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Seven glorious—and diverse—settings of the Evening Canticles are prefaced by a rarity from pre-Revolutionary Russia, and all in performances of the utmost integrity and vigour.
I am conscious that the first three volumes have consisted entirely of music by men, but the repertoire is gradually changing; my final volume in the series will start to redress the balance with a number of settings by women. I have enjoyed curating this album—choosing, performing and ordering the works; which paintings should go in the same room, and how close together should they be? Chesnokov flows naturally into the G minor of the St Paul’s Service; Leighton ends by leading us into a dream world from which the Westminster Service takes over. The simple purity of the Moore makes a striking contrast between the opulence of Howells and the relentless energy of Leighton. An album which began with great seriousness concludes with everyone letting their hair down in Kelly. I am grateful to Lucy Winkett for her eloquent and illuminating introduction to the album. I continue to marvel at how these ancient texts inspire composers in such different ways.
Chesnokov Nunc dimittis (1914)
Pavel Chesnokov was amongst the leading Russian choral musicians of his time. He was one of ten children, son of the choir director at the local church. When he was seven Pavel enrolled at Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing, where he boarded and received an exceptional musical education free of charge. He stayed at the school until he won a gold medal at the age of 18, having followed a rigorous and broad musical curriculum including piano, singing, composition, score reading and conducting. String quartets often played for the choral conducting classes; Chesnokov was also a very highly regarded violinist. It was the exceptional standard of the Synodal Choir at this time which encouraged so many composers to write for the church.
At the age of twenty-seven Chesnokov started taking regular composition lessons with Sergei Taneyev, teacher of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and piano soloist for the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Chesnokov was appointed Head of the Choral Conducting programme at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1920, a post he held until his death. In 1928 the Soviet authorities imposed a formal ban on sacred choral music, though it had been increasingly difficult to function as a church musician during the preceding decade. In 1931 the cathedral where Chesnokov had been choirmaster was destroyed on the orders of one of Stalin’s associates.
Three months after the Russian Revolution of 1917 Chesnokov began work on his book The Choir and How to Direct It:
I have written a great many choral compositions, especially religious ones. I would estimate five hundred sacred and one hundred secular. But my central work, my lifework itself, I consider the book [The Choir and How to Direct It] completed in December 1930.
By pouring his energy into the book, Chesnokov sought to preserve the essence of the pre-revolutionary choral tradition. The book expresses optimism that future generations will build on the techniques and views he describes, but the political situation made it extremely difficult for Chesnokov to get the work published. Chesnokov writes in detail about the three elements of ensemble, intonation and nuance. The goal is to combine these elements to form a choir which functions as a single organism. John C Rommereim, who translated the book into English, summarises Chesnokov’s aims:
A complete, organic unity among the singers; constant, unspoken, intuitive communication and adjustment between individuals in the choir, between sections, and between the choir and the director; the highest standards of individual responsibility on the part of each singer; and finally, an overall flexibility that allows the ensemble to follow the subtlest shifts in interpretation indicated by the conductor … Chesnokov offers an inspiring example of a man who gave of himself with generosity and enthusiasm through times of great upheaval and hardship, who retained his high ideals in the face of oppression, and whose contribution to the choral art reaches across the barriers of time and nationality.
Recently there has been something of a revival of interest in Russian pre-revolutionary choral music, but we are still only scratching the surface. The latest edition of Grove’s famous musical dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for Chesnokov. An early collector of Russian choral music was Chad Varra, priest and founder of The Samaritans. Varra’s daughter, a family friend, gave me some copies of a Russian music volume which Varra had collected and published privately. That was how I found this Nunc dimittis, which is from Chesnokov’s Six Choruses for Mixed Voices, Op 40, and also exists in a version for tenors and basses only. In the Orthodox liturgy this canticle does not include the doxology ('Glory be to the Father …'). The music is introspective and deeply felt, with one long-breathed crescendo building to an overwhelming climax, 'To be a light to lighten the Gentiles', before subsiding into the candlelit shadows. The structural arch-shape is similar to Messiaen’s Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle.
Howells St Paul’s Service (1951)
Herbert Howells, of whom I have written in volumes 1 and 2, was an articled pupil of Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral. Though thirteen years younger, John Dykes Bower was a fellow pupil in Gloucester. He went on to become Organist of Truro Cathedral at the age of twenty-one, progressing briefly to similar posts at New College, Oxford and Durham, before becoming Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1936. It was here that Howells wrote a set of canticles for his old friend. The work is very closely associated with the building after which it is named, yet there is evidence that it may have been started with York in mind. It is likely that Howells would have received encouragement from the Dean of York, Eric Milner-White. As Dean of King’s a decade earlier, he had persuaded Howells to write the Collegium Regale settings which initiated his most fertile period of canticle writing. Whether or not the York speculation is true, the breadth, architecture and harmonic pacing of the work are ideally suited to the unique St Paul’s acoustic. The music is on a monumental scale, but teeming with beauty and detail like the building itself. Breadth and grandeur are mixed with underlying urgency and excitement.
