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A Knight's Progress

Choral works by Bairstow, Haydn, Muhly, Parry, Tavener, Vaughan Williams & Walton
Temple Church Choir, Roger Sayer (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2014
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Matthew Hamilton
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: February 2015
Total duration: 58 minutes 38 seconds

The Temple Church Choir gives the premiere recording of Nico Muhly’s Our present Charter, a brand new four-movement work commissioned by the choir to celebrate 800 years since the sealing of the Magna Carta. Directed by Roger Sayer and featuring organist Greg Morris, the album also features choral works by Parry, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bairstow, Tavener and Haydn.


'Under their new director Roger Sayer the choir is obviously on strong form. For this disc, the numbers are clearly stronger than on an ordinary service day, with 17 trebles, 9 altos, 9 tenors and 8 basses and they make a goodly noise. The disc is worth acquiring for Nico Muhly's new work, but the surrounding pieces do not disappoint, particularly Walton's The Twelve which is not exactly common on disc' (Planet Hugill)

Born in the seaside town of Bournemouth, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry went on to study at Eton and then at Oxford University where he subsequently became Professor of Music. From 1895 until his death he was also Director of the Royal College of Music in London. He wrote music of all kinds, including an opera, symphonies, chamber and instrumental music, oratorios and church music. However, he is perhaps best known nowadays for his famous setting of William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem, which was composed in 1916. Soon this hymn was taken up by the Suffragette Movement and later was to become an indispensible part of the programme at the Last Night of the Proms.

For the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 Parry composed the anthem I was glad, a setting of verses from Psalm 122 which was also performed at the Coronation of Edward VII’s great-granddaughter, the present Queen. More recently, it was sung at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April 2011.

According to the rubric in the service book for the 1953 Coronation, the Queen, as soon as she entered at the west door of the Church, was to be received with this anthem and, while it was being sung, she was to pass through the body of the Church, into and through the Choir, and up to her Chair of Estate beside the Altar. On that occasion the Queen’s Scholars of Westminster School led the choir in singing the central section of this anthem—‘Vivat Regina Elizabetha!’—a section that nowadays is usually omitted in concert performances, as it is on this recording.

Another composer whose music was heard at the 1953 Coronation was William Walton who had composed a setting of the Gloria and the march Orb and Sceptre especially for the occasion. Some twelve years later, in May 1965, Walton and his wife went to stay for a few days in the Deanery of Christ College, Oxford. Also staying there that weekend were the poet W.H.Auden (1907-1973) and the notorious Labour M.P., Tom Driburg. The Dean at that time was, in Driburg’s words, ‘a hospitable and friendly old Canadian named Cuthbert Simpson’. On the Sunday, Driburg was to be the ‘Select Preacher’ at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin and, as such, to deliver the University Sermon. In his autobiography (Ruling Passions), Driburg describes how he was led through the streets of Oxford by the so-called Bedel in Divinity, bearing his wand of office, and that the scarlet-robed Vice-Chancellor was also in attendance. Apparently he had a ‘satisfactory full house’ for his sermon which was ‘broadly Socialist in content’ but ‘about five minutes too long’.

Later that evening, the Choir of Christ Church gave the first performance of The Twelve, an anthem for the feast of any of the apostles. Its music was by Walton, who had himself been a chorister at Christ Church in his youth, and words by Auden, who had read Literature there as an undergraduate in the 1920s and had returned as Professor of Poetry some thirty years later. According again to Driburg, this anthem ‘made us sit up’ and he went on to describe how ‘the sound was dynamic, almost violent’ and that ‘the words raced and leaped and tumbled, like rivers joining in a waterfall’.

The driving force behind the creation of this anthem had been the Dean who had asked Auden for the words back in 1962. Walton worked at setting to music this ‘somewhat obscure and difficult-to-set text’, as he called it, at his home on the island of Ischia. The performance at Evensong on 16 May 1965 was conducted by Sydney Watson with Robert Bottone playing the organ. Walton dedicated the work to Christ Church and its Dean. Later, he was to orchestrate it for use at a concert on 2 January 1966 to celebrate the 900th Anniversary of the founding of Westminster Abbey. On that occasion it was the composer himself who conducted the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra.

Nico Muhly was born in Vermont but brought up in Providence, Rhode Island, where, as a child, he was to sing in the choir at the Grace Episcopal Church. He began playing the piano at the age of ten and then, after completing his schooling in Providence, went to New York to study English at Columbia University and music at the Juilliard School. His first attempts at composition had been when he was about twelve years old with what he remembers was ‘probably a sacred choral piece’. In his early twenties he was working with the likes of Björk and Philip Glass and, in 2006, he released his first album which was entitled Speaks Volumes. Subsequently he has written, amongst much else, music for the Britten Sinfonia and an opera—Two Boys—which was given its first performance by English National Opera in June 2011.

