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A generous programme of choral treasures from a choir on top form, which also includes three first recordings.
Writing in The New Yorker, Alex Ross labelled Ned Rorem ‘an elegant anomaly among American composers’. Rorem’s early career might suggest the exact opposite. After studies in the United States with, among others, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, he set off, like so many American composers before him, for France. However, a journey scheduled to last three months was extended to nine years, and in France Rorem developed an ‘austerely lyrical Franco-American style’ (Ross) that back home seemed anomalous or, at least, dated—an impression compounded no doubt by Rorem’s very long career. Sing, my soul, his wondrous love was composed in the South of France in the summer of 1955, but the music, a largely homophonic setting of an 1841 hymn from the Protestant Episcopal Church, is more likely to evoke memories of the Quaker services Rorem attended as a child. Like many hymn-tunes, Sing, my soul falls into rigorously observed two-bar phrases. Rorem’s artistry can be observed in his subtle reharmonizations of a hymn tune that is itself developed, with individual notes frequently displaced by an octave.
The words of God is gone up are taken from the Preparatory Meditations of Edward Taylor, a Leicestershire-born poet who emigrated to the United States in 1668 and ended up spending almost sixty years as physician and pastor of a remote community in Massachusetts. Taylor forbade publication of his poetry, which came to light only in 1937. Finzi appears to have been particularly attracted to the Meditations: both God is gone up (1951) and an earlier anthem My lovely one (1946) draw on this collection. In God is gone up, Finzi, a highly discerning reader of poetry, used two of the seven stanzas of Taylor’s ‘Twentieth Meditation’. The chosen words are set in an ABA form, with the outer sections dominated by fanfare-like figures in both voices and organ; the middle section, by way of contrast, is expressive in tone. Curiously, in Taylor’s poem the reflective stanza precedes the hymn of praise; the ternary structure of the anthem is thus entirely Finzi’s invention. The composer translates Taylor’s scrupulously observed ten-syllable lines into musical prose of striking fluidity: the music fluctuates frequently between duple, triple, sometimes even quintuple metres. God is gone up was written for the St Cecilia’s Day Service at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London. The text, with its frequent references to music, was doubtless chosen with both occasion and venue in mind: famously, St Sepulchre’s contains a Musicians’ Chapel.
The earliest version of Benjamin Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin was composed on 9 July 1930, while the composer was still a schoolboy. The text, which dates from about 1300, was taken from Quiller-Couch’s The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1900, which Britten had received as a school prize, and the anthem was apparently composed while he was confined to bed in the school sanatorium. Denied manuscript paper during his illness, Britten wrote the original on writing paper. A Hymn to the Virgin was revised before the first performance in 1931, in which Britten’s mother sang alto solo; later, in 1934, it was transposed down a semitone for publication. Britten divides his singers into two groups: the main body of the choir sings mostly in English while a smaller group (either a semi-chorus or a solo quartet, according to the composer) interjects shorter phrases in Latin. The first two stanzas are set to similar music; in the third stanza Britten initially abandons the call-and-response pattern of the opening pages, though antiphony is restored towards the end. To modern eyes and ears, the Hymn appears to be in A minor; however, individual lines and cadences, with their recurrent references to the Phrygian mode, suggest pre-tonal practices. Britten retained a soft spot for this youthful work, and it was one of two pieces performed at his funeral on 7 December 1976.
‘Justorum animae’ is one of Stanford’s Three Latin Motets, Op 38. The motets were probably composed in the late 1880s; at least, records survive of ‘Justorum animae’ having been performed at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1888 and 1892. Publication, however, was delayed until 1905, when the collection appeared with a dedication to Alan Gray, Stanford’s successor as organist of Trinity College. Stanford took the text, a reflection on the fate of the departed, from the third chapter of the Book of Wisdom. Like the other two motets of Op 38, ‘Justorum animae’ is in a type of ternary form. However, the reprise brings back the opening music over sustained bass notes, and the material is also decorated with a simple but strikingly effective descant. The middle section uses related melodic patterns, but moves into the minor to reflect the words ‘torment’ and ‘malice’.
Few pieces of church music from the last half-century have been performed as widely and as frequently as John Tavener’s The Lamb, a setting of one of the best-loved poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1776). As well as appearing on countless church music-lists, The Lamb was performed at the Millennium Dome’s opening ceremony on 31 December 1999; it featured as background music to Paolo Sorrentino’s film La grande bellezza (perhaps helping it win the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2014 Academy Awards); it has even been a set work on an A Level syllabus. The Lamb’s appeal surely lies in its simplicity: much of the music is in one or two parts, and when all four voice parts sing together, they move in rhythmic unison. Yet this apparent simplicity masks some ingenious constructivist principles that hint at Tavener’s early modernist leanings. Many of the work’s duets involve parts moving in contrary motion, and pairs of lines are often set as original and retrograde versions of the same pitch-row. According to the composer, The Lamb ‘came to me fully grown and was written in an afternoon [in 1982] and dedicated to my nephew Simon for his third birthday’.