Several analogies for Magnificat come to mind: it is like a train journey, full of momentum, emerging through brief tunnels into totally new landscapes—or a volcano smouldering at the start and periodically erupting—or a series of surging waves, slow-moving and calm-looking, but immensely powerful and often terrifying. Whilst made up of many interconnected and harmonically wide-ranging sections, the whole work is highly organic. There are several uses of unison choral-writing to aid clarity in a space with over ten seconds of resonance. The setting is predominantly homophonic, and there are always gaps between blocks of text to allow the resonance to clear a little. The organ part is bubbling with energy—little dotted rhythms abound—but there are contrasting moments of stillness in the organ at 'And his mercy', 'and hath exalted', and 'He remembering'. The emotional temperature of the music is very finely controlled and adjusted, with an extraordinary sense of architecture.
Mary’s wide-eyed excitement is heard at 'For behold'. Unlike Howells’ settings on the previous two volumes, this work has no break before 'He hath shewed strength'—instead we are propelled headlong into the new section. The most contrasting music occurs at 'He remembering' but the main theme comes back in the organ from 'Israel', hastening the imposing start of the Gloria. This starts with a duel between organ and choir—a rare occurrence of the two being pitted against one another. The monumental writing reflects the massiveness of the building itself.
'World without end' often inspires Howells to produce an apocalyptic moment. The settings for St Paul’s, Westminster, St John’s and Dallas give good examples. The slow harmonic rhythm of the work is exemplified by the end of the Gloria, a prolongation of the pedal points E flat – F – G. Harmonies overlap in the St Paul’s acoustic, and the music sometimes gives the impression of that space even if the work is sung elsewhere. One example is four bars from the end of the Gloria where a G major triad is superimposed on an A flat major chord together with the internal pedal note F.
Nunc dimittis opens in a murky cave—or from Simeon’s tomb?—and a beam of light enters through a crack in the rock. The right-hand organ entry has echoes of Collegium Regale. In Sophie Cleobury’s words, both open with a melody that spirals down with no obvious focus until it lands. The organ’s opening chord picks out notes of the final chord of the Gloria and its preceding F pedal point, as though there are still flickers of echo even after the Second Lesson has been read at Evensong. The ambiguous tonality eventually settles on G major, but this is immediately questioned by the choir. As in the Gloucester Service, Simeon’s strength falters as soon as he has started to utter his first word. Howells is sparing in his use of divisi; in her illuminating study of Howells’ Evening Canticles Cleobury has pointed out the composer’s predilection for enriching specific words or episodes. Both Collegium Regale and Westminster Service use soprano divisi at 'To be a light to lighten'. Similarly, brief treble divisi is used in the St Paul’s Service to depict the falling rays of light at for mine eyes. In each instance the lines seem to grow out of one another.
The single unbroken, broadly-unfolding section from 'For mine eyes' is a contrast to the separate paragraphs of the Magnificat; the slower tempo allows different possibilities. The vocal parts seem to swim around, with no one part being prominent for long. Howells is a master of Brucknerian slow build-ups, and this is one of his finest. The brief rest before and to be the glory heightens the drama. 'Glory' itself expands in both directions—first an accented choir chord, then the lowest pedal note shaking the building’s foundations, and then a treble top A flat soaring up into the dome.
The autograph held at St Paul’s Cathedral includes an alternative setting of the Gloria to the Nunc Dimittis. This is crossed out, with a note added to indicate that the Gloria to the Magnificat is to serve for both canticles. In the final version, the first half of the Gloria is new but 'As it was in the beginning' reverts to the original Gloria. The new Gloria reprises the initial antiphonal exchanges, but now heard more emphatically in C minor, allowing the Gloria to fall overall by a perfect fourth like a giant plagal cadence.
The work was composed just after the premiere of Hymnus Paradisi. In an article on that masterpiece, Reginald Jacques wrote of Howells’ vocal writing in a way which seems equally applicable to the St Paul’s Service:
It is not merely the common-sense business … of writing in the most effective part of each voice, or the equally laudable device of giving a momentarily important line to one vocal part rather than another. There is the realisation that a voice is a personal thing, and that intelligent singers are capable of a wonderful alchemy, producing sounds with an infinite range of vocal colour.
