbra, Lennox Berkeley and Malcolm Arnold, not to mention works of art such as Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child (1943-4) and Graham Sutherland’s Crucifixion (1946). Importantly, he approached artists and composers who were the leading representatives of their art in their day, rather than restricting himself to ‘church music’ composers or religious artists—much the same approach, in fact, as that of Stephen Cleobury in his commissioning of carols for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s.
Hussey approached Gerald Finzi in early June 1946 for a piece of music to be performed on 21 September—the church’s patronal festival. ‘We have not so far had anything on the theme of the Eucharist’, he mentioned. ‘The sort of texts that pass through my mind are verses from Vaughan’s The Feast, or his The Holy Communion’. Finzi, whom C V Stanford once described as ‘very shy, but full of poetry’, responded by setting an amalgamation of texts by another metaphysical poet, Richard Crashaw (1613-1649), whose words are an English version of Thomas Aquinas’s hymns Adoro te and Lauda Sion. ‘Mine’s only a little thing’, Finzi told a friend while writing it, but the little thing grew into the longest choral work he had yet written. Finzi professed to dislike the organ, but his writing for the instrument here is very effective; it is likely that Finzi, though an agnostic from an Italian-Jewish background, had absorbed a strong sense of the sound of Anglican choral music at York Minster, where he had been a composition pupil of Sir Edward Bairstow, who died a month before this piece was written.
Lo, the full, final sacrifice was well received and was performed a second time in November 1946, when Sutherland’s painting was unveiled, and yet again at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester the following summer. At a time when many might have wished to have claimed him as a religious composer, Finzi declined a request from Hussey in 1947 for an unaccompanied Mass, and turned his attention back for the while to secular music. In 1951, however, he contributed another highly successful piece to the genre in the shape of God is gone up, one of three anthems composed for St Cecilia’s Day at St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn.
Emma Cleobury © 2019
Stephen Cleobury ©