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The Majesty of thy Glory

Choral works by Britten, Elgar, Howells & Purcell
Temple Church Choir, James Vivian (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2009
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: December 2010
Total duration: 64 minutes 23 seconds

The Temple Church is one of the most historic and beautiful churches in London. Situated between Fleet Street and the Thames Embankment, its recorded musical history extends back to its restoration in 1841, although a church has stood on the site for over 800 years.

The modern choir is comprised of 18 boy choristers and 12 professional choirmen—an excellent opportunity for the choristers who receive singing and theory tuition as well as generous scholarships towards their education. The programme explores three fascinating and contrasting settings of the Te Deum: A stalwart of the church liturgy (first conceived as far back as AD 387), these settings span over 300 years of English music history, composed respectively in 1694 (Purcell), 1897 (Elgar) and 1944 (Howells).


'Such enterprising and polished music-making deserves widespread currency. The engineering and editing are faultless, the booklet comprehensive and informative. Many choirs (and organists) could learn much from this jubilant release, which proves that the Temple Church Choir is among the very best. Strongly recommended' (Gramophone)

'Compilations such as these too often confine themselves to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and run along well-worn tracks. It is wonderful indeed to hear two substantial Purcell works Te Deum, My beloved spake and with instrumental rather than organ accompaniment. The other works are Elgar's Te Deum, Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, and Howells's 'Collegium Regale' Te Deum, making the album a cleverly thought-out and most engaging sequence. This is music-making of an inspired and magical kind, and I recommend these fine performances without reservation' (Choir & Organ)

'A welcome Christmas release which captures the resonant acoustic of the City of London's Temple Church, where we have enjoyed notable musical experiences during the year, especially Monteverdi's Vespers—and next door in Middle Temple Hall, a fine series of Temple Song recitals. A particular pleasure it was to renew acquaintance with Britten's splendid Rejoice in the Lamb, which exemplifies his special flair in choosing texts for setting to music. I was delighted to hear again its fanciful and eccentric Christopher Smart poem and to be reminded that my small son Simon was once its Mouse, 'a creature of great personal valour', before going on to great things as the leading boy treble soloist of his generation' Well recorded and supplied with full texts. There is a companion release of English organ music played at Temple Church' (Musical Pointers)
The sweetest sound of all is praise (Xenophon)

Praise as music, music as praise; the ancient refrain sounded by the psalmist in the 150th Psalm. The Te Deum, venerable hymn of worship of the early Christian church, takes up this theme, deepening and extending its message to encompass Christ and the heavenly hierarchy. Its lengthy text moves from praise of God, to praise of Christ and then alternates praise with intercession. Musical settings have abounded from the earliest times, and composers have taken many different approaches to this multifarious text with its abrupt changes of register. It was perhaps written by St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and his pupil, St Augustine, and first heard at Augustine’s baptism in the year 387. Whether or not tradition is reliable in this respect we cannot now know, but it quickly became absorbed into celebratory liturgies and then into the service of Mattins. Both types of Te Deum, festal and ‘liturgical’, have received their fair share of musical settings, and this recording surveys three significant examples from England.

Henry Purcell wrote his luxuriant setting (together with its associated Jubilate) for the annual celebration of St Cecilia’s Day, and it was first performed on 22nd November 1694 in St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, apparently the first ever accompanied setting of the Te Deum in English. Purcell was at the height of his powers as a composer when he wrote it, aged thirty five. It is scored for string orchestra augmented by two trumpets, with full choir sections interleaving verse sections, and is a demonstration of Purcell’s compositional prowess—the variety of texture and mood, while never straying far from D major, is a virtuoso accomplishment. Purcell turns to his advantage the sectional nature of the text, with its fast reversals of atmosphere, by setting solos and groups of voices in constant flux. The piece clearly captured the public’s imagination as it became lodged in London’s musical calendar, being performed every year from 1697 onwards in St Paul’s Cathedral. It was only knocked off its perch in 1712 with the composition of Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum, though apparently the habit became to alternate Handel’s setting with Purcell’s year by year. Such deference would have been justified, for the newcomer Handel was audibly indebted to Purcell for some of his best tricks. Purcell’s smooth, long-breathed lines at ‘the Father everlasting’ resurface as a stock-in-trade of Handel’s choral vocabulary, endowing, for instance, the final chorus of the Messiah with its puff-chested splendour.