Moore Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense (2006)
Philip Moore succeeded Edward Bairstow and Francis Jackson at York Minster, forming a similar succession of Organist-Composers to the one at Gloucester Cathedral which included S S Wesley, Herbert Sumsion and John Sanders. Moore has written prolifically for the Anglican Church. It was no surprise that Daniel Hyde should have turned to him for his first Christmas Eve commission after taking over the choir at King’s College, Cambridge.
Moore has always had strong links with St John’s. I remember him telling me about driving from Guildford to hear Evensong at St John’s in George Guest’s time. He said that it would have been worth the long journey just to hear George’s exquisite phrasing in the thirty-second Magnificat antiphon. Both Christopher Robinson and David Hill performed Moore’s Prayers of Dietrich Boenhoffer here. Moore has written a number of works for the choir in my time, including a setting of the canticles dedicated to former organ scholar, John Scott, and an anthem for double choir lower voices, Hear my prayer, O heavenly Father. I remember hearing the premiere of the St John’s Service broadcast live; I was bowled over by the beauty of every note sung by David Hill’s radiant choir.
Although we tend to refer to the work in English, Moore’s title page names the building in Latin, following a tradition dating back over five-hundred years and reintroduced by composers like Charles Wood. The St John’s Service has a charming modesty, simplicity and bright purity; I never tire of the elegant melodic contours. In writing for chamber organ, no sixteen-foot bass line, and alternation of solo and full choir writing, Moore is paying homage to the verse services of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is a very practical work; if you have good enough soloists then, unlike many other contemporary compositions, it does not take up an inordinate proportion of a choir’s weekly rehearsal time.
Moore has written twenty-one settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis to date, a number exceeding even Wood and Howells. Of the five in our repertoire here, the present setting was composed for Ash Wednesday 2006. This is the first day of Lent, a season when we bring to mind our sins, we repent and we are absolved. When describing our approach to Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus on our recent Ash Wednesday album, I wrote:
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.
I repeat those words simply because so much of the description applies equally to the Moore. Here is a composer with a deep empathy both for the liturgical occasion and for the sound and style of the choir and its building. The organ accompaniments might be likened to a lullaby for Mary’s unborn child or a way of rocking the aged Simeon to his final sleep.
As with Berkeley’s canticles on Magnificat 2, studying the sketches gives an insight into the evolutionary compositional process. Three examples on the first page are the rhythm of 'magnify', the bass line at 'rejoiced', and the organ part after 'Saviour'. As Howells often does, Moore conjures an atmosphere of nostalgia to evoke the timelessness of 'Abraham and his seed for ever'. The same musical material is used at 'and holy is his name' (God’s holiness is eternal) and world without end. Pianissimo unison writing is an especially effective texture in St John’s—Moore uses this to usher in the Nunc dimittis Gloria. Both canticles are unusual in ending on second-inversion chords, but the low pitch of the organ chords prevents a sense of incompleteness. On the other hand, Moore seeks to create the smoothest possible transition from the final chord to the silence which follows—they are both part of the same unified liturgy. The final chords also remind us of the modal nature of the writing.
Leighton Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense (1960)
Kenneth Leighton’s two sets of Evening Canticles are amongst the finest of their time. The Second Service was first performed at New College, Oxford. The present setting was written a decade earlier and premiered just down the road at Magdalen College. I can’t think of any canticles like this before 1960; sixty years on it is important for us to remember how innovative they were.
Leighton had studied both Classics and Music at The Queen’s College, Oxford, gaining degrees in both. Bernard Rose, to whom the present canticles are dedicated, directed the choir at Magdalen for twenty-four years. He was an influential teacher to Leighton, who spoke of his wise and generous guidance. When Leighton’s Five Shakespeare Songs were premiered, Rose sang and Leighton played. It was Rose who introduced Leighton to Gerald Finzi, a hugely influential relationship. Leighton said of Finzi: It was the pathos, I think, and the compassion which spoke to me more intimately than the work of any of the other English composers of the time. Rose and Leighton grew to be very fond of each other. Kenneth and Lydia (his first wife) were frequent guests at the Roses’ house. In fact Leopold Stokowski was once a visitor at the same time in 1960!
Leighton’s Magnificat has roots in the structure of Stanford in B flat; both begin in triple-time, shifting to duple-time part way through and then reverting for the Gloria. Right from the explosive opening, the work has thrilling rhythmic energy. The organ part is full of imaginative colours and textures; its perpetual movement, even in calmer passages, binds the work together and also encourages the singers to have life in the phrase, to keep the vocal tone spinning, in the manner of some Schubert song accompaniments. 'He remembering his mercy' is one example.