Our present charter was commissioned for the Choir of the Temple Church to celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. It was given its first complete performance at the Temple Church on 18 December 2014, the fourth section having already been performed on 6 November at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, at the opening of the exhibition, Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor. This exhibition, with the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the charter as its centre point, had been designed to demonstrate the importance of Magna Carta in the drawing up of both the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the American Constitution eleven years later.

It was at the Temple Church in January 1215 that King John was persuaded of the need for a charter which would limit his powers and protect the rights of his subjects. Three of those to witness the sealing of this charter on the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede—William Marshal (Earl of Pembroke and the King’s chief advisor), his son William and Brother Aymeric (Master of the Order of Knights Templar in England)—are all buried in the Temple Church.

Muhly’s Our present charter is in four sections. The first of these—simply entitled First and making much use of this word—is a setting of the opening words of the charter. The second section is a setting of the hymn Thy kingdom come, O God! which has words by Lewis Hensley (1824-1905) while the third takes its text from The Beatitudes. In the final section—Nullus liber homo capiatur (No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned)—the words are again taken from the Magna Carta. This is the only movement in which the organ is silent, the choir singing a cappella the two clauses from the charter now numbered 39 and 40. These promise that no freeman will be imprisoned except by the law of the land and that no one will be refused ‘right or justice’, the words of clause 40 being sung in both English and Latin. Just as the choir is about to sing the text in Latin, small sections of which are enclosed in rectangular boxes, the composer gives the following instruction: ‘singer by singer, repeat boxed phrase in individual tempo; take care not to coordinate with other singers; each bar should last 5-8 seconds’. The resulting effect is rather like that of entering a crowded room in which everyone is talking.

In an article which appeared in the Guardian on 13 November 2013, Nico Muhly wrote as follows: ‘As a chorister, I always looked forward to singing Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God…it is delicious to hear, and even more toothsome to sing.’ Later in that same article he went on to suggest that ‘to study Tavener’s music is to immerse oneself in the subtle vocabulary of stillness and slow change’ and also to note the connection between the ‘deliberate simplicity’ of Tavener’s ‘melodic sensibilities’ and the ‘melancholic strophes’ of Vaughan Willliams’ motet O taste and see (also written for the 1953 Coronation), which he considers ‘never quite commits to a tonal focal point as much as to a horizon line towards which the listener glides’.

It was on 27 June 2003, at the Temple Church, that the first performance of John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple began. It did not end, however, until the following morning, for this work is a seven-hour-long vigil, designed to last all night. Tavener himself has described it as being the ‘biggest thing’ that he had ever done and referred to it as a statement of his life’s work. However, when first invited by the Master of the Temple to compose this work, Tavener had had his doubts, indeed he told his bioprapher, Piers Dudgeon, that he thought the idea was ‘ludicrous’ as nothing like this had ever been done before. Writing in his book, Lifting the Veil, Dudgeon told of his own experience of attending that first performance, of how there was cushion on each seat along with two bars of chocolate ‘to help to sustain us through the night’ and that the evening began with a talk about the history of the Temple Church. It was not a production to have missed, he later claimed: ‘the direction was superb; the use of the Temple space, the spacing of the choirs and instruments, the quality of the singers and players, all highly effective.’

It is in the seventh of the work’s eight cycles that comes Mother of God here I stand, a setting of words by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). This has since become an independent anthem and, as such, was given its first performance at an evening Rush Hour Concert at the Temple Church on 13 May 2004 by its own Choir conducted by the then Director of Music, Stephen Layton, with James Vivian playing the organ. It is dedicated to the Choir, Stephen Layton and the Master of the Temple, the Revd Robin Griffith-Jones and was sponsored by the Toulmin family, the late Judge John Toulmin having been Chairman of the Temple Church Committee. Writing in the Guardian about his experience of attending the first performance of The Veil of the Temple, Simon Poole recalled that at 1.02am he was ‘entranced by the setting of a Lermontov poem that begins Mother of God’ and claimed that he wouldn’t have minded ‘hearing just that, over and over again, for the rest of the night’.

As a young boy, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a pupil at Charterhouse School in the Surrey town of Godalming. From there we went to the Royal College of Music where he was to study with, amongst others, Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry. His other teachers included Charles Wood (at Cambridge University), Maurice Ravel (in Paris) and Max Bruch (in Germany).

It was in November 1940 that Vaughan Williams composed his short motet Valiant-for-Truth, a setting of words taken from The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1628-1688). Two years later, he was to be commissioned by the BBC to compose some incidental music to accompany a radio production of Bunyan’s allegory and then, in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, he composed an opera, or morality as he liked to call it, based on the same story.