If Purcell’s Te Deum represents the fruit of a mature composer’s thoughts (indeed he was to die a year later, on the eve of St Cecilia’s Day 1695), the verse anthem ‘My beloved spake’ is a youthful work, probably dating from Purcell’s eighteenth year. He had been appointed composer to the royal violins by Charles II, and this may well have been the first anthem composed with their participation in mind. Charles had spent time as an exile in France and returned with his ears ringing to the latest sounds at the French court, which included Lully’s Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi. Thus we find Purcell writing orchestral sinfonias and interludes, giving the band a substantial mood-setting and scene-changing role apart from its accompanimental one. The text comes from the Song of Solomon, II, and is, typically for this book of the Bible, rich and allusive in its language. Purcell gives the bulk of the text to solo voices—a countertenor, a tenor and two basses—who sing of the passing of Winter, the call of the turtle dove and the fig tree bearing fruit. The exuberance of this picturesque text certainly provoked Purcell’s musical sap to rise, and the final, full Alleluias must have seen Charles wreathed in smiles one Sunday morning.

The festal mood courses through the veins of Elgar’s Te Deum, written for the opening service of the 1897 Three Choirs Festival, at Hereford Cathedral. The mood is unequivocally symphonic, with a full concerto-style exposition of themes on the organ and a coda of similar scale (if the original version had orchestral accompaniment, the Harrison and Harrison organ of the Temple Church deputises magnificently). At this stage Elgar was yet to receive the critical acclaim he would later enjoy, and a taste of this is evident in his dealings with G R Sinclair, the then organist of Hereford Cathedral. Percy Hull, assistant organist, wrote in his diary of Elgar’s visit to Hereford in June to play through the sketch of the Te Deum:

“He was as nervous as a kitten and heaved a huge sigh of relief when Sinclair said: ‘It is very, very modern but I think it will do; you shall play it again after supper when Hull and I will give you our final verdict.’ All this in Sinclair’s stammering and somewhat patronising fashion.”

Compared to the safe efforts of most of his contemporaries, Elgar’s chromaticism must indeed have seemed challenging, though Sinclair’s opprobrium seems churlish in retrospect. Jaeger, the music editor employed at Novello’s, was quick to redress the balance in a letter shortly after the premiere:

“I have heard your finest, most spontaneous and most deeply felt and most effective work and I was very happy…”

Indeed it was during the Summer in which Elgar worked on this Te Deum that he and Jaeger corresponded for the first time, initiating a friendship and mutual respect that lasted many years. Jaeger’s encouragement elicited rare moments of optimism from Elgar, together with some of his inmost thoughts. In one letter, dating from August 1897, Elgar confesses: ‘if you cut [that] it would bleed!’, he writes. Elgar’s setting seems to find the essence of the Te Deum, a blend of confident swagger and moments of profound inner searching. The same could perhaps be said of Elgar’s own musical personality.

The epic poem Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart is a Te Deum in all but name. Written around 1760 while he was incarcerated in an asylum, it is a vast panorama of praise, sounded through everything from personal testimonial to hermetic symbolism. It is unclear whether Smart really had developed signs of madness or whether his father-in-law, John Newbery, also Smart’s publisher, had had him committed for some personal disagreement, possibly debt. Given this background, it is perhaps surprising that grievance only surfaces occasionally in the text, which reflects an abundantly rich imagination and an impressive knowledge of biblical history. One wonders if in today’s more humane times Smart might have been labeled visionary rather than madman.