'And his mercy' has one harmony for many bars, above which the choir sings in four-part imitation for all generations, an atmosphere of calm from which to ratchet up the tension and then gradually wind down again; Leighton shares with Howells the ability to build long paragraphs. Choir and organ are equal partners in the drama—they play the roles of varied sections of an orchestra, for instance in the low brass chords beneath from 'henceforth all generations'. At 'Abraham and his seed for ever' the choir’s tessitura reaches out in an all-encompassing way before the the organ epilogue continues the word-painting. This searching, direction-less passage is complemented by the end of the swirling Nunc dimittis Gloria. The depiction of eternity, of a realm beyond our own, is a central concern for composers of Church Music; Leighton tackles this in a very different way to Howells.
There are various ways in which the two canticles are subtly linked—for instance both start by setting up a tension between G and C sharp, a tritone apart. As in his Second Service, Leighton grows the opening Nunc dimittis phrase out of the small seed of a single note, from which it winds its way out to the most harmonically remote destination. The slow harmonic rhythm of the canticle heightens the potential for dramatic effect at the key words lighten and glory.
It took me a long time to find the right character and colour for the Nunc dimittis Gloria, because it’s so unlike any other Gloria I know. It takes us into another realm, not an earthly one; perhaps Simeon’s soul is dancing off into outer space, spinning around until it is way beyond reach. The music is weightless—there’s no gravity—there’s no organ pedal at all until a single final note. The music feels unfinished—the solitary pedal note is the dominant not the tonic; we are left in mid-air on a chord which is a distant echo of that which ended the Magnificat Gloria. I love following this with the dreamworld which begins the Howells Westminster Service.
Howells Westminster Service (1957)
Westminster Abbey played an important part in the life of Herbert Howells. He composed Behold, O God, our defender for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Four sets of canticles were premiered in the Abbey—Howells in E (1935; for tenors, basses and organ—to be included in our album Magnificat 4), Howells in D (1941; a largely unison setting for men’s voices and organ), Howells in B minor (1955; for the Church Music Society Jubilee Festival Service at the Abbey) and the present work (1957; for the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in Westminster). The present work is twenty-four pages long, compared to twenty-eight in the St Paul’s Service, but it feels a lot more compact. I grew to love this particular set of canticles when I was George Guest’s organ scholar; it was one of his favourites. When we recorded the work in January 2022 I had no inkling that I might ever work at the Abbey myself.
Westminster Abbey is full of stories and history; from bar one Howells transports us to a world of secrets, dreams and imagination. The choir almost whispers the first phrase. The music seems to be carried by the wind—floating, ephemeral—and this somehow reflects the awesome height of the building, emphasised by its narrowness. The work opens with alternating D minor and F sharp minor chords, Moving easily and lightly, the oscillating F sharps and F naturals contributing to the enigmatic atmosphere. These chords form the kernel of the work. A cello melody in the second bar generates other material, often in linking passages.
In our first volume I wrote about the sensation of walking east through the organ screen at Gloucester, and how Howells reflects that in his music. There is something analogous at the Abbey when you leave the dark tunnel under the organ screen and the full majesty of the Quire rises up before you, like rounding a significant corner on the Cornish coast path and another twenty miles of cliff coming into view. 'He remembering his mercy' reflects that sense of architectural wonder. With the exception of two settings (in G and E respectively) which combine Magnificat and Gloria into single movements, this is the first of Howells’ Magnificats to end with a harmonic question mark rather than a diatonic concord; the words for ever have particular meaning in this building. The airy, floating canticle begins and ends in a dream-like state; had Mary dreamt her visit from the Angel Gabriel? We are abruptly woken by the Gloria, marked 'Risvegliato' ('reawakening')—we are brought back down to earth with the emphatic organ pedal which launches the trebles’ opening phrase.
Nunc dimittis follows the example of Stanford in B flat by having a long unison passage for tenors and basses. The descending unison immediately before the Gloria recalls the equivalent passage of Stanford in C, though Howells’ version is starker and grittier. As in Collegium Regale the two Glorias are identical. The Gloria restates the Magnificat’s opening material, now forte, eventually arriving at the composer’s beloved F sharp major—a resolution at last.
The RCM Library holds musical sketches entitled Nunc dimittis (St Peter’s), but these in fact ended up as part of the setting dedicated to Salisbury nine years later. Howells proposed the idea of a Westminster Service in 1956. Nine months later he sent the manuscript to Sir William McKie, the Abbey Organist, with a covering letter:
[…] If and only if you find enough to approve […] If I knew exactly what you yourself liked most (in idiom) or the building itself most cared for, I’d have known just what to write. You need not be afraid to turn it down if it seems the sort of thing you don’t like. Then I’ll have another go.
