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Ash Wednesday

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2019
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Release date: February 2020
Total duration: 53 minutes 25 seconds

For many years now, Choral Evensong on Ash Wednesday has held a particularly cherished place in the life of St John’s College Chapel. In this recording of Evensong, a rite which forms part of the daily round of worship offered at St John’s, ancient words and music invite us to reflect upon this most solemn of holy days.


‘This is amazing—how did they make a recording that is so lifelike? Well, do it live: that’s how you do it! For me, the centre of this Ash Wednesday Evensong is the performance of Ne Irascaris by William Byrd, which is an extraordinary piece of music … the recording does capture the liveness, the atmosphere, everything you’d hope: you are transported by this’ (BBC Record Review)
Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51 is something of a one-hit wonder, and is notable in its rich and mysterious heritage. The famous version sung by St John’s is a product of all sorts of traditions, transcriptions and horrendous mistakes! Barely anything at all survives intact from what was sung in Allegri’s time, making the story of this ‘work’ all the more interesting.

The trail begins in the Sistine Chapel in 1514 under Pope Leo X, when the tradition of singing Psalm 51 ('Have mercy upon me, O God') to a special musical setting during Holy Week was started. There came to be twelve settings in use by Allegri’s time (including his own, written circa 1638), all founded on an old principle of falso bordone, where the text is chanted to chords in speech rhythm. Despite its basis on these simple chanted chords, Allegri’s original version was written with his choir’s strange and complex system of ornamentation (or abbellimenti) in mind—a system that would come to define much of the Sistine Chapel Choir’s mysticism. Singers would have known instinctively from the ‘in-house’ tradition how to embellish a particular phrase, and this has its roots in singers’ improvising over a plainsong cantus firmus (fixed tune).

Fast-forward 150 years and the abbellimenti practices had changed: thus the music of the Miserere was already rather detached from its original form. Then, in 1770, the story goes that the 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the Sistine Chapel Choir singing the Miserere twice during Holy Week, and made his own transcription by ear. Due to the repetitive nature of the falso bordone structure, alternating between chorus and solo verses with plainsong verses in between, the feat was by no means extraordinary. The Pope gave him a knighthood anyway. Threats of excommunication from the Catholic Church for disseminating copies at this time are almost certainly complete myth, though it is true that the Vatican closely guarded the work. It only handed out a few copies to important figures like Emperor Leopold I. Even then they did so without the secret abbellimenti written in; Leopold complained that his score bore little resemblance to what he remembered hearing.

Charles Burney published an edition in 1771 soon after meeting Mozart, and it is possible that it was based on a copy Mozart might have given to him. Burney’s is different to other versions from the time, and is notable in its complete lack of any ornamentation. Even the iconic treble top Cs aren’t to be found here—or, indeed, anywhere else at this point.

In 1831 Mendelssohn made his own transcription from the Vatican, which, intriguingly, he wrote a fourth higher than had been previously notated, giving rise to some top Cs in the solo verse treble part. Perhaps this was because the Sistine Chapel worked at a higher pitch than elsewhere. Later, in 1880 the editors of the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians accidentally inserted a section of Mendelssohn’s higher transposition into the solo verse. This has been reproduced in later performing editions, solidifying into practice the bizarre solo verses surviving to this day, resulting in the lone top C and a striking (but inadvertent!) change of mode. A flats are abruptly introduced and each verse ends with a Phrygian cadence into a ‘Tierce de Picardie’ on G—completely out of keeping with the rest of the setting. This is what The Choir of St John’s sings, along with the final chorus verse which probably does survive fairly intact from Allegri’s original. Editions in this format, including George Guest’s, are sung by cathedral and collegiate choirs across the country with no attempt or claim at authenticity, but without apology, representing a history of changing practices.

Not much at all is known about William Byrd’s early life, but he may well have been a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, as his two brothers were. In 1563, Byrd was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, where the bulk of his music for Queen Elizabeth’s Anglican Church was written. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 alongside his friend and mentor Thomas Tallis, and together the two of them embarked on a publishing venture—the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae—with support from the Queen in the form of a monopoly on music printing in London. This, along with Byrd’s later publications in 1589 and 1591, sets Latin texts, almost certainly designed to be performed not in Anglican worship but rather in the home. The fact that this music was so publicly available is evidence of the Queen’s ‘middle path’ in her attitude towards national religious practice, as a Protestant with a fondness for the ritual and ceremony of the old Catholic church.