An alumnus of the University of Cambridge—he studied composition with Robin Holloway—Jonathan Dove has written a wide range of music, including more than a dozen operas. His particular affinity for choral music has long been noted, and he is now among the most frequently performed of living English composers. Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995) was written for the annual service of the Friends of the Royal Academy of Arts in St James’s, Piccadilly. Dove chose the text, from Amos and the Book of Psalms, because he thought the words particularly appropriate for artists. As he noted, the setting starts with ‘a musical image of the night sky, a repeated organ motif of twinkling stars that sets the choir wondering who made them’. Throughout the anthem, the singers return to the words ‘Seek him’, starting in ‘devotional longing’, as Dove expressed it, but ‘eventually released into a joyful dance, finally coming to rest in serenity’.
Francis Poulenc, though brought up a Catholic, lost his faith as he entered adulthood. He returned to the Church in 1936, following a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour; this was linked to the death of Pierre-Octave Ferroud, a fellow composer who was decapitated in a motoring accident. Poulenc described himself as ‘religious by deepest instinct and by heredity’; others, according to music critic Claude Rostrand, saw in him a divided personality—half monk, half delinquent (‘le moine et le voyou’). Rostrand’s comments were stimulated by what he saw as Poulenc’s tendency to flip between frivolous neoclassical idioms and more deeply engaged writing. Like most of Poulenc’s music for unaccompanied choir, Salve regina springs from the period of renewed faith that followed the crisis of 1936. It dates from 1941, a dark time for both France and Poulenc who, as a homosexual with sympathies for banned composers, was viewed with suspicion by the Nazis. Though the anthem’s mood suggests the ‘monk’, Poulenc’s music owes much to neoclassicism: most phrases consist of isolated blocks of sound, inspired almost certainly by the cellular approach pioneered in works like Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920).
Christopher Robinson has enjoyed a distinguished career in the service of the Anglican church, holding positions at Worcester Cathedral, St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and, until his retirement in 2003, St John’s College, Cambridge. Jesu, grant me this, I pray was written in memory of John Porter, Assistant Organist at Windsor; it was composed some months after Porter’s tragically early death in 1985. The text, a translation by Sir Henry Williams Baker of a seventeenth-century Latin text, was originally published in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), edited by Baker. The words are frequently sung to Orlando Gibbons’s Song 13. Robinson’s version makes no explicit reference to this melody, though it retains the essentially strophic (and homophonic) approach one might expect of a hymn-based anthem. That said, stanzas flow easily one into the next, with the transitions eased by Robinson’s characteristically sensitive harmonies and by a series of variants of the three-note motif announced by the trebles at the very start of the anthem.
In recent years Alex Woolf has been recognized as a rising star: he won the BBC Composer of the Year in 2012 and came to wider media attention in 2018 with his ‘NHS Symphony’. He has also written for Sir James Galway and the London Symphony Orchestra. Woolf studied at St John’s, graduating in 2016 with a double First. While at College he sang in St John’s Voices, and he has retained a strong interest in choral music, with some twenty works for this genre in his catalogue. O vos omnes (2016) was written for the Choir of St John’s, and the text can be traced back to the Book of Lamentations, where it appears as part of a lament for the destruction of Jerusalem. It is usually encountered today in the context of the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday. The text has been set many times, perhaps most famously by Vittoria (twice) and Gesualdo. Woolf’s scoring of the motet, for men’s voices only, captures some of the darkness associated with the text’s history. The music contrasts passages of imitation with, at times, knotty harmonic writing. Particularly striking, however, is Woolf ’s decision to preserve pure F major harmony for the words ‘Si est dolor’; rarely can pain have been expressed so cogently through pure harmony.