The humility of Howells is striking, and it is surprising that he professes not to know the building well. This may reflect the fact that the Abbey’s acoustic is less easy to categorise and understand than those at, say, King’s, Gloucester or St Paul’s. Yet Howells absolutely captured the spirit of the place. McKie was delighted with the work and it was heard for the first time at an Evensong during the First International Congress of Organists.
This is the eleventh of the twenty settings of the Evening Canticles which Howells wrote over a period of fifty-five years. Howells ‘painting’ the Evening Canticles again and again makes me think of David Hockney portraying the small single-tracked road of Woldgate fifty-two times in his The Arrival of Spring for his Royal Academy Exhibition in 2012. Close to the spot where Howells’s ashes are buried in the Abbey is Hockney’s stained glass window, The Queen’s Window. On a summer evening, light streams in through the window creating an amazing wash of colours on the floor and the statue opposite. There is a similar interaction between Howells’ music and the buildings in which it is heard.
Dyson Service in F (1945)
Sir George Dyson had a varied working life as composer, conductor, educator and administrator. Five of the composers on this album—Dyson, Howells, Kelly, Moore and Stanford—were students at the Royal College of Music. Four went on to be Professors there. Dyson also became Director of the RCM for fifteen years from 1938, the fourth person to hold that position. His biographer, Paul Spicer, has done a great deal to re-evaluate Dyson’s reputation after a period of neglect:
[Dyson] was a deeply feeling, humorous, caring and loving family man who, in the manner of the day, was not particularly demonstrative in his affections, but knew the importance of those things of lasting value.
In church music circles Dyson is best remembered today for his two sets of Evening Canticles in D major and F major. In many ways they could scarcely be more different, especially the two Magnificats. Dyson in D was written in 1907 when the composer was on a musical pilgrimage in Dresden, enjoying the music of Wagner and Strauss. That Magnificat is a product of its Edwardian age—grand, self-confident, opulent and triumphant. As Stanford had done before him, Dyson found ways to incorporate symphonic qualities into the D major canticles. In both sets Dyson followed the examples of Wesley and Stanford (whose setting in G had been composed 5 years earlier) by incorporating the Gloria into the canticle as a single entity. Stanford in G was clearly an influence on Dyson in F; both have prominent treble and bass solos in the two canticles respectively. Dyson makes each of his Glorias into a form of recapitulation, following the example of Stanford in B flat Magnificat.
Dyson’s long experience as a teacher, including thirteen years as Director of Music at Winchester College, gave him a clear sense of what was or wasn’t easy with voices. The F major canticles were composed for Sir Percy Hull’s choir at Hereford Cathedral. Their premiere did not take place until 1947, after Hull’s recovery from serious illness the previous year. Dyson returned to the Service in F major in 1955-56, adding Te Deum, Benedictus and a beautifully succinct Benedicite.
Dyson’s F major Evening Canticles are small scale, modest, succinct and undemonstrative—adorning the liturgy rather than the performers. Each canticle is constructed from its opening melodic phrase.
Like Philip Moore’s work earlier on the album, Dyson’s music scarcely raises its voice. I have already written about Moore’s organ part; perhaps Dyson’s economical organ writing shares the same soothing qualities. Of his Collegium Regale Magnificat, also composed in 1945, Howells wrote that the mighty should be put down without a brute force which would deny the canticle’s feminine association. Dyson, composing in the same year, might well have had similar feelings in mind; the horrors of the recently-ended war inspired a humble style of composition. The dramatic central words of the text are downplayed by having different phrases sung simultaneously (e.g. 'He hath scattered the proud' and 'He hath put down the mighty'). This compression of much of the text allows more consolatory phrases, like 'He remembering', to be given greater space and prominence. The bittersweet alternation of major and minor chords at both the beginning and the end of the work gives a suggestion of yearning and uncertainty, perhaps revealing a similar state of mind to the opening of the Howells Westminster Service.
Stanford Morning, Evening and Communion Service in B flat (1879)
Charles Villiers Stanford was born in Dublin and became a student at Queens’ College Cambridge in 1870. He was one of Cambridge’s first organ scholars and is described by Jeremy Dibble as the most promising musician the university had seen in decades. It was thanks to Stanford’s campaigning that Cambridge University Musical Society permitted women to join its chorus.
