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The tree

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2021
Total duration: 65 minutes 26 seconds

A musical expression of the ongoing and thriving tradition that is St John's College Choir in Cambridge, with music spanning nine centuries.

There is hope,
There is hope for a tree if it be cut down,
There is hope that it will sprout again,
And that its shoots will not cease
Though its roots grow old in the ground,
Yet at the scent of water, it will bud,
And put forth branches like a young plant.

All of us hope that choirs and orchestras will be like the tree described in the Book of Job, as we seek to rebuild after pandemic and political upheaval. Taking the idea of new growth as a starting point, this album develops from the seed of a single treble line, gradually adding organ, then lower voices, a second choir, 150 additional singers, and eventually combining nearly 500 voices together.

Several pieces on the album are directed by my predecessors, Christopher Robinson and David Hill. The album is released as a tribute to them, celebrating their 85th and 65th birthdays respectively. Some of my most moving and inspiring experiences in Cambridge have been watching them return to conduct the present choir. In an interview with Martin Cullingford for Gramophone fifteen years ago, David spoke of ‘a process of osmosis really. They pass on—in a way that they don’t even talk about, no one ever discusses it—a tradition of how to phrase, a tradition of how to sing a particular thing. Listen to the choir from 20 years ago, and go into the building now, and you will hear that they’re two Burgundies from the same valley, probably on the same chalk, but tasting slightly different.’ Well, I do talk about it to the choir, but in other respects I hope that what David said is still true! Alternatively, one might think of the choir itself as a tree, constantly growing new branches.

The works by Elgar, Rowlands, Parry, Stainer and Stanford date from a short period around the turn of the twentieth century. To these I’ve added three St John’s composers—Howells, Harvey and Robinson—as well as the beautiful monodic writing of Hildegard. All tracks but one are taken from live services in Chapel. These include an Evensong in which we combined with Yale Schola Cantorum. There are also tracks from a special service in July 2019 sung by countless generations of former choir members, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the College Chapel. Having singers close to the congregation inevitably generates background noise. My hope is that listeners might feel the ‘liveness’ of these archive recordings compensates for the lack of studio conditions. As I write, pandemic restrictions only allow us to sing services in an empty Chapel; we should never take for granted the joy of having a real (if occasionally noisy!) congregation with whom to share our music-making.

Many of the composers featured on the recording were well-known for their melodic gifts. The visionary German Abbess, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, conjured up extraordinary beauty using one note at a time. She was one of the most prolific composers of the Middle Ages. As the head of a religious community, it was her responsibility to ensure the spiritual well-being of all the nuns in her care. For Hildegard, music and philosophy went hand-in-hand with her sublime liturgical poetry, creating an ideal method of expressing her faith. She has also been described by Clemens Jöckle as the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. She wrote nine books covering the medicinal properties of animals, plants and stones. Hildegard was an extraordinary self-taught polymath. O pastor animarum is made up of memorable long-breathed shapes, which evoke a sense of mysticism, prayerfulness and purity.

Jonathan Harvey felt a close affinity to Hildegard’s writing; indeed we were asked to start his Memorial Service in College with a work by Hildegard, soaring into the high spaces of the Ante-chapel. The first two works on our recording share a certain weightlessness. The trebles begin with a single vocal line but branch out into four parts, intertwining with the organ part. The organ is used without pedals, and it is to be played on stops sounding (at least) an octave higher than the printed pitch.

The tree (1981) was commissioned by the Church Music Society for its 75th anniversary. The first performance was given at the Southern Cathedrals Festival in Winchester. The work was completed just ten days after the premiere of Harvey’s church opera Passion and Resurrection, also written for Winchester. Harvey was a student at St John’s, having started his musical training at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, where he was a chorister alongside Christopher Robinson.

When St John’s College celebrated its 500th anniversary, we commissioned five new works for the occasion—from James MacMillan, James Long, John Rutter, Judith Weir and Jonathan Harvey. Sicut aquilae (2011) was in fact the second of three works which James Long wrote for us in consecutive years. Get wisdom (2010) had been composed during our inaugural New Music partnership with Choir & Organ magazine; it was also James’s first choral work. Vigilate (2012) features on our Advent Live album. Long graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, in 2009. I am extremely grateful to his final-year composition teacher, Giles Swayne, for recommending James to me. Long describes how Swayne 'really knocked me into shape, teaching me to think critically and to take stuffy academic models with a pinch of salt'.

When commissioning I have always encouraged composers to consider using a different instrument with the choir—either in place of the organ or in addition to it. Long’s exhilarating trumpet writing creates a pleasing parallel with the Trompeta Real part which Michael Tippett wrote in his own commission for the College’s 450th anniversary.