In July 1934 Benjamin Britten, then twenty years old, composed a Te deum in C major for the choir of St Mark’s, North Audley Street, London. He followed it later the same year with a Jubilate in E flat, thereby completing the traditional pairing of Anglican canticles. However, the latter was never released—it was first published only after the composer’s death, in 1984—so, to most of his contemporaries, Britten’s C major Te deum seemed incomplete. Almost three decades later, at the request of the Duke of Edinburgh, Britten made good his ‘omission’, producing the Jubilate in C major heard here. Though composed for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the canticle was first performed in Leeds Parish Church in October 1961. The sparseness of texture is typical of Britten’s later style. Voice parts are often in pairs—with hints of heterophony (divergent versions of the same melody), a feature of the eastern music Britten encountered during this period. Though the music’s tone is generally buoyant, some of the word-setting is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s ‘alienating’ practices, found most notably in the Symphony of Psalms. ‘Be thankful unto him’, for example, is set not as a hymn of praise, but in a whisper over a long organ chord. History doesn’t record the Duke’s reaction.
Bruckner’s Locus iste, one of the most celebrated of nineteenth-century motets, was composed in 1869 to mark the opening of the Votive Chapel in the new Cathedral of Linz, where Bruckner had served as Cathedral Organist from 1855 to 1868. It is particularly appropriate to this disc, as the new Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, was dedicated in the same year, 1869. The text is part of the proper for a Kirchweih (a mass of ‘church dedication’). The music, a succinct illustration of Bruckner’s harmonic mastery, hints at the composer’s uncertain relationship with the Cecilians, who argued for a return to the purity of Gregorian chant. Bruckner’s motet has extended passages of diatonic writing that, in terms of resources, seem not very different from Cecilian music; however, Locus iste has an emotive power that far transcends the Cecilians’ bloodless compositions. It derives much of its effect from rising sequential patterns that nod towards Wagnerian practice. As with much of Bruckner’s music, silence plays a vital role: the final phrase of the motet is preceded by a five-beat pause that, to be fully effective, requires an acoustic such as that of Linz Cathedral—or, indeed, St John’s College Chapel.
Once described by The Times as ‘the most accomplished choral composer in Britain’, Giles Swayne, as befits a student of Olivier Messiaen and Harrison Birtwistle, has been an innovator in many genres. His Cry combined voices and electronics; its companion piece Havoc features a ‘continuo group’ of celesta, marimba, Baroque harp and theorbo. Although Swayne clearly delights in experimentation, he has always been determined to communicate with his audiences. Messiaen, he once argued, was ‘one of the few post-war composers who … succeeded in moulding a living musical identity out of the grey language of post-serial atonality’. In his setting of the traditional text, ‘Adam lay ybounden’, Swayne reveals a compositional voice that is both innovative and urgent. The work is scored for two choirs, a solo cello that often broods in its lowest registers, a bass soloist and a solo treble who makes a cameo appearance towards the end. In fact, this was not the first piece by Swayne to pair voices and cello: the reworked version of Stabat mater is similarly scored, and The silent land is set for cello and forty-part choir. In Adam lay ibounden the voices change approach frequently, sometimes singing lyrically, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes percussively—evoking perhaps the West African music that was so influential on Swayne’s development; at times, they seem to hover on the verge of chaos. Adam lay ibounden was commissioned by Andrew Nethsingha and first performed at the 2009 Advent Service at St John’s College.
‘Hymn to the Cherubim’ is probably the most frequently performed section of Rachmaninov’s Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op 31, a sequence of twenty movements. ‘St John Chrysostom’ is the title given in the Russian Orthodox Church to the Eucharist-like liturgy used on weekdays and on most Sundays. ‘Not for a long time have I written anything with such pleasure’, Rachmaninov commented on completing the work. The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was performed shortly afterwards, in November 1910. It thus predates by some five years the composer’s only other significant piece of liturgical music, the Vespers, Op 37. Rachmaninov had long been interested in Russian Orthodox music, and during his teens had even attended classes in Moscow with Stepan Smolenski, one of the leading figures in the field. Though the Liturgy contains no chant material, the simplicity of the harmony—the score of the ‘Hymn’ contains only a handful of accidentals—reflects this interest. Not everyone approved. Alexander Kastalsky, Director of the Moscow Synodal Choir, whom Rachmaninov had consulted during composition of the work, objected to certain ‘subjective’ elements in the music and, remarkably, performance in church was banned owing to the work’s ‘spirit of modernism’.