It seems that it was the death of Dorothy Longman, an old friend of Vaughan Williams, which prompted the composer to set to music Mr Valiant-for-Truth’s speech from The Pilgrim’s Progress. (In the play, this character introduces himself thus: ‘I am one whose name is Valiant-for-Truth. I am a pilgrim, and am going to the Celestial City’). The motet’s opening words—‘After this it was noised abroad that Mr Valiant-for-Truth was taken with a summons…’—are sung by the altos, with the whole choir joining in with the pilgrim’s name. The tempo marking is lento and until the section beginning ‘My sword, I give to him’ the dynamics are predominantly piano. The work ends with a vocal fanfare, starting pianissimo but rising to fortissimo on the words ‘and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side’.

The first performance of Valiant-for-Truth took place at St Michael’s, Cornhill in the City of London on 29 June 1942 when it was sung by the St Michael’s Singers conducted by Dr Harold Darke. In her biography of her husband, Ursula Vaughan Williams noted that the programme also included ‘Tudor motets, two works by Harold Darke and Haydn’s Te Deum’ and that the church had been full.

Just over two years after the birth of Vaughan Williams in the Gloucesterhsire village of Down Ampney, Edward Cuthbert Bairstow was born in Huddersfield. Although he was to be taught music privately in London and was to spend six years as pupil to Sir Frederick Bridge at Westminster Abbey, Bairstow was to spend much of his professional life in his native Yorkshire, notably as organist at Leeds Parish Church and at York Minster. It was in 1913, after seven years at Leeds, that Bairstow took up his appointment in York and he was to remain in that post for the rest of his life.

As a composer, not surprisingly, he added many anthems and hymn tunes to the repertoire and wrote several pieces for the organ but he also composed some music for piano and violin and several songs. In 1902, Bairstow, using a Latin pseudonym, entered a competition instigated by the Worshipful Company of Musicians for the ‘best Coronation March for full orchestra’. The judges included Bairstow’s erstwhile teacher, Sir Frederick Bridge, and Sir Hubert Parry (whose anthem I was glad was, as has already been mentioned, written for that same Coronation) but the prize went to Percy Godfrey, the music master at King Edward’s School, Canterbury. Bairstow’s best-known anthem Blessed City, heavenly Salem, which dates from 1914, was the first that he composed after becoming organist at York Minster. However, it was not initially intended for performance in that Minster but at a church festival in the Heaton district of Bradford. So closely did this anthem become associated with his name, that his pupil, and successor in the organ loft of York Minster, Francis Jackson chose to entitle his biography of Bairstow ‘Blessed City’. The anthem is based on the ancient plainchant Urbs beata Hierusalem in the translation into English by the well-known hymn-writer, John Mason Neale (1818-1866).

Bairstow was appointed Professor of Music at Durham University in 1929 and in that capacity, some eight years later, was to present William Walton to the Chancellor for an honorary doctorate.

As well as being a prolific composer (and judge of the best Coronation March competition), Hubert Parry was also a renowned teacher and writer. One of his most popular books, Studies of Great Composers, not surprisingly, contains an essay about Joseph Haydn. Referring to his time in England during the 1790s, Parry suggests that it was Haydn’s ‘clear, straightforward, fresh geniality, free from affectation and morbidity, which endeared both him and [his music] to the English people of that day’.

In the field of choral music, Haydn is best known nowadays for his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons and for the six glorious Masses that he composed in the late 1790s and early 1800s following his two highly successful visits to London. Experienced choristers, however, will also know of his settings of the Salve Regina and Stabat Mater, his choral version of The Seven Last Words and the two Te Deums, one early and one late. The first of his settings of the Te Deum dates from the 1760s and was composed soon after Haydn had entered the service of the Esterházy family at Eisenstadt. It is in C major, has parts for four soloists, choir and orchestra and was probably first performed at an Esterházy family wedding. It is thought that the second Te Deum had its first performance in September 1800 during a visit to Prince Nicholas Esterházy at Eisenstadt by Lord Nelson together with Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton.

This Te Deum, which, like its predecessor, is in C major but has no need for soloists, was not, however, composed for the Esterházys but was the result of a commission from the Empress Marie Thérèse. This lady, who was the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, is not to be confused with Maria Theresa who was Empress of Austria in her own right during Haydn’s youth and after whom his Symphony No 48 is named. According to Haydn, Marie Thérèse had a ‘pleasant but weak voice’ but she did, on one occasion, sing the soprano part in a performance of The Creation. She was an enthusiastic admirer of Haydn’s music and did all she could to promote it at court. Her Te Deum is in one continuous movement which falls into three sections. The opening allegro deals with the first part of this Latin hymn from the words ‘Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur’ (We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to be the Lord) to ‘Judex crederis esse venturus’ (We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge). Then follows the verse beginning ‘Te ergo quaesumus famulis tuis subveni’ (We therefore pray thee, help thy servants) and this is marked adagio. From the words ‘Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria numerari’ (Make them to be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting) until the end of the work the marking is allegro moderato.

Peter Avis © 2014

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