In 1874 the youthful Stanford was appointed to the prestigious post of Organist at Trinity College, occupying the rooms in Great Court once lived in by Isaac Newton. Trinity had previously shared a joint choir school with St John’s, but shortly before Stanford’s appointment a separate choir school for Trinity choristers was created. Stanford quickly took the choir to new levels of excellence, as well as spending extended periods in Germany studying and listening to music, including Wagner’s operas.
The Morning, Evening and Communion Service in B flat, Op 10, was premiered at Trinity in three stages between May and August 1879.
The Evening Canticles are in fact Stanford’s third setting, following works in F and E flat from 1872 and 1873 respectively. The earlier works make use of contrast between verse and full textures, but Stanford in B flat sticks to full choir throughout. Already in those first settings Stanford was experimenting with ways to make the music more structurally integrated.
There are various ways in which the whole of opus 10 is unified, rather like the movements of a symphony. D flat major is an important secondary tonal area, especially associated with references to Christ—'to be a light' in Nunc dimittis, 'And thou, child' in Benedictus, 'Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ' in Te Deum. Jubilate, Benedictus and Nunc dimittis share the same Gloria, ending with the famous Dresden Amen. This harmonisation of six ascending notes has been used by many composers including Wagner in Parsifal and Mendelssohn in his ‘Reformation’ Symphony. How appropriate, given that Stanford was central in the ‘Reformation’ of Anglican Church Music. Dibble writes of Stanford’s desire …
to create a liturgical work that, with its involuted strata of organicism, analogy, thematic and tonal symbols, could be experienced across an entire Sunday of choral worship. In other words Stanford was attempting to create, within an Anglican environment, a form of ecclesiastical Gesamtkunstwerk in which elements of time, architectural space, liturgy, music, and words coalesced to form an artistic entity greater than the sum of its parts.
Stanford orchestrated his Te Deum in B flat for the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902, following some controversy over what, if any, music by Stanford would be included in the service. The rest of Opus 10 was orchestrated in 1903. Adrian Lucas has made an excellent arrangement for organ of the elaborate orchestral accompaniment to the Evening Canticles. On the present recording we stick to Stanford’s original organ part, with the addition of a trumpet solo at the end of the Magnificat Gloria, reprising the canticle’s first melodic phrase.
Stanford’s melody at 'And his mercy' is used several times, the range expanded in its second iteration and reaching the greatest elaboration on its final appearance at 'Abraham and his seed for ever'. The contrasting melody for 'He hath shewed strength' is derived from the same initial motif, and this music returns with different character for 'He remembering his mercy'. Stanford makes considerable use of unison writing, a very helpful texture when he was trying to improve the sound and blend of his choir. The music is enjoyable both to perform and to hear; this has become one of the most popular of all canticle settings, and it has had a strong influence on later composers.
Stanford may have been the first composer to score most of his Nunc dimittis for unison tenors and basses. This means of portraying the aged Simeon’s words was subsequently used by many others including Noble, Howells and Walton. Stanford’s long stream of melody unfolds organically. The climactic words are announced by a striking key change and by the first repeated phrase of text; they are capped at 'and to be the glory' by the one non-unison phrase (demanding good tenors!). Stanford explored ways to make the comparatively short Nunc dimittis text into a satisfying musical structure. In his earlier E flat canticles he had recapitulated the first line of text in long notes at the end, a device he was to repeat in his G major setting nearly thirty years later. In the B flat Nunc dimittis he chooses a soft reiteration of the final words 'thy people Israel' as a way to evoke eternity. The whole canticle comes across as an arched-shape vision, with similar dynamics to those which Chesnokov would employ.
It is pleasing to include three fine works by Stanford and Howells on the same album. Stanford referred to Howells as his son in music. Howells always wore the signet ring which Stanford bequeathed to him. Of the B flat canticles Howells wrote:
[He] achieved three triumphs in that early and astonishing work. First, he swept aside the pretentious, empty gaudiness of the Victorian organist-composer … Second, he brought the first-fruits of his near symphonic formal instincts to the setting of canticles that had for so long been dismembered by the earnest, lustreless treatment of countless mid- and late- Victorians. Third, to the vast and costly church organs he assigned a significant, vital, highly disciplined part.
Kelly Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in C (1965)
Walter Hussey, Vicar of St Matthew’s Northampton and Dean of Chichester, made an enormous contribution to the Arts through his commissioning of music, poetry, sculpture and stained glass. I have written about him in Volume 2, in connection with Walton’s Chichester Service (1974). A decade earlier, for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival held at Chichester, Hussey’s commissions included Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Kelly’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the first of six settings Kelly was to write. What a festival that must have been! Bernstein had managed to perform his work in New York beforehand, but the Chichester performance was the official premiere. Bernstein also published a reduced scoring for choir, organ, harp and percussion. Kelly’s work is generally heard, as here, in the version with organ accompaniment. However, perhaps inspired by Bernstein’s example, Novello published Kelly’s alternative version with timpani, percussion, harp and organ in the same year.