The CD concludes with Parry’s Blest pair of sirens, commissioned to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, and dedicated to the members of the Bach Choir and their conductor Charles Villiers Stanford. It was first performed in London’s St James’s Hall and, according to Parry, was received ‘quite uproariously’. The text is taken from John Milton’s ode At a solemn music, in which the poet describes the rapture experienced on listening to sacred music. The ode will have been familiar to many musicians from Handel’s Samson, where four lines are used (in slightly varied form) for the aria ‘Let the bright Seraphim’. Parry’s setting is constructed in a form reminiscent of a Baroque concerto, with ‘orchestral ritornellos’ framing contrasted vocal sections. The sense of continuity provided by this form was perhaps prompted by Milton’s first sentence, which runs to no fewer than twenty-four lines. The opening of Blest pair of sirens refers—consciously or otherwise—to the first bars of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (the syncopated descending bass-line is the most obvious clue). However, Parry’s elegant partwriting, above all in the eight-part sections, suggests close study of Brahms’s music, notably the Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op 109. Parry, like his younger contemporary Elgar, forged a distinctively English amalgam from the music of the two German masters, his style informed by exposure to Stanford’s oeuvre and other English sacred music. A pivotal figure in the English Musical Renaissance—he devoted much of his energy to teaching, and counted Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge and Ireland among his pupils—Parry was probably the most widely admired composer of his day. Stanford once went so far as to maintain he was the greatest English composer since Henry Purcell, a claim largely based, one must suspect, on ‘his’ work, Blest pair of sirens.
Martin Ennis © 2018
In the thirty-two years since I first made music in this Chapel, I have gradually come to think of it as a perfect place for liturgical choral singing. Former chorister and choral scholar Sir Simon Keenlyside has pointed out that one is better able to hear one’s own singing here than in many other choral settings; this is advantageous for good vocal technique. Martin Cullingford once wrote of the way in which, as a member of the congregation, the Chapel 'seems to enfold and embrace you'. The eminent acoustician, Sir Harold Marshall, has explained to me that the sense of an enveloping acoustic comes from lateral sound not from frontal sound; hence the aural effect created by the shape of our Chapel. The softest singing always projects, loud singing does not become tiring on the ear, music from the choir stalls can be heard clearly at any tempo. The narrow walls create an intimacy of communication between singer and listener, the height of the ceiling prevents the sound from feeling boxed-in, the shape of the apse imparts a bloom to the sonority, and the Ante-Chapel offers resonance and space. It seems that George Gilbert Scott certainly understood acoustics! However Frank Salmon, in his excellent essay on the Chapel architecture, explains that the choice of a wooden ceiling came initially more from considerations of colour than from acoustical thinking, so perhaps there was an element of good fortune.
The architecture and materials of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (my favourite concert hall!) impart a warmth and glow to the sound of its orchestra; I believe that St John’s College Chapel, built nineteen years earlier, has a not dissimilar effect on choral singing. Scott’s architecture has had a profound influence on the sound and character of the choir here; we now look forward to embarking on the next hundred albums in this place!
The College Chapel
This one hundredth recording by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, happily coincides with the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the College’s 'new' Chapel on 12 May 1869. The Victorian building, designed by the great Gothic Revival architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, replaced a relatively modest Tudor chapel which was itself a rebuilding of that of the thirteenth-century Hospital of St John, suppressed when the College was founded in 1511. Although some in the 1860s argued for the retention of this now historic chapel, it had long been a desire of the College to replace it with a building that better reflected the size and wealth of St John’s within Cambridge University, as well as its royal status as a foundation of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. In 1687 the College had a plan for a new Chapel drawn up but did not act upon it. A century later, major remodelling of First Court, to include a new Chapel, only got as far as the re-facing of the Tudor red-brick south side with a Georgian stone frontage. Thus it fell to the later nineteenth-century Master, William Bateson, to put into effect this long-cherished ambition.
The immediate trigger, however, for the bold decision to rebuild was that evangelical spirit so characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century muscular Victorian Anglicanism. In May 1861, the Commemoration Sermon was preached by the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, William Selwyn, an alumnus of the College. Perceiving the moment to be one of historic change, Selwyn took the opportunity of the seventh Jubilee of the College’s foundation to describe its great evangelist members of the past and to plead 'we must have men like these, and more in number'. The achievement of this renewed mission, Selwyn believed, had to be supported by the raising of 'a Chapel more worthy of our College'.
Subscriptions were raised and, in 1862, Scott was approached without competition for a design. His solution to fitting a larger Chapel into the existing First Court was ingenious. By abutting a transept onto the end of the Hall block the new building could be placed north of the old Chapel—which could therefore continue to serve the College during the construction period. The model is that of Merton College, Oxford, where the nave was never built. Merton was also the model for the niches placed on the buttresses between the windows, into which Scott placed statues of famous persons connected with the College, as well as for the varied tracery of the windows themselves—although Scott went one better in producing different tracery for every window in the south and north flanks. The design for the Chapel of St John’s was also recognised at the time as bearing close resemblance to that of the smaller Exeter College, Oxford, which Scott had built a few years previously—and both share a generic source in King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with its short but high proportions and eastern chevet. Scott, however, defined the overall style in Cambridge as late-thirteenth-century Decorated, 'the best variety of pointed architecture' as he described it, justifying his choice by reference to fragmentary remains of the chapel of the Hospital of St John that he found on site.