Byrd composed several settings of the Preces and Responses, of which this is the best known. Written for the services of Matins and Evensong within the new Anglican Church (probably when Byrd was at Lincoln), they represent the simplicity of word setting required by the liturgy of the time. Cranmer’s often-quoted instruction that there should be 'for every syllable, a note' was a reaction against the complex and florid church music of the pre-Reformation period, and many shared his view. Erasmus himself, upon attending a service in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, remarked that 'the congregation cannot hear one distinct word'. Byrd’s setting of the Responses almost entirely adheres to Cranmer’s directive, save for some movement in the inner parts and a brief melisma (multiple notes per syllable) sung by the trebles on the word 'joyful'. The 'Amen' following the final chanted collect is more drawn-out than the others, and has a striking ‘English cadence’. This is a technique where two parts move to a resolution in opposite directions, resulting in a simultaneous clash or ‘near miss’. However, the sonority here is only conjectural, as the second Alto part has had to be completely reconstructed, the original having been lost.

When Byrd published his Liber Sacrarum Cantionum in 1589, he was in a phase of setting Latin texts on persecution, with one theme appearing most often: the biblical captivity of the Israelites in Babylon. These references, familiar to church liturgy in the poignant words of Psalm 137 ('By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept'), could be considered as expressions of Byrd’s personal desperation at the state of English Catholicism. Of Byrd’s three ‘Jerusalem motets’ in his 1589 publication, Ne irascaris, Domine has always been the best known and most performed.

The start of the motet is derived (slightly unexpectedly) from a song called O doux regard by the Flemish composer Philip van Wilder, who worked in Henry VIII’s court in the first half of the 16th century. It is dark in tone, and comparatively low in the voices’ ranges compared with the rest of the piece. A section in homophony—'Ecce' ('Look!')—draws our attention to the plight of the captives in exile, and the first half concludes with an affirmative set of imitative entries on the text 'populus tuus omnes nos' ('we are all thy people'). The second part, Civitas sancti tui, begins inconspicuously, but the polyphony soon draws to a halt at a cadence on E major. A section of incredible poignancy then unfolds, starting with an implicitly hushed return to G major where two groups of voices sing 'Sion deserta facta est' ('Sion is made a wilderness'). Out of this emerge the voices in imitation repeating the cry 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem', rather evocative of the refrain from Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah: 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum' ('Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God'). From this follows an astonishing set of 54 entries on the words 'desolata est', utterly despondent at the captivity of the Lord’s people in Babylon. The shape of these entries is subtly altered from G-F#-E-E-D to G-F#-E-G-D, recalling the start of Civitas, before the final cadential motif ripples upwards from the lower parts. The motet ends with a sense of calm and tranquillity.

I have always been amazed at how Byrd creates such a resigned and 'desolata' atmosphere without the use of a minor mode or extensive dissonance. Perhaps another composer such as Tomkins might have set it in the latter way, using the ‘English’ false relations and clashes to illustrate the pain of exile. However, it is the subtlety of word-setting and expressive use of imitation and texture that make Ne irascaris, Domine stand out as a true masterpiece. An apt comment is passed down from an anonymous copyist in the time of Byrd, simply annotating his manuscript 'good song'.

The lifetime of Thomas Weelkes saw the styles of Anglican church music evolve from their infancy in Byrd’s time. The Short Service, one of Weelkes’s many settings of the canticles appointed for Matins and Evensong, represents a tradition well into its maturity, descending from the first simple English canticles by Tallis and Tye. It was probably written while Weelkes was serving as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chichester Cathedral, where he worked from around 1601 until his death. Although biased by Cathedral Chapter’s view of Weelkes, virtually all records of his employment paint him in a thoroughly negative light. After being charged for absence from the Bishop’s visitation in 1609, he was regularly noted for public drunkenness, and was reported to the Bishopin 1616 for being a 'notorious swearer and blasphemer'. He was fired in 1617, but somehow managed to get his job back by 1622. Stories passed down from lay-clerk to lay-clerk suggest that he even once urinated onto the Dean’s head from the organ loft.

The simple and syllabic Short Service is so called to distinguish it from the ‘Verse’ services (where solo verses with independent organ accompaniment alternate with full choir responses) and ‘Great’ services (employing a variety of verses with divided sets of parts and more extended imitation, all doubled by the organ). Although Weelkes’s choir at Chichester is thought to have been rather small in size, larger choral traditions elsewhere have provided an opportunity to adapt his music as it has been passed on. For example his original ‘full’ setting of an Alleluia for Chichester was changed at Durham so that the music alternated between the ‘Decani’ and ‘Cantoris’ sides of the choir, creating a spatial effect. This is how the St John’s Choir sing Weelkes’s Short Service today, with movement from side to side marked in by the editor. The simple text-setting shows echoes of Cranmer’s 'for every syllable, a note' well into the 17th century, and this lent much inspiration to the later services of Humfrey, Blow and Purcell.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in E minor (BWV548i) is one of the most large-scale and arguably most harmonically driven of all Bach’s Preludes; its attached 'Wedge' Fugue is the longest of his output in that genre. It was almost certainly composed in Leipzig between 1727 and 1736, making it one of the last of the Preludes and Fugues Bach wrote, the majority having been written before 1720.