The work bears a dedication to its first conductor, John Birch, Organist of Chichester Cathedral. The title has an asterisk leading to a footnote: 'This work is based on Latin-American rhythms'. It was the Sixties, but the Church of England is not always at the vanguard of cultural change. It is hard to understate the boldness and daring of this composition within the service of Evensong sixty years ago. That is backed up by the composer’s recollection:
When I first showed Herbert Howells the manuscript of ‘Kelly in C’ at the RCM he went through it, turned to me and said “My dear, I will tell you one thing about your setting. After each performance the church will have to be re-consecrated!”
Bryan Kelly was a chorister at Worcester College, Oxford. He studied composition with Howells and Gordon Jacob at the RCM. He received practical help and encouragement from Sydney Watson, whose setting was heard in the second volume of this series. Like Lennox Berkeley, whose canticles for Chichester also appeared in Magnificat 2, Kelly went on to study privately with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. By the time of Kelly in C, he was back at the RCM as a Professor of Theory and Composition. In his varied life he has later taught in Washington DC, Rome and Cairo. He now lives in Somerset. Kelly has worked as composer, pianist, conductor and teacher. His compositions include both light and serious orchestral music, educational works, as well as music for brass band, solo instrumentalists and choirs.
Anyone who helps to prevent the Anglican choral tradition from becoming stuffy and antiquated should be thanked. Kelly in C is a beautifully crafted, concise product of its time. It put a contemporary slant on the historic service of Evensong, just as the Cripps building at St John’s, completed two years later, reimagined the ancient tradition of Cambridge courts and staircases.
The composer has explained that the work started life a tone higher—in D—but the publishers pointed out that he was stretching things! As in the Moore and in Howells Collegium Regale, Kelly starts a new paragraph for 'He hath shewed strength'. Following the example of Stanford in B flat, Kelly’s Gloria provides an opportunity for musical recapitulation. Like Dyson he makes the canticle into a single movement. Presaging Swayne’s work on Magnificat 2, Kelly’s music is propelled by rhythmic ostinati. The final section 'He remembering his mercy' begins a thrilling build-up which propels us headlong into the Gloria. In giving musical form to the Magnificat, composers search out parallels in different parts of the text. Kelly uses the same music for 'all generations shall call me blessed' and 'and the rich he hath sent empty away'—one a long distance in time, one a long distance in space. I can’t think of another Magnificat that joyfully highlights the words 'He hath filled the hungry' as the principal moment of reprise; I applaud Kelly’s political instincts in this decision.
Nunc dimittis also makes use of a rhythmic ostinato. The canticle starts in the tonic minor key, underpinning a sort of funeral march for the old man Simeon, which calls to mind Stanford in A on our first volume. At the end of the movement the same ostinato is given the new function of building tension as we approach the Gloria. The dark shadows of the opening are replaced by major tonality celebrating the hope of 'To be a light'. A series of rising pedal points spanning a major sixth leads to the final dominant, further heightening the tension whilst leading into a reprise of the Gloria. In the central part of the canticle’s tripartite musical structure the choir is liberated from the organ ostinati; Simeon’s soul breaks free to meet God—'For mine eyes have seen thy salvation'. Simeon has come face to face with God in the person of the baby Jesus, but Christians believe he will imminently continue to enjoy such proximity after his own death.
The work continues to divide opinion. I can think of one distinguished former Cathedral Organist—a relation of mine, in fact—who refused ever to perform the work. Writing about Jackson in G for Magnificat 2 I mentioned the way Boris Ord 'noticeably winced at the […] jazz-influenced chromatics, and his stern injunction that there should be no such thing'. Like Jackson to a lesser extent in the previous decade, Kelly presaged the incorporation of popular idioms into mainstream music. Sixty years on there has been a blurring of the boundaries between classical and non-classical.
Magnificat 3 gives an opportunity to hear three generations of composer-pupil relationships in Stanford, Howells and Kelly. I hope it also provides a satisfying and varied aural journey from the deep introspection of Chesnokov through to the irrepressible joie de vivre of Kelly.
Andrew Nethsingha © 2023
Over the 16th and 17th centuries, Cranmer’s new, then revised, prayerbook for the post-Reformation English church, made use of these Lukan texts at the two daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. And the rhythm of psalms, canticles and the reading aloud of Scripture in those offices is a liturgical form that has endured until today. The point of these new services was that they were not to be restricted to religious communities. They didn’t even need a priest at all: they were services of the people, sung or said by the people in their own language.