As at Exeter College and Paris, Scott initially proposed a flèche (small spire) for St John’s, but the 'princely gift' from one alumnus of a massive tower was accepted with alacrity by both College and architect alike in 1864, notwithstanding that the building’s foundations had already been constructed by then. Although the source for the tower was Pershore Abbey (on the restoration of which Scott was advising at the time), he again adduced an Oxford example—this time of Magdalen College—to argue that a large tower would not dwarf the surrounding buildings. It is a matter of opinion as to how true this was and is but, at a height of 163 feet, Scott’s tower certainly gave St John’s a dominant feature in the Cambridge skyline and, indeed, one that is visible the moment one enters the county of Cambridgeshire from the south on the A10 road.
The Chapel was built in Ancaster Stone offset by red Mansfield stone colonettes, with especially fine decorative carvings around its principal, south-west doorway by Farmer and Brindley. The building has been authoritatively described as 'without a rival' when it comes to the 'display of Victorian ecclesiastical art in Cambridge' and this becomes even clearer once one is inside. The great variety in colour and composition of the different stones used for colonettes and capitals, mostly from British and Irish quarries, would provide a demanding examination paper for a geologist. The rich sanctuary floor, designed by Burlison and Grylls, adopts an Italian Renaissance style with its beautiful inlaid scenes from the Old Testament and Zodiac. Whilst the sixteenth-century wooden stalls were transferred from the old chapel (the most notable of a number of features carefully preserved by Scott), Rattee and Kett were commissioned to double their number with Victorian stalls that are full of entertainment in the misericord and spandrel carvings. Above this the painted windows, mostly narrating New Testament stories, are almost all by Clayton and Bell and paid for by donations from alumni. At the springing of each rib of the vault are Farmer and Brindley’s sculpted figures of apostles. Finally, the timber vault received a scheme painted by Clayton and Bell, in which gold-ground figures representing the Christian centuries from the second to the nineteenth are surrounded by decorative scrollwork.
The painted ceiling was a substitute for Scott’s initial intention to gain colour through the use of varied woods, the architect having realised that a stone vault would not only have added cost but also unacceptably increased the already stretched height to length ratio of the building. Perhaps it was inadvertent, then, that the space thus produced—whilst proving difficult for the spoken word—was ideal for choral music, with an acoustic which offers satisfying reverberation but without significant echo. St John’s had had a 'surpliced choir' and an organist since the early-seventeenth century, but it was not until the early-nineteenth century that a choir school was established. This was a joint venture with the adjacent Trinity College and the Organist from 1833 to 1856, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, was similarly a joint appointment. His successor, George Garrett, was, however, contracted solely to St John’s. The peripatetic tradition of men singers rushing between St John’s, Trinity and even King’s and Jesus Colleges on Sundays came to its end, and the distinctive identities of the respective colleges’ choirs began to form.
Dr Garrett’s ambitions for St John’s can be read in the College’s decision to commission for its new Chapel a large organ from Hill & Son, suitable for the Victorian choral tradition, as well as in the immediate foundation in 1869 of a Voluntary Choir, using undergraduates to supplement the existing boys and lay clerks. Then, thanks to a benefaction, Garrett was able to recruit the first student Choral Scholars in 1889, bringing to an end dependence on ageing lay clerks alongside the boys. Thus, by the turn of the century, the choral tradition still so characteristic of St John’s College today had been set in place.
It is, perhaps, ironic, that this historic development took place against a background quite different from the religious regeneration so fervently wished for by William Selwyn in 1861. By the time of the new building’s consecration eight years later, the College had abolished fines for non-attendance at chapel, the University having earlier dropped its requirement that students should be practising Anglicans. Bitter division had sprung up between Fellows whose religious views were biblically conservative and those who were trying to embrace new scientific thinking, as a result of which no regular sermons were preached inside the new Chapel for its first nine years. None the less, the building provided the College with something it had previously lacked—a large and magnificent space in which a significant part of the community could come together. It is regularly filled by students of all faiths and none for the services of matriculation and graduation that mark the beginning and end of their time at the College, as well as by the boys and girls of the College School for services that include Ascension Day, after which the Choir sings from the top of the tower in annual fulfilment of a challenge about audibility given by a Fellow to the then Organist, Cyril Rootham, in 1902. It would be hard to conceive today of St John’s College, Cambridge, without the great Victorian Chapel that is now so closely connected with its traditions.
Frank Salmon © 2018