The Prelude displays a grand architecture of structure and tonality. The powerful theme at the start, underpinned by an articulated ‘pedal point’ (a prolonged note above which the harmony changes), is used as a refrain throughout the piece in alternation with various ‘verses’ in contrasting styles. This is known as ritornello form, and is typical of much Baroque instrumental music, especially the Concerto Grosso. One of the verses which is expanded upon and developed in the Prelude is a manuals-only section in the reduced scoring of three parts. Another is characterised by a harmonic progression rising in semitones and a pedal part in the style of a ‘walking bass’. There are remarkably few cadences in the Prelude, and those that do occur are generally the impetus for a new idea or section, diminishing any sense of finality and instead heightening tension throughout. It is only at the very end therefore, following the last of four sustained pedal points on A, D, G and finally B (the ‘dominant’ of the piece), that the cadence truly resolves without interruption, bringing to a close one of Bach’s greatest organ movements.

James Anderson-Besant © 2020

Conductor’s reflections
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period of fasting and penitence which precedes Easter. Ashes are placed on worshippers’ foreheads in the shape of a cross, as a sign of repentance. Evensong on this day has been an especially important service in the liturgical year at St John’s; the BBC started transmitting it live in 1972. For several decades the service was broadcast annually; more recently it has been biennial. 2019 was a live broadcast year, however the recording on this release uses our own microphones, permanently installed in St John’s College Chapel for webcasting, rather than those of the BBC.

A regular feature of the service is the singing of Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, Deus. The evolution of this work is described later in the booklet by our Organ Scholar, James Anderson-Besant. Some choirs treat it as a set of variations, with different embellishments in each verse. That is interesting in a concert, or as part of an academic study. However, in an act of worship, my strong preference is to stick with the one familiar version throughout, despite its lack of strict authenticity. The aim is to conjure up a hypnotic, repetitive, healing atmosphere, in which waves of sound wash over the listener without surprises. This is conducive to meditation, to reflection, to worship—for believers it cleanses the soul, and that is at the heart of the Lenten journey. For non-believers it can be equally restorative to one’s mental health and well-being. Edwin Fischer regarded the two movements of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 111 as symbolising 'here and beyond'. It is the latter, a sense of the transcendent, to which we aspire in music-making within the liturgy. After our Choir sings a radio broadcast, the thing that pleases me most is when a listener writes in to say that they could sense a prayerful quality over the radio. It has interested me to learn that some musicologists feel uncomfortable discussing the religious aspects of the performance of sacred music; conversely, people speak of the religious quality of Beethoven’s (secular) Op 111.

There is a particular frisson to a live broadcast of the Allegri, with its famous top Cs. In 2019 I had trained up two boys who could sing the high solo pretty perfectly—my plan was to alternate them during the five top Cs, thus reducing the pressure on each boy. All was going swimmingly the previous evening, but on the morning of Ash Wednesday I received a text message to say that one of these soloists was ill—and a couple of hours later he went home. The remaining boy, 13-year-old Freddie Harrison, sailed through the solos with extraordinary composure and artistry, with half a million people listening. If there’s a more challenging vocal solo for a singer of any age, then I’d like to know what it is! It is moving to remember that by the time this recording comes out, Freddie will have left the Choir and his voice will probably have changed so that he will never sing treble again. Naturally I hope that our present Choristers will go on to have wonderful adult voices, like Sir Simon Keenlyside who sang treble in the very first Ash Wednesday broadcast here. But—imagine going to a museum to look at a precious Ming vase, in the certain knowledge that by the time you next visit the museum the vase will have been dropped on the ground. It’s important to take a photograph of the vase that can be kept for ever.

A few years before he died, Sir Colin Davis came to Cambridge to receive an Honorary Degree. In conversation with my colleague Sir Stephen Cleobury at King’s College, Stephen mentioned that our daily routines include 8 a.m. Chorister rehearsals. Sir Colin was astonished and asked: 'Why on earth don’t you get an assistant to direct those?' In fact, you couldn’t possibly do that without losing the essence of the Choir. The early morning rehearsals are where one creates and nurtures the sound and character of the Choir; every year is a subtly different vintage of wine, in a way that doesn’t happen to the same extent with orchestras.

For Byrd’s Ne irascaris, Domine I kept in mind the thought of it being sung secretly behind closed doors, at a time when Catholics were being persecuted; this is deeply personal, intimate music. The Israelites’ sorrow at their exile from Jerusalem mirrored the recusant Byrd’s desolation at the lack of Catholicism in England. Whilst singing the motet I asked the Choristers to imagine they were in Central Park just after 9/11, mourning the loss of friends and colleagues who had died; I am fortunate to have Choristers with such mature artistry and musical empathy.