Smart’s cosmological poetic vision was only brought to the attention of the wider public when it was published in 1939, not long before Walter Hussey commissioned this musical setting from Britten. The selection of text from the larger poem brilliantly captures its flavour (Peter Porter calls it a ‘biopsy of the poem’), with various biblical characters and creatures of God’s creation moved to sound his praise through words, actions and, in Jeoffry the cat’s case, ‘wreathing his body seven times round’. The structure of the piece is almost Purcellian, as one set piece quickly follows another, and Purcell’s lilting dotted rhythms even make an appearance in the Hallelujahs. Britten is in tonal mode, setting out with jaunty rhythms and easy tonic-dominant relationships (‘Let Nimrod the mighty hunter’). Wistful Lydian notes creep in (‘For I will consider my cat Jeoffry’), and the darkest, most personal section of Smart’s text ‘For I am under the same accusation…’ elicits tortured major/minor chromaticism. It has been noted that the thematic material here contains Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical mnemonic, D, E flat, C, B. Shostakovich was a friend of Britten’s, and his own variance with the ‘officers of peace’ might well be the subject of covert reference here. Either way it is the childish iteration of rhymes that draws the music back to rhythmic orthodoxy and the tonic key of F major, purging the piece of any remaining ‘devilish malignity’. One senses Britten’s empathy with Smart, and the glimpses of darker subtexts serve to throw the playful themes into a more subtly-defined relief. The first performance took place on September 21st 1943 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of St Matthew’s Northampton, and the work joined the burgeoning ranks of celebrated works of art commissioned by Hussey.

The final Te Deum on this disc was composed by Herbert Howells, doyen of twentieth-century English church music. Taken from perhaps his most celebrated set of canticles, those dedicated to King’s College, Cambridge, it represents the liturgical type of Te Deum rather than the festal, suitable for performance at Mattins. It was composed, together with the Jubilate, in 1944. The Evening Canticles followed the next year and only in 1956 did the Collegium Regale cycle achieve completion, with the composition of the Holy Communion set. The folkish-modal melodies are ideal for moulding into different formations, and Howells, the supreme word-sensitive composer, achieves a flexibility not seen in English word setting since Purcell. He once declared that it was the 1910 performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis at the Three Choirs Festival that awoke his compositional muse. Colleague and mentor at the Royal College of Music, Vaughan Williams would help Howells discover a similar modal and rhythmic plasticity, which, when combined with a fine understanding of the texture and nuance of the treble voice, would result in an ecstatic and soaring music, comparable only to the architecture which hosted the first performance.

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together. (Christopher Smart)

William Whitehead © 2010

All that dedicated city,
Dearly loved of God on high,
In exultant jubilation
Pours perpetual melody.
(Praise of the heavenly Jerusalem from the medieval hymn Urbs Beata Jerusalem (tr. J.M. Neale))

‘To the Tomb of Christ!’—So Pope Urban II called on the knights of Europe to reclaim for Christendom the land of Christ himself. Jerusalem was taken in 1099, and pilgrims flooded to the Holy Land. A journey to Jerusalem was an image of the Christian’s journey to its perfected counterpart, the heavenly Jerusalem, at once the great symbol and the destination of the Church. In 1118-9 the Knights Templar were founded, a group of knights who took monastic vows and protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They were given headquarters in the Aqsa Mosque, which they believed to be the Temple of King Solomon; its portico faced the Dome of the Rock, believed by the Knights to be the Temple of the Lord in which Jesus had been presented at Candlemas.

In the Temple in London the knights had their Church, two halls, cloisters and domestic buildings, leading straight down to the River Thames. The Round Church was consecrated at Candlemas 1185. It was modelled on the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s death, burial and rising. The Templars’ Round Church was built to recreate in London the sanctity of the Sepulchre itself.

The effigies in the Round include one of the most famous knights of his age, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (d1219). Marshal mediated between King John and the Barons at the Temple in January 1215. When in June 1215 John put his seal to the great charter of rights, Magna Carta, William’s eldest son William was one of the surety Barons and Brother Aymeric, Master of the Knights Templar in England, was a witness. Both were buried in the Temple Church.

In the 1230s the Templars demolished their singlebay chancel and built the present ‘Hall Church’: a chancel of three bays of equal height, ensuring a flood of light to the full height of the central aisle. This was to accommodate the bodies of King Henry III and his Queen who had bequeathed their bodies to the Temple Church. (In fact, the King and Queen were eventually buried in Westminster Abbey.)

