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A procession through time and history, with music rooted in ancient Gregorian chant all the way through to contemporary works charting the course of Holy Week and Easter, Now the green blade riseth is also a demonstration of the flexibility and agility of this justly renowned choir.
Acting as staging posts in all this, rather like ‘stations of the Cross’ or the chorales in the Bach Passions, are four traditional hymns (Tracks 2, 7, 11, 15). These may well be for many listeners the best-known and even best-loved items, which they will themselves have sung regularly; indeed, those familiar with services at King’s will associate ‘There is a green hill far away’ with the procession of the Choir from the stalls to the East end of the Chapel during the service of Ante-Communion and Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, while ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ brings that very moving service to a close. Two days later, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’ is traditionally the processional hymn at the beginning of the Easter Day Eucharist, as the Choir and clergy, bearing the newly lighted Paschal candle, move under the Screen from west to east.
The reenactment of the entry into Jerusalem in the form of a procession on Palm Sunday for clergy and congregation is of ancient origin and survives (with or without a participating local donkey) in many parish churches even today. Tracks 1 and 2 originate in this tradition. The setting by George Malcolm, organist and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral 1947-59, of the responsory Ingrediente Domino, appointed to be sung as the procession reentered the church, does not employ the Gregorian melody assigned to the text but preserves the responsorial refrain structure. ‘All Glory, laud and honour’ is J M Neale’s translation of the early ninth-century processional Latin hymn ‘Gloria, laus et honor’ that has since medieval times been associated with the Palm Sunday rite. The text O salutaris hostia (Track 4) is itself the concluding stanza of a hymn by Thomas Aquinas associated with the Feast of Corpus Christi (and thus appropriate also to the institution of the Holy Eucharist, commemorated on Maundy Thursday). Although Rossini, like Malcolm, makes no attempt to use or imitate Gregorian chant in his setting, the largely homophonic and varied strophic setting of this 1857 miniature ally it to the hymn genre.
Gregorian melodies and their associated texts do, however, lie at the heart of the settings by Maurice Duruflé of the Maundy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas et amor (Track 3), the first of four ‘motets on Gregorian themes’ published in 1960, and Christus vincit (Track 17, dating from 2007) by Martin Baker, sometime successor to George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral. Whereas Duruflé’s rapt setting never rises above mezzo forte, Baker’s response to this text celebrating the kingship of Christ is shaped as an inexorable crescendo to a concluding fortissimo. Baker’s musical idiom is also closely related to the French organ school of which Duruflé was a distinguished exponent. In this connection may also be mentioned Bob Chilcott’s Now the green blade riseth (Track 12): while this, once again, eschews its associated traditional French (Christmas!) melody ‘Noël nouvelet’, Chilcott’s organ accompaniment unmistakably recalls the birdsong-laden organ works of Duruflé’s great contemporary and compatriot Olivier Messiaen.
Founded in 1446, King’s Chapel prior to the Reformation would have been home to the words, music and liturgy of the Roman rite, even though it is now indelibly associated with the pinnacle of the Anglican tradition. The meeting of Catholic and Protestant is vividly represented here by Civitas sancti tui (Track 6) by William Byrd, a Catholic who composed for both rites and benefited from the religious tolerance of Elizabeth I. This masterly five-part composition, the secunda pars of the motet ‘Ne irascaris, Domine’, from his first solo book of Cantiones sacrae (1589), draws its penitential text from Isaiah; while liturgically irreproachable at face value, it is not difficult to understand this setting precisely as a reproach against the new religious order, and a thinly veiled lament for what had been lost.
The firm place in the music libraries of every cathedral, chapel and professional choir today of the music of Byrd and his Tudor contemporaries is largely the result of its rediscovery in the early years of the twentieth century after a period of neglect. Certainly, A H ‘Daddy’ Mann, who may rightly be considered the architect of King’s College Choir as it exists today, was not a very great enthusiast; nor, beyond a limited repertoire of Bach and his beloved Handel, did he incline toward the baroque richness of Mass settings such as those of Antonio Lotti, represented here not by his famous eight-part setting of the Crucifixus section of the Nicene Creed but rather by a six-part setting from a Mass in G minor (Track 8); whereas in the setting à 8 ascending overlapping voices individually ‘discover’ the fact that ‘He was crucified for us’, in the present setting the choir declaims as one, acting somewhat like the turba, or crowd, of Passion narratives.