The eagle is a traditional symbol for St John the Evangelist, the College’s patron saint. Hence Long’s choice of text from Isaiah 40, a Biblical chapter which has been much used by composers, not least by Handel in Messiah. The work employs a wide range of characters and textures, from the arresting opening to a passage marked 'fragile' in the score, 'Even the youths shall faint'. As a means of generating material, the composer used a number of musical cyphers in the piece, spelling out words like 'College' and 'Eagles' in the trumpet part—though the listener is not expected to detect these!

Until the Covid pandemic the Choir had never previously been silenced—not even during the Second World War, when Herbert Howells served as Acting Organist while Robin Orr was away on active service. Howells continued his connection with St John’s for the rest of his life. Orr’s succesor, George Guest, described how Howells 'loved coming up into what we called the song school, where rehearsals would take place, and talking to the boys, who adored this great man—small, dapper, with a wonderful head of white, curly hair'. George, who loved all things Welsh, was always keen to point out the Welsh origins of the composer’s surname!

29th May 2015 was a red-letter day for us here at St John’s—the only time that David Hill’s Yale Schola Cantorum has ever combined with his former choir. Preces and Responses (1967) are late Howells, written for the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral and its Director Allan Wicks, a great advocate of contemporary music. The Preces and Responses are a series of short prayers, alternating between the officiant and the choir, used twice a day in the Anglican Church in the services of Matins and Evensong. The short fragments of text are based on, or at least resemble, verses of psalms—one of the oldest forms of Jewish, Old Testament prayer. Though Howells wrote twenty settings of the Evening Canticles, also sung daily at Evensong, he wrote only one set of Responses. Most settings of the Responses, from Tallis to Radcliffe, assign just one note to each syllable. Howells, however, is much more expansive. The parts for Cantor and Choir dovetail into one another harmonically, sometimes even overlapping, creating a sense of long unbroken paragraphs rather than separate pithy sentences.

The Spirit of the Lord (1903) is the Prologue of The Apostles, which was to be complemented by The Kingdom three years later. The two oratorios by Edward Elgar form a huge canvas; they were originally conceived as a single work and are bound together by over sixty leitmotifs. One of the most striking of these is a three-chord sequence heard beneath the words anointed me, labelled in his friend A J Jaeger’s analysis as Christ, 'The Man of Sorrows'. Elgar’s desire to compose a work about the Apostles can be traced back to the remark of a school teacher when the composer was in his early teens: 'The Apostles were young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.' Michael Kennedy has asserted that it was this observation which first interested Elgar in the disciples as human beings. When Elgar was approached to write an oratorio for the 1900 Birmingham Festival he first thought of an Apostles theme, but then dropped it in favour of setting John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius.

Elgar knew his Bible well and spent a great deal of time fashioning the text from the King James Version. In this anthem he starts with words of the Prophet Isaiah as quoted by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, before reverting to the subtly different original words in the Old Testament. Although originally conceived for a chorus of hundreds alongside one of Elgar’s largest orchestras, the movement has become popular as an anthem with organ accompaniment.

Our second work by Howells is A Hymn for St Cecilia (1961). While he was Master of the Musicians’ Company, Howells invited Ursula Vaughan Williams, widow of Ralph, to write a text in honour of Music’s patron saint. She later recalled:

My St Cecilia is a girl in one of those magical gardens from Pompeian frescoes, a romantic figure among colonnades and fountains; Herbert's tune takes her briskly towards martyrdom. The first performance was in St Paul's Cathedral. Herbert led the Livery Club of the Worshipful Company of Musicians (for whom he had written the work and to whom it is dedicated) up the aisle, singing as they marched. I was so bemused by this procession … that I did not realise until the third verse that it was 'our tune’.

Paul Andrews draws our attention to another possible version of events. A letter from Cedric Thorpe-Davie to Howells in 1961 says:

We agreed that the choir should no longer process and should sing the Hymn in their stalls, whilst the company and clergy do the processing.

In the same letter an excellent suggestion comes from John Dykes Bower, Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, requesting a descant for the final verse. The Hymn is a joyous stream of melody, imbued from the start with freshness and momentum—a perfect marriage of words and music.