Evening Prayer according to the Book of Common Prayer was, in its time, a radical service, but one that acknowledged its debt to the past as well as creating something new for the future. It has been said or sung in churches ever since as a way of thanking God for the day that is past. Because of its enduring repetition and rhythm, it is often expressed as an anchor point in the life of an individual or a community. Whatever else is happening, Evensong is sung; and the opening response ‘O Lord open thou our lips’ is an intervention in a much longer conversation between humanity and God. A conversation that started in the Garden of Eden with God’s question ‘Where are you?’. In today’s church, Evensong has evolved into a service that is a mixture of participation by speaking or singing and another sort of participation: meditation and prayer while the choir sings.
And this mixture of congregational participation is an inheritance of the distinctively English form of reformation. While in Germany, Martin Luther was leading a singing reformation, encouraging everyone—not just the priest or the choir—to learn by heart the psalms, set to popular tunes, and to join in the singing of hymns. There was no congregational participation in hymn singing in England until the 18th century. Psalms and canticles yes, hymns no.
But not only were English parishes not singing hymns while Protestant Germany was awash with them: there was also a clear musical distinction between England and the Continent. Thanks to one woman—Elizabeth I—England kept its cathedrals with their choirs. Because of Elizabeth’s personal patronage of composers at the Chapel Royal, and her known support for choral singing, a twin-track musical reformation began to take shape: parish congregational singing, and professional cathedral music. Elizabeth also not only tolerated but encouraged composers such as Tallis and Byrd to continue writing in both English and Latin. In this way, she was more Lutheran than Calvinist—she might even be described as a lone Lutheran amid the prevailing reformation culture in England, which was Calvinist. More than any other individual, she set the course for the musical story of Reformation England and the enduring appeal of Choral Evensong. By establishing an expectation that might be characterised as 'both and' rather than 'either or' (professional and congregational singing), she enabled the broad and rich musical inheritance we enjoy today.
The twin-track Elizabethan musical reformation means that, theologically, congregations are shaped and taught not just by the text but by the form of the music itself. In meditating during a professional choir’s rendition of the Magnificat, I am taught that God is transcendent, beyond me. By joining in with the choir to sing a hymn, I am taught that God is immanent beside me, requiring my cooperation.
This, it seems to me, is another way of expressing theologically what happens musically in the dynamics of a choir singing the canticles at Evensong. The choir sings the music created by the composer. As the singers sing together, they must sing the part they have been given, otherwise another will miss their cue. Similarly, they must rest when they are asked to, otherwise another’s voice won’t be heard. Sometimes, one voice is in tension with another; that is the composer’s intention. When singers in a choir sing, they sing in another’s consented silence. The texts of Evensong are energetic and radical in themselves, and the song of all songs is given to Mary in her Magnificat, after the tradition of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel. The song is itself a revolutionary cry, calling for a new world order. Jesus would repeat this song’s sentiments when he unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in Nazareth to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Christian theology emphasises the relation between Jesus the Son and God the Father, but in his song of liberation it’s clear he was his mother’s son too. In Nicaragua during the revolution of the 1970s, the text of the Magnificat was banned, so powerful were its sentiments of putting down the mighty from their seat.
The text of the Nunc dimittis is equally provocative too, even given as it is to an old man Simeon in Luke’s gospel, whose acceptance of his own death comes with the sight of the Saviour, the light who will lighten the Gentiles. While the Book of Common Prayer places it at Evening Prayer daily, revisions since then have included it as part of the funeral rites of the Church of England, often sung as the coffin is taken out from church. The text faces all who hear it with the question: what is it that would have to happen to you today for you to say that you were content to die? For Simeon, it was the infant Christ, for whom he had been waiting. The profound reconciliation with the certainty of death that is represented by the Nunc dimittis is a profound teaching in itself for those who still live.
Such is the power of these texts that the challenge for composers is acute. Rarely will a composer be asked to set a text that is so regularly repeated, and not just for a concert hall audience but for a congregation who are listening for the voice of God. Given this musical responsibility, theologically it is important that not every cadence resolves in liturgy, that not every melody is comforting. Dissonance is as important as harmony in the story of God, the Church’s worship of whom will always revolve around Christ’s inexorable journey to the cross. The vivifying music in this collection that not only embellishes but expresses these ancient texts remind those of us who listen that music is itself a language of the human spirit. And that our mouths shall shew forth thy praise is itself a call to prayer for the whole world.
Lucy Winkett © 2023