Although one can imagine that the ‘too luscious’ tone quality that some of Mann’s critics heard in his King’s Choir might have well suited such music, Mann’s tastes were closer to home and to his own age, as represented here by the music by S S Wesley, Stainer, and Elgar (Tracks 5 and 13, 10, and 16). The scoring of Blessed be the God and Father is said to be a consequence of the very limited vocal forces available to Wesley on Easter Day 1834, for which occasion it was composed (it is still often heard at Evensong in King’s and elsewhere on the same feast day). At the same time, its relatively large-scale structure and manipulation of recitative, aria and chorus sections signals toward the popularity of oratorio and associated massed amateur choral singing in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Rather in the same vein, Stainer’s God so loved the world (Track 10) and Elgar’s Light of the World (Track 16) are not independent compositions but rather excerpts from larger, multisectional works: Stainer’s 1887 cantata The Crucifixion was composed to be within the competence of most parish church choirs, while Light of the World is the closing chorus of Elgar’s oratorio The Light of Life, first heard at the 1896 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. Either work is as likely to be encountered today on the concert platform, performed by large-scale forces, as in an ecclesiastical setting.
S S Wesley died in 1876, which was also the year of ‘Daddy’ Mann’s appointment as Organist of King’s; by the end of his 53-year tenure at his own death in November 1929, the world had changed irrevocably. John Ireland’s Greater love hath no man (Track 9), its text compiled from various scriptural sources, has earned a secure place in choral services at Remembrancetide; it is thus salutary to note that it was in fact composed in 1912, two years before the outbreak of World War I, and intended as a Passiontide meditation. Conceived on a grand scale, rather like Blessed be the God and Father, and utilising a variety of vocal scorings, it may have been too ‘modern’ for Mann’s taste, as it did not enter the Choir repertoire in his lifetime. It is certainly not the case that the College had no cause for remembrance: nearly a quarter of King’s members who served lost their lives, amongst the highest proportion of any Cambridge or Oxford College during 1914-18; Choral Scholars and former Choristers were not exempt, and yet in 1915 The Cambridge Review could report that at King’s ‘services are being continued as usual’.
‘Wherefore with my utmost art/I will sing Thee’: across the Atlantic, the French high Gothic revival church of St Thomas, New York had been completed in 1914; it was consecrated two years later. Its choral tradition, complete with residential Choir School similar to that at King’s, is justly famous, and is represented here in three persons, all of whose careers took them from Britain to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue: T Frederick Candlyn, whose setting of George Herbert’s ‘King of glory, King of peace’ is heard as Track 14, served as Organist at St Thomas from 1943 to 1953; John Scott (descant, Track 7) also served in that role from 2004 to 2015, and following his untimely death was succeeded by Daniel Hyde, who later returned to King’s in 2019.
The ’recessional’ with which this album concludes (Track 18) brings us back to Europe and to the mixture of ancient and modern already represented elsewhere. Organ improvisation has long been functionally embedded in French cathedral liturgy, and the chants appropriate to the day have gained a rich ‘afterlife’ as a consequence. This is perhaps best exemplified in the fifty-one suites for the liturgical year in Charles Tournemire’s L’Orgue Mystique (1927-32). He recorded a number of improvisations in 1931-32, and although he disdained to transcribe them himself Duruflé did so, publishing five of them in 1958, nearly twenty years after Tournemire’s death in 1939. ‘Victimae paschali laudes’ is among the medieval sequences (hymn-like texts with lines organised in couplets, sung before the Gospel) that survived the sixteenth-century Council of Trent to remain part of the Catholic Mass, in this case for Easter Day. As with ‘Gloria, laus et honor’ (Track 2), the text has been the basis for an Anglican hymn, ‘Jesus Christ is risen: The feast, good Christians, therefore keep’. The original melody, as also those of ‘Gloria, laus et honor’ and the other sequences, was included, with English translation of the Latin text, in the extensive plainsong repertoire of The English Hymnal of 1906 and its 1933 revision; and the sequences, at least, have been retained in the ‘Liturgical Section’ of The New English Hymnal (1986). As the editors of that hymnal remarked, the sequences, ‘though not in common use, … are deeply valued by those who have become accustomed to them. Good choirs with some training in plainsong should be encouraged to attempt them.’
Nicholas Marston © 2022