In 1308 the Temple Church contained ‘two pairs of organs’ and, in the vestry, ‘twenty-two banners, eleven chasubles or mass vestments of divers colours, twenty-eight choir copes and four little copes for the choristers.’ The Templars will surely have seen, within the round of monastic services, a special significance in songs sung in praise of Jerusalem:

King Solomon built a Temple whose model and example is Christ and his Church; the length, breadth and height of this [real] Temple, when understood aright with the mind of faith, are faith, hope and charity.
(Rex Salomon, Sequence in a Templar Gradual, pre-1187)

In 1608 James I granted all the Templars’ former land between Fleet Street and the River to the societies of Inner and Middle Temple, two of London’s four Inns of Court. (Every barrister in England and Wales must, to this day, belong to one of the Inns.) The King stipulated that the Inns ‘shall serve for the accommodation and education of those studying and following the profession of the laws.’ The Inns have remained, ever since, central to the legal and ethical formation of the barristers of England and Wales. The Inns must in return maintain the Church and its priest, the Master of the Temple, complete with his ‘mansion’ and stipend of £17 6s 8d per year (which, with a welcome allowance for four centuries’ inflation, they still do). The Inns continue to maintain the Church with a generosity that has re-beautified the Church in every generation.

In the 17th century the Temple Church was a centre of London’s music. Purcell’s publisher John Playford (1622/3-1686/7) had his shop under the West Porch. For five years in the 1680s, the Inns discussed the installation of a new organ. Two organ-makers were in contention: Father Smith (proposed by Middle Temple) and Renatus Harris (proposed by Inner). The competition became intense; this so-called ‘Battle of the Organs’ was finally resolved by Judge Jeffreys of Inner Temple who decided in favour of Middle’s candidate, Smith. The organ was installed in the central arch between Round and Chancel and was the instrument played by John Stanley, the Temple’s celebrated organist of the 18th century and friend of Handel.

In the restoration of the Temple Church in the 1840s, the organ was moved to its present position and the Inns introduced a choir of men and boys under the direction of Dr Edward John Hopkins. The choir has been under the direction of further distinguished musicians, including Sir Henry Walford Davies (organist, 1898-1923 and latterly Master of the King’s Musick) and Sir George Thalben-Ball (organist, 1923-82). During ‘GTB’s’ time, the choir made numerous recordings, the most famous being of Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer with the Temple chorister Master Ernest Lough. This recording earned a gold disc for selling over a million copies and made the Temple Church a household name.

Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
(Lorenzo to Jessica, The Merchant of Venice V.1.58-65)

The night of 10 May 1941 was fine and moonlit. The river was at low ebb; water pressure was weak. The air-raid sirens sounded at 11.00pm; the raid lasted all night. Around midnight an incendiary landed on the roof of the Church. The fire caught hold and spread down to the organ and to the wooden furnishings inside the Church itself. The heat split the chancel’s columns, but the vault held up; the wooden roof of the Round caved in on the knights’ effigies below. It would be seventeen years before the Church itself was fully repaired. The organ we hear on the present recording was first heard in the Church at the chancel’s re-dedication in 1954. It was a gift of Lord Glentanar, from whose house in Scotland the instrument was transplanted. As large as a cathedral organ, it was built by the famous organ builders, Harrison & Harrison, and has been in their care ever since.

In the last twenty-five years, the music of the church has been under the direction of Dr John Birch, Stephen Layton and presently, James Vivian. The choir has an active schedule and has toured, made CD recordings and broadcasts. It has also had music written for it by composers such as Thomas Adès. At the Temple Church in 2003, the choir sang the premiere of Sir John Tavener’s massive work The Veil of the Temple, (commissioned for the Temple Church) and performed this work at the BBC Proms and at The Lincoln Center Festival in New York. The choir gives regular concerts in the Temple and was involved in the year-long 2008 Temple Festival which incorporated music, drama, dance, and intellectual debate. The choir was described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘a formidable force, finely honed and blended’. The present choir consists of eighteen boy choristers and twelve professional choirmen.

Lorenzo admits to Jessica,

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Human vesture is as muddy now as when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice; but we hope that our music, in the Church and on this recording, will help make audible the harmony of Lorenzo’s quire of stars.

Robin Griffith-Jones © 2010

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