We used different parts of the College Chapel for the service; the sanctuary for Miserere mei, Deus, to create a sense of space and distance from the congregation; the choir stalls for Weelkes’s Short Service, so as to facilitate antiphonal effects; the sanctuary again for the Byrd motet Ne irascaris, Domine—this time striving for a sense of intimacy on the radio, engendered by a reduced number of singers standing close to one another. In this recording we are not seeking to be compared against studio and concert performances by mixed-voice professional choirs. Rather we are wanting to present a snapshot of an honest, reverential service—a real act of liturgy using the beautiful Book of Common Prayer, as we do each day. Ian Bostridge has written of 'the unrepeatability and ineffability of the singular live performance'. This is something I feel particularly strongly in a vocal ensemble where around a third of the membership changes every year.

The treble soloist and I had discussions about the best word underlay for 'Jerusalem' in the final phrase containing a top C. It seems we didn’t come to a definite conclusion, and I smile when I hear him hurriedly change vowel during the final high note—a record of a unique event in time. Ash Wednesday would be pointless if we didn’t have imperfections!

The recording will be released around the same time as our Dean, Mark Oakley, releases a book on George Herbert’s poems, called My Sour Sweet Days. I hope some people may choose to enjoy the book and the recording in tandem because, as Mark said in his first sermon here: 'I believe that when we walk in here [The Chapel], we walk into a poem. The liturgy is poetry in motion, and we sometimes fail to understand its density of suggestion, the eavesdropping on the soul, the sensitive state of consciousness that its poetry can prompt.'
Andrew Nethsingha

The Ash Wednesday service
For many years now, Choral Evensong on Ash Wednesday has held a particularly cherished place in the life of St John’s College Chapel. In this recording of Evensong, a rite which forms part of the daily round of worship offered at St John’s, ancient words and music invite us to reflect upon this most solemn of holy days.

By tradition, Christians strive to deepen their discipleship during Lent, in expectation of the celebration of Christ’s passion and resurrection. Lent originated as a time of preparation for baptismal candidates, and later became associated with those who had committed grave public sins, in preparation for their readmission to the rites of the Church at Easter. The modern-day period of Lent which commences on Ash Wednesday is symbolic of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism and before his public ministry. On this day, the crosses from the previous Palm Sunday are burned and used to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of worshippers, who thereby commit themselves to a season of fasting, self-examination, and prayer.

The Opus Dei (the Work of God) is upheld by Anglicans today through the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, which have been the framework of daily Anglican worship since Thomas Cranmer adapted the monastic pattern of prayer almost 500 years ago. The words of Evening Prayer—or the sung version, Evensong—remain as Cranmer left them, yet they offer fresh meaning to those who seek to encounter God in our own age. The unchanging text of The Preces, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and Responses is included daily, yet crucially its musical setting (along with the specifically-appointed readings, prayers, and the anthem) sets the tone of the liturgy. Evensong on Ash Wednesday is a turning point in the Christian year: it offers the opportunity to make the connection between our life and the life of God through soul-searching music and words.

The Lenten liturgy mirrors the plainer, humbler lives of penitent Christians through the simple adornment of the space, restrained use of the organ, and abandonment of more extravagant musical works. And yet, the season offers some of the most sublime church music in the repertoire. Witness the setting of Psalm 51 by Allegri, handed down to us in a version containing the famous top Cs of a lone treble, the evoked emotions of which are surely intensified in the atmosphere of a live broadcast. The beautifully simple Preces and Responses by Byrd, and Weelkes’s Short Service, are both products of Cranmer’s stipulation that the texts should be 'understanded of the people'. By contrast, Byrd’s astonishing anthem in Latin, Ne irascaris, Domine, paints a picture of the Catholic composer lamenting his own exile. The readings from the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke speak of vanity, social injustice, the exploitation of the powerless, and the squandering of precious resources. These themes resonate powerfully today.

This rather sombre dimension should not obscure Lent’s renewing purpose, however. Liturgical customs such as the absence of flowers, the veiling of bejewelled crosses, the shutting of triptychs and the wearing of linen vestments do not seek to condemn; rather, they provide the backdrop to a life in which Christians may see more clearly the love of Christ, acknowledge their own shortcomings, and grow in self-awareness. In both the first lesson (in which Isaiah condemns the waywardness of Judah and Jerusalem) and in the second lesson (the Parable of the Prodigal Son), the underlying message is that of redemption. As the Advent candle in a dark Cambridge winter anticipates the birth of Christ, so too does the season of Lent, with etymological roots in the Old English word for ‘springtime’, fill Christians with hope in the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey of renewal, urged on by the Collect’s petition for perfect remission and forgiveness.

John Challenger © 2020

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