Charles Villiers Stanford published his six Bible Songs two years before Howells came to study with him at the Royal College of Music. A Song of Wisdom (1910) is the sixth of the set. Each song was paired with a short anthem based on a well-known hymn, perhaps influenced by Lutheran cantatas. The text, from Ecclesiasticus, continues our theme of growth—not only with roots, trees and branches, but also with a stream becoming a river which becomes the sea. In writing extensive solo (or unison) arias for church use, Stanford may have been thinking of movements from big S S Wesley anthems, such as 'Who can express' from O give thanks. Stanford’s Song is wonderfully responsive to its text, with glorious sweeping architecture, ecstatic climaxes and a billowing accompaniment.

The last four tracks on the album feature fine authors of hymns as well as composers of hymn tunes. Henry W Baker played a seminal role in the creation of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). Jesu, grant me this I pray is Baker’s translation of a Latin hymn Dignare me, O Jesu, rogo te, most often sung to Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons. The heartfelt setting by Christopher Robinson (1985) was composed in memory of John Porter, Assistant Organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor from 1972 until 1985. Along with Stanford, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry led a renaissance in British composition. Hear my words, ye people (1894) was written for the Diocesan Choral Festival at Salisbury Cathedral, an annual British choral tradition which continues in dioceses around the country to this day, albeit with smaller numbers now participating. In Parry’s era special trains were run, at reduced fares, to bring singers to the festival. Jeremy Dibble writes that almost a hundred local choirs took part—around 2000 singers! The work is a through-composed cantata, with passages for solo voices or semi-chorus, contrasting with music for the massed choirs and solo passages for the famous ‘Father’ Willis organ (then just 17 years old). The work is part of a tradition that extends from seventeenth-century Symphony Anthems such as Purcell’s O sing unto the Lord, Wesley’s nineteenth-century anthems like Ascribe unto the Lord, and on to such twentieth-century works as Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Walton’s The Twelve.

Parry drew his libretto from the Books of Isaiah, Job and the Psalms. The soprano aria uses passages that Elgar was later to set in The Spirit of the Lord—the musicality of the text inspires extraordinary melodic richness from both composers. The work ends with a metrical version of Psalm 150 by Henry W Baker; Parry’s setting was to become the greatly loved hymn tune Laudate Dominum. It is hard to imagine a more perfect work for the festival in Salisbury. Parry’s organ introduction builds up to an exhilarating first choral entry, foreshadowing his 1902 coronation anthem I was glad. At the Salisbury premiere the organ was supplemented by the Band of the Royal Marine Light Infantry (Portsmouth Division). 'The Lord is full of compassion' portrays the contrast between heaven and earth, between God and his subjects, as well as the vastness of God’s mercy and of the world He created; small and large forces are pitted against each other with masterly dramatic effect. A dominant pedal point, a stirring unison hymn tune, and an inexorable build-up of antiphonal Amens—all these elements ensure that the choirs will have returned home on their trains deeply inspired and motivated for the next year of singing.

John Stainer was Parry’s predecessor as Professor of Music at Oxford. He had previously held the posts of Organist at St Michael’s College, Tenbury (at the age of 16!), Magdalen College, Oxford and St Paul’s Cathedral. He sang in the first English performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1854 and later introduced the work into the Holy Week music at St Paul’s. The Crucifixion (1887) was an oratorio designed to be well within the capabilities of parish church choirs, and easily accessible to congregations. The work contains five new hymn tunes, some of which have become greatly-loved in their own right. The Crucifixion was the third LP that St John’s College Choir released, back in 1961, featuring the tenor Richard Lewis. God so loved the world is a sublime miniature from the oratorio, scored for unaccompanied choir.

The great hymn-writer Charles Wesley was grandfather of organist-composer S S Wesley, and brother of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. He was immensely prolific, writing and publishing over 6500 hymn texts, of which Love divine, all loves excelling is one of the best-loved.

The stirring hymn tune Blaenwern was written in 1905 by Welsh school-teacher and composer William Rowlands (known as ‘Penfro’.) He named it after a farm in Pembrokeshire where he once sent his son to convalesce from illness. It is fitting to end with this tune, as the world seeks to repair itself from the horrors of the pandemic. As I write, it is well over a year since we last experienced the sensation of a congregation singing live in our Chapel. It moves me to tears to hear 500 people joined in communal singing. This was also the last ever service for eleven leaving choir members; you can hear the emotion of a unique occasion. Christopher Robinson’s descant adds frisson to the final verse.

Hymn-singing has been special in St John’s for a long time—the particular shape and acoustics of the Chapel heighten the cumulative effect of massed singing. George Guest encouraged an uninhibited passion in hymn-singing, inspired by his Welsh roots. It is good to end with one of George’s favourite hymns; our recording is released exactly seventy years since George Guest became Director of the Choir, planting a tree which continues to grow.

Andrew Nethsingha